The LGBTQ-centered graphic novel Gender Queer is back on bookshelves at Wake County public libraries this week after protests from librarians and the public. 

The book, an autobiography about author Maia Kobabe’s journey to discovering eir’s gender identity and sexual orientation, was pulled from the library in December after a patron filed a complaint alleging the book’s content was “pornographic.” The decision to remove the book was made primarily by Theresa Lynch, senior manager of Collection Development Services, who agreed the book edged too far into sexually explicit material, according to library emails. (It’s worth noting that other adult graphic novels showing heterosexual sex, including Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan, remain on the shelves).

But the decision didn’t just inflame the debate over banned books. It also revealed a much larger problem with the administration of the Wake County library: a lack of oversight and transparency in the “Request for Reconsideration” process, which is used to take books off the shelves.

Lynch’s decision was made without the input of staff in the collection department or the library’s board of directors. It was also made in the absence of a formal book selection and removal policy, which did not exist at the time Gender Queer was removed. 

Librarians were quick to protest, arguing that the removal of the book went against the American Library Association‘s code of ethics.

“Library staff are charged with upholding intellectual freedom and affirming the dignity and rights of every library user,” stated an open letter, which was signed by more than 50 employees. “[We cannot] support a decision we believe goes against Wake County’s core values to act with integrity, embrace diversity, and serve with passion and empathy.”

The letter went on to state that the decision to remove Gender Queer is “part of a national movement to censor LGBTQ+ library materials,” and librarians are “concerned about the precedent this decision sets for the handling of further challenges.” 

Librarians on the ground have also complained of a “vindictive” work environment, in which they fear retaliation for expressing concerns, criticizing decisions made by upper management, or talking to the media. A 2017 survey of Wake County librarians reveal staff at that time had similar views. Survey results show employees were concerned about decisions being made by library administrators without their input, a failure to communicate with staff, a disregard of complaints, and again, a “vindictive” library administration. 

“A particular subject in which staff felt they had no voice was collection development,” the report states. “This was an area where staff felt they had formal training, but routinely observed problems they were not allowed to work on…In terms of selecting titles, they were offended that their book purchase requests are submitted through the same portal as library patrons.”

As pressure mounts, top library officials are now reversing their stance, pledging to develop a comprehensive selection policy. On Monday, library administrators updated the Wake County Board of Commissioners on their efforts to develop a transparent policy, which includes reviewing recommendations by the American Library Association and studying how other large libraries, like those in San Diego or Austin, “handle removing books from their collections.” 

In the meantime, Gender Queer will be returned to shelves. 

But this wasn’t an easy fight to win. Before meeting the demands of the county’s librarians, administrators spent weeks defending their decision and denying that it was based on the book’s LGBTQ content. And Gender Queer will be on the chopping block again soon. Once the library’s new selection policy is approved, the book will be re-evaluated, reigniting a political fight that’s arrived in schools and libraries nationwide. 

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