Library staff concerned about book ban bills advancing in ND Legislature
“Of course we want to keep our kids safe, but we have policies in place to do that already," said one northeast North Dakota library director
DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — Librarians in places like Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Grafton say they have serious concerns about proposals in the North Dakota Legislature that seek to remove perceived obscene or sexual content from being viewed by children.
Among the concerns is the possibility of having to page through thousands of pieces of library content by the end of the year to ensure all possible obscene or sexual references have been removed. In the Lake Region Public Library in Devils Lake, for instance, that would mean searching 40,000 pieces of content — a task Library Director Maddie Cummings calls "absolutely impossible."
"To go through each material, as the bill is trying to necessitate, and to determine what might be explicit or obscene, of the 40,000 items that we have right now and the 2 or 3,000 items that we add every year, it would be absolutely impossible to have everything thoroughly read and comprehended by this proposed deadline,” she said.
And, the librarians in the three northeast North Dakota communities say, policies already exist to vet potentially obscene material in their collections.
The concern comes as library-focused legislation makes its way through the North Dakota Legislature. Senate Bill 2360 and House Bill 1205 both target books that include perceived obscene or sexual content.
House Bill 1205 — introduced by House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson — seeks to remove or relocate "explicit sexual material" from children's collections in public libraries. The Senate adopted amendments in a 39-7 vote on Wednesday, March 29 . The bill now goes back to the House for concurrence on Senate amendments.
House Bill 1205 by inforumdocs on Scribd
Senate Bill 2360 — introduced by Sen. Keith Boehm, R-Mandan — would amend the North Dakota Century Code to prohibit “the willful display of obscene materials at newsstands or any other business establishment frequented by minors, or where minors are or may be invited as part of the general public.” The amended bill would also make violators guilty of a Class B misdemeanor. The bill received a 10-3 "do pass" from the House Judiciary Committee on March 29.
Senate Bill 2360 by inforumdocs on Scribd
Cummings, along with Jill Sanderson, library director at Carnegie Regional Library in Grafton, said there isn’t obscene material in their children’s sections, since the adult section is separated in both libraries.
Concerns about the bills and their language have also been shared by officials from the Grand Forks Public Library . At a Monday, March 27, Committee of the Whole meeting , Library Director Wendy Wendt and Library Board President Brad Sherwood talked to members of the City Council about the impacts the bills would have on the library if they become law. One possibility is that the library would have to temporarily close while content is searched, they said.
Ultimately, the council took no action on the item during their meeting. In a separate interview with the Herald, Wendt said the hope was for the council to write a statement in opposition to the bills, similar to a resolution the Fargo City Commission passed earlier in March. As of Thursday, Wendt said she had not had anyone reach out following the council meeting.
“We haven’t heard from anyone, either from the public or elected officials,” she said. “I think a lot of people are just not aware of these potential bills, what changes they could cause.”
While House Bill 1205 has been amended to indicate the removal or relocation of explicit material from only the children’s section, Senate Bill 2360, as written, still refers to establishments accessible to minors.
An overriding question emerges: What might be considered obscene?
According to Senate Bill 2360, "obscene material" refers to material that “taken as a whole, the average person, applying contemporary North Dakota standards, would find predominantly appeals to a prurient interest; depicts or describes in a patently offensive manner sexual conduct, whether normal or perverted; and taken as a whole, the reasonable person would find lacking in serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
Cummings said it is open to interpretation as to what “predominantly” may mean in terms of how many pages of a book would be affected.
"... Which is a dangerous legal precedent,” Cummings said.
Sanderson, head of the Grafton library, said an abundance of material — possibly including the Bible — could be affected.
“Where do you draw the line?” Sanderson asked. “We don’t want to be pulling our Bible out of the public library because it contains certain innuendos or graphic history.”
A recent report by the Bismarck Tribune, shared with Forum Communications Co. newspapers , noted that the "State Library has estimated it would need over $3.6 million for the next two years for 109 temporary staff and a full-time professional librarian to handle a review process of the library's fiction collection, ebooks and magazines if (SB 2360) passes." In addition to the State Library, there are more than 80 public libraries throughout North Dakota, and they collectively own 4.9 million items, the Tribune reported.
Cummings said libraries in smaller communities will be hit hard due to limited staff, funding and resources, and Sanderson believes her library wouldn’t be able to add more employees to help page through 35,000 pieces of content.
“Our budget wouldn't allow for us to hire more people,” she said.
And if the bills become law, Sanderson wonders, how will they be monitored?
Public libraries would need to submit a report with lawmakers with their policies and procedures before next year for removing or relocating "explicit sexual material," under the requirements for House Bill 1205. With SB 2360, libraries would file an annual report about "provider compliance with technology protection measures."
In the Grafton, Devils Lake and Grand Forks libraries, policies already exist to vet potentially obscene material, library staff say. Patrons can fill out forms, for instance, if they don’t want a particular material in the library. All three library directors say they haven’t received any of those forms in at least five years.
Policies are also in place for computer use at the libraries to ensure minors aren’t able to access obscene material online.
In her 16 years working at Carnegie Regional Library in Grafton, Sanderson said she hasn’t seen legislation like this before. Cummings and Sanderson expect similar bills to be drafted in the future.
“It’s the fear with today’s political world,” Sanderson said. “Of course we want to keep our kids safe, but we have policies in place to do that already."
Work to make people aware of the bills is ongoing. Cummings has submitted testimony to the Legislature, has attended a local legislative forum to talk about her concerns, and has hosted short programs about policies already in place at the library.
Sanderson and Cummings said they would like to see legislators devote more time to build up public libraries.
“We need to be building libraries up because they’re the center for the community, rather than breaking them down,” Sanderson said.