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​Good evening, Valley City/Barnes County Public Library Board Members and Fellow Community Members

Last Word | January 8th, 2023

By Stacie Hansen-Leier

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I’ve been a resident of Valley City for most of my fifty-one years, with the exception of short residencies in Jamestown, Fargo, the Park Rapids Minn. area and five years in the Cities.

I’ve been a voracious reader for most of my life and some of my best childhood memories come from days spent sitting in a bean bag chair downstairs in the children’s section of the public library, a pile of books at my feet just waiting to be read, as I paged eagerly through my most recently acquired treasure, picked out after a knowing suggestion from my favorite librarian: Mary Ann Anderson.

While other kids were out playing summer rec softball or hanging out at the pool, I could be found nearly every day, downstairs, in the public library. To this day, I go out of my way to walk up the huge front steps, pull on the brass knobs of the heavy antique oak doors, and embrace the scent of all the books that greet me as I walk through the door, as it once again brings me back to a time where I didn’t have a care in the world and my greatest joy could be found just beyond that threshold.

Of course, I wasn’t old enough to be in the upstairs (adult) library, and Mary Fisher knew it. She’d shush me down the stairs to the children’s library where I belonged, and I’d always pay a visit to the stuffed bird collection in the corner of the hall as I went through. Eventually, though, I earned my right to creep upstairs to the young adult books. I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but I know that it was sooner than some of the other kids because my mother had a long talk with Mary about my reading level, how I’d gone through nearly every book in the library downstairs at least twice and was ready to start reading at a more mature level. Somehow, she convinced Mary.

A new world had opened to me! Mary cautiously agreed and warned my mother that she wouldn’t let me look at certain books or check them out! And she was true to her word. She showed me the areas where I might find books of interest. There weren’t many at that time, but there were a few spinning wire racks that held “Sweet Valley High”, “Star Wars” and other teen books.

I was probably in 5th grade and about 11 or 12 years old at that time. Not yet a teen, but I was ready to read something a bit more challenging than Nancy Drew or “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (which I’d read at least 3 times). I read a few “Sweet Valley High” books, but I found them shallow and not my cup of tea. I burned through the Star Wars books in no time. After all, I’m a true Star Wars junkie!

Then, I happened upon a book called, “Go Ask Alice” by Anonymous. That was the book that changed me forever. If you aren’t familiar with the book, it was written in 1971 – the year I was born – and is set in diary form of a 15-year-old girl who becomes addicted to drugs, runs away from home, and then goes down a horrific rabbit-hole that contains profanity, explicit references to both sex and rape, and drugs. I didn’t put that book down until I finished it.

I had so many questions. It horrified me and fascinated me at the same time, but it also opened a door to a new conversation with my parents; one I’d never had with them before. A conversation about consent, and rape, and what it means to hurt so badly that someone would want to run away from everything and push drugs into their body to numb a pain that they didn’t think would ever go away.

And that one conversation with my parents started me on a path to adulthood where I suddenly knew that it was ok to talk with them about the difficult things. Things I’d never considered discussing with them, because I didn’t really know about them until then.

Sure, we’d had the birds and bees talk. My mom made sure to start those conversations with me from a very young age. While other kids were being shocked by the “period talk” in 6th grade, I’d already blown past them with anatomy books, how babies are made and “sex can be pleasurable, but please be safe, use a contraceptive and make sure it’s with someone you love.”

“Go Ask Alice” was something I wasn’t prepared for, though. It made me uncomfortable, and it upset me. But that book also made me ask questions and seek out the adults in my life that could answer them. I talked with my school counselor about it as well, because I had so many questions and because, obviously, my parents really didn’t know anything.

“Teen Sarcasm” Judy Hillier was the brand-new guidance counselor when I was in 4th or 5th grade. (I hear the kids call her “Mrs. Butterfly” now) That was a very rough time in my life. I experienced the death of someone close to me for the first time – my grandfather; I was going through the throes of puberty; I was quiet, shy, mousy, and came from a family that struggled with money, so I was teased mercilessly by my classmates because my clothes and my appearance didn’t quite live up to their “standards.”

Books became my refuge. Judy Hillier recommended so many books that talked about the things I struggled with. Mary Fisher got to know me almost as well as Mary Ann Anderson did, and eventually she would start recommending the books that she knew my heart was seeking. The library became my safe space for many years.

Now, many years later, so much has changed. I’ve experienced many wonderful things in life: getting married, having children, doing a bit of traveling, working in some challenging career fields and finding out that I’m really good at some things like singing, drawing, creative writing, genealogy and reading old documents in Norwegian, Danish and Ye Olde English.

I’ve also experienced some not-so-great things in life: I lost my mother to cancer when I was still young (30), my marriage fell apart, I became a “rape statistic” in college and I’ve suffered from bouts of depression over the years.

Through it all, I’ve discovered that I am resilient, strong, intelligent and that I can overcome pretty much any obstacle if I try hard enough. I have some great people in my life, but I also have great RESOURCES available to me. When I wasn’t ready to talk to people, I could open a book and find the answers to my questions. There were stories like mine that told me I wasn’t alone; I wasn’t crazy; they provided encouragement and solutions.

“Let’s Talk About It” isn’t the first book to talk explicitly about sex, relationships, consent or all the other things that we, as parents, really wish we didn’t have to discuss with our kids at such a young age. “Go Ask Alice” wasn’t the first book to vividly discuss drug use, addiction, rape and self-destructive escapism.

What these books have in common, though, is that they are both challenged books. Just two books in a long, long list of books that people feel should be pulled from the shelves of libraries across the nation or hidden behind a counter and only accessed after the strictest possible controls have been put in place. This is wrong. Period.

The sudden proliferation of outraged groups petitioning for removal of “offensive” books across the United States is deeply concerning. While there have been calls from the left over the years to ban certain books like “Huckleberry Finn”, for example, this most recent spate of attacks comes from ultra conservative and libertarian groups, which are quickly becoming one and the same. Ironically, the same people crying out for their First Amendment freedoms are the same people that are trying to infringe upon the First Amendment freedoms of others by censoring what they can read.

I found the following information on the American Library Association (ALA) website:

A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials from curriculum or the library, which restricts the access of others. (We are here tonight to debate a formal challenge to the book “Let’s Talk About It”.) Banning is the removal of materials. The end result is censorship, or a change in the access status of the material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives. Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from ALL points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored.

As stated in Article III of the Library Bill of Rights: “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”

Individuals of all ages have the constitutional rights to use the resources and services of libraries. The ALA opposes censorship and efforts to coerce belief, suppress opinion, or punish those whose expression does not conform to what is deemed to be orthodox in history, politics or belief. The unfettered exchange of ideas is essential to the preservation of a free and democratic society.

I can’t think of anything that sounds more American than an institution willing to fight for ANYONE in this country to have the right to have access to the widest possible range of viewpoints, opinions and ideas! They believe everyone should have the opportunity to freely read and consider information and ideas regardless of the content or the viewpoint of the authors. AND they fight for those libraries to provide professional librarians who will work with their communities to curate collections that serve the information needs of ALL their users.

ALL THEIR USERS.

As parents, grandparents, and guardians, we have the right to set rules and expectations for our own children and grandchildren, including what materials we believe are appropriate for them to access. However, that right does not extend to determining rules and expectations for the children and grandchildren of others, nor should we, individually or collectively, be allowed to limit the materials available to them based on our personal beliefs and expectations.

The library staff has done their due diligence by shelving young adult reading material, including “Let’s Talk About It", appropriately; away from the children’s library and in a section of the adult library clearly identified as the young adult section. Moving it to a “higher shelf” or relegating it to a position of “shame” behind a restricted access counter only serves to set precedent for the next book to be challenged. Certain individuals have also suggested that it be moved to the “adult” section of the library – a foolhardy solution at best when the “adult” section is a mere shelf away from the current location of the challenged book.

You will hear compelling arguments from several people during this meeting. I urge you to trust the professional library staff dedicated to overseeing the best repository of information for all people of this community and this county. My parents trusted the librarians at each of my schools, elementary through high school, as well as the public library, to provide excellent, entertaining, challenging, educational and thought-provoking materials for me, my family, as well as my fellow community members over the years.

A few of the “old” librarians remain, but now there are new ones replacing them as they retire, and those new librarians bring so many more cool and wonderful things with them to the library. I never want to stop learning and being challenged. I hope for the same for my children. And I hope that there will come a day when they won’t have to fight for the freedom to read.

Until then, we must fight that battle for them. In life, each of us will encounter ideas that we agree with, and some that we don’t agree with. Diversity of belief makes us richer, stronger and more empathetic toward our fellow human beings. We must be the voices for the young and the silent minority that don’t have a voice.

“Let’s Talk About It” is a valuable book and should remain shelved in its current location: the young adult section of the adult library, freely accessible to the young adults or adults that choose to read it.

“Only cowards ban books.” – Alex Kingsbury

“Whether we like a book or not, agree with it or not, none of us has the power to supersede the values instilled in the First Amendment.” – Jane Woodrum, Executive Director of the ACLU of South Carolina

Editor’s note: Hanson is representing herself only. Any statements presented at the meeting were solely hers and did not represent any people, institutions, or organizations including place of employment that she may be associated with in a professional or personal capacity. 

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