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Racial Justice and Social Equity

Q&A: The response to an anti-LGBTQ+ protest at a San Diego library

The Pride display at the Rancho Peñasquitos Library Branch is filled with books again. Last week, two anti-LGBTQ+ protestors checked out everything on the shelf. One emailed saying she wouldn’t return the books until the library got rid of what she called “inappropriate content” for children. KPBS Reporter Katie Hyson spoke with San Diego’s public library director about the incident and the tremendous response.

The Pride display at the Rancho Peñasquitos Branch Library is filled with books again. Last week, two anti-LGBTQ+ protestors checked out everything on the shelf. One emailed saying she wouldn’t return the books until the library got rid of what she called “inappropriate content” for children. KPBS reporter Katie Hyson spoke with San Diego Public Library Director Misty Jones about the incident and the community response.

This interview below has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you walk me through what happened at the Rancho Peñasquitos Library branch?


Jones: So we always celebrate Pride, and we do a lot of Pride displays in all of our branch libraries. And we had one at Rancho Peñasquitos. And I got an email from a patron that she and her friend had checked out the entire Pride display, all of the books, because they did not agree with it and really said that they were not going to return them unless we said that we would take the Pride display down and actually get rid of the books permanently.

How did you respond?

Jones: It was upsetting. This was a first for me. We've had people that have complained about one book. We've had drag queen story times and we've had people call or email saying they don't agree with it. But this is the first time I've ever had someone completely decimate a display and basically email and say, “I'm not returning your book.”

So I took the opportunity to try to explain why we do Pride displays and why we celebrate different cultures and different communities. And this was no different than celebrating African American History Month or Asian American, Hispanic Heritage Month. We're celebrating a culture, a community. Libraries are about inclusivity, and we're about everyone being able to find themselves in the library. And so that's really what I tried to explain — that she was absolutely entitled to her beliefs, but not entitled to remove materials that other people might want to read.

Can you speak more to the library's role in fostering inclusivity and why that matters in the public library system in particular?


Jones: I always say that the library is the great equalizer. It's where anybody can come, regardless of their circumstance, and they have an opportunity to learn something new, and it might be something that challenges their beliefs. And that's what it's about. It's about getting that information, expanding your horizons of a different perspective besides yours. And I feel like that's how we grow as a society. That's how we become more tolerant.

I heard there were fundraising efforts to replace the books. How are those going?

Jones: I was actually at the Rancho Peñasquitos Library on Monday, and you should see the stack of Amazon boxes that they have of people who are purchasing the books to replace them. Our library foundation is having an ongoing fundraising effort. They are really getting inundated. Councilmember Marni von Wilpert's office is getting inundated with calls and emails. We've had people come into the library that have never been to the library before, but they're coming in to donate a book and getting a library card while they're there. It's really been an amazing response. We don't have the final tally yet. Those donations are still coming in. So if anybody wants to contribute, please go to the library foundation's website and contribute.

You mentioned to The San Diego Union-Tribune that it's gotten progressively worse in the last five years. Can you tell me about that?

Jones: The Rancho Peñasquitos Library has had a Pride display every year for probably 10 years. Some of them have been (largely) involved ... with balloons and things. This one was literally a flag with the word pride across. So it was not a huge display. But we've never gotten a complaint before until this year.

We've always had inclusive books. We've always had something that is probably offensive. I’ve always said a good library has something that offends everyone, right? But the last five years is when we're really starting to get the emails, the calls of people not agreeing. And it hasn't just been, “I don't agree with that. Why are you doing that?” It's been really hateful language, and I think that's what's changed. We've always had challenges, but we've never had the personal attacks against our librarians.

There have been movements to ban books in school libraries. Many of those have been successful. I'm wondering if that's impacted the public library system at all?

Jones: It has. We're having a lot of people reaching out to us to get those materials that they can't get in schools any longer. And that's across the nation. You've probably seen — it's a horror movie to me — the videos of just piles and piles of books being taken out to recycle bins and dumpsters, and it breaks my heart. It's devastating. But we are looking at: What can we do? We know we're in a privileged space here in San Diego, that we don't see the same kind of challenges. And so we're looking at: How can we also be a support nationally?

Are there any concrete ideas you're excited about?

Jones: Yeah. Brooklyn Public Library started a movement called Books Unbanned. And so they boosted their ebook collection to be able to offer it to other states, particularly the young adult collection. And Seattle Public Library just joined that movement. So we've been looking at that.

Where I started my career — Greenville County Library — is facing this now, so it's really very personal to me. They've actually, in Greenville, banned the word “banned,” and then they said, “You can't do displays at all.” So you're hurting everyone because of an ideology. You don't agree with something, and so you're going to punish everyone.

I truly do believe that people have the right to believe the way that they want. The problem is that you can't push your beliefs onto other people that may not believe the same way that you do.

By checking out all of the books because she didn't agree with them, (the protestor) denied an entire community from accessing those books. And it may be a book that somebody needs that day.

The book “Trans Like Me” — there is a teenager that is struggling that that book could make a difference for. And by removing that book, you have potentially taken that lifeline away from that person. And that's what I'm trying to impart is that absolutely you have every right to believe the way that you want to, but please don't deny someone else access to something that could change their life.