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San Diego librarians’ work now involves battling censorship

A handful of people lined up outside Rancho Penasquitos Library on a chilly morning last week, like eager shoppers on Black Friday.

“Morning, how are you?” asked Adrianne Peterson, the library’s branch manager, greeting patrons with matched enthusiasm. “Wow, everybody is showing up today.”

Peterson is a 30-year veteran of libraries. She studied art as an undergraduate at San Diego State University, but switched to library information science for graduate school at the University of Illinois after some self-discovery.


“I learned about myself as I got older, that what's meaningful to me is to help people,” Peterson said. “Being a librarian is a way that I could help every person every day, from the littlest kid to seniors and everybody in between.”

She has built a career on helping people. She said libraries offer much more than books — early literacy programs, resume building, and helping people earn their high school diplomas. At a time of fraying social bonds and epidemic loneliness, she noted libraries are one of the last shared spaces open to everyone.

“You don't have to pay to come to the library,” Peterson said. “It doesn't matter who you are, rich or poor, educated, whatever your religious beliefs are, we don't judge. We don't tell you what to read.” 

So she was shocked last June when she got a ransom note of sorts from two Rancho Penasquitos women objecting to a Pride Month display.

“I received an email saying that, ‘We protest this type of material being on display, and we've checked out the materials, and we will not return them until you remove the display,’” Peterson recalled.


She said the women did eventually return the books, but not before media coverage triggered a backlash to the attempted censorship.

“My phone rang off the hook,” Peterson said. “People sent books. I had Amazon packages piled up on my desk, and they asked, ‘Can we make a donation? Can I go buy some books at Barnes & Noble and drop them off to replenish your display?’ And on and on.”

Peterson said she drew two lessons from the incident. Support for libraries and inclusivity is far greater than for censorship. But at the same time, San Diego is not immune to a trend in recent years of people trying to control what others read, despite a long history of public libraries.

Benjamin Franklin built America’s first library in Philadelphia in 1731. More than a century later, industrialist Andrew Carnegie funded 1,700 new libraries, dubbing them “Palaces for the People.” These democratic cornerstones are now increasingly under attack amid the nation’s current divide.

The American Library Association reports there were 695 challenges to more than 1,900 books in the United States during the first eight months of last year in places like Virginia, Tennessee and Iowa. That’s a 20% increase over the same period in 2022, which was a record-breaking year. 

The San Diego Public Library branches have received five official book challenges in the last five years: two in 2021, one in 2022, two in 2023. Patrons also air their grievances through online comments, like this one blaming the library for society’s ills:

“The library is a den of inappropriate material for minor children and adults as well! The filth, hate and psychological disease you promote is disgusting! You each should be ashamed of supporting and promoting filth and garbage to our citizens! Yet you wonder why our society is so immoral and mentally deranged now….”

Most of the challenges are to books on race and LGBTQ+ topics, said Robyn Gage-Norquist, who leads the San Diego city library system’s reconsideration committee, which reviews book complaints.

“It's the two issues that we just can't get away from in our country,”  she said. “We want to categorize people and try to look for something that's different about them and make that a challenge when it really shouldn't be.”

She believes fear is driving censorship advocates.

“What's happening is that people are now being frightened,” Gage-Norquist said. “They're told to be scared of these books and that we're taking them out to protect you.”

Jennifer Jenkins, San Diego Public Library system’s deputy director of customer experience, contends that libraries are under attack also because they are one of the last institutions that are publicly funded. She said dictating what libraries offer the public is part of a larger agenda to foster ignorance, because an uninformed population is more malleable.

“The concept of libraries is radical,” Jenkins said. “To have that democratic approach to providing information so that you have an informed citizenry, an informed constituency, is threatening because knowledge is power.”

Jenkins said she’s ready for the fight to preserve the ideals underpinning libraries.

Back in Rancho Penasquitos, librarian Peterson is equally resolute.

“Most people are tolerant and encouraging of others and we should all learn how to be a team and find our similarities rather than our differences,” she said. “And I hope the library can help people do that.”

She said patrons help too by pushing for more inclusiveness. She said most of the complaints she receives aren’t about trying to remove books, but from people who believe the library’s collection isn’t diverse enough.

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