The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District’s library citizens advisory committee will have its second meeting Thursday night in Palmer. The committee was formed after outcry last spring over books displayed in school libraries and at a school book fair in the district.
The group is tasked with reading 56 books that were challenged by members of the community and judging them against Alaska statute, which says it’s a class C felony to distribute indecent material to minors. The district’s lawyer, Saul Friedman, explained the statute and previous cases that questioned school library books to the 12-member committee at a meeting in August.
“That’s your purpose to give advice to the board after considering those books in whole, their content, and the legal test that is set forward in the statute,” Friedman said.
Friedman noted that states with similar statutes concerning distribution of indecent materials often have a special section related to librarians and school materials, while Alaska does not.
The district’s previous process for reconsidering library books required people questioning books to meet with the librarian and principal of the school. If that meeting did not resolve the issue, the district had a six-person review committee take up the concern. Associate Superintendent of Instruction Justin Ainsworth led the committee’s first meeting and said that the volume of book challenges in the spring overwhelmed the previous process.
“Have there been books that have gotten to the library that shouldn’t have been in the library? Absolutely, there are librarians that would agree with you that there needs to be an evaluation process,” Ainsworth said.
Previously, the district kept books in circulation until a final decision was made, but this spring the 56 challenged books were pulled from shelves.
The Mat-Su school board hand-picked seven district representatives to serve on the new books committee. At the first meeting in August, members chose four books to discuss at Thursday’s meeting; “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robbie Harris, “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold, “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier, and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, which is one of the most challenged books in the country.
Members of the library citizen’s advisory committee will not have the final say on whether books are permanently removed from Mat-Su school libraries, but will give a recommendation to the school board, which will then make that determination. Ainsworth envisioned that the committee would recommend either retaining individual books, removing them, or restricting them to students 16 years or older.
Katie Clark is a librarian at Mat-Su Central school and won School Librarian of the Year in 2019. Clark is one of five district staff on the committee, and suggested that people who challenged the books provide their own justification to the committee.
“Knowing who had the concern would be helpful to know what was their concern, so that we can address it,” Clark said.
Book challenges across the nation doubled from 2021 to 2022 according to the American Library Association, and have also increased in Alaska. The list of 56 books challenged in the Mat-Su feature five of the 13 most challenged books of 2022. In 2020, the Mat-Su school board came under scrutiny for removing a list of “controversial” books from the curriculum without public input. The board did not remove the Bible, which district staff at the time noted was the most controversial book taught in Mat-Su schools.
Kali Ponder, a member of the committee who has kids in the district, said the previous process wasn’t working.
“We have a community effort and that’s, there’s a very specific reason for that,” Ponder said at the council’s first meeting. “So we definitely don’t want to say just ‘Oh, we’ve got to take the librarians’ word for it,’ with all due respect, because — we’re here because that didn’t work.”
The library citizen’s advisory committee will meet monthly. Ainsworth noted that the committee may not be able to review each book that has been challenged before the committee is set to expire next summer.