August 24, 2023

After criticism from John Green, HEPL library pauses policy to review, reshelve teen books

More than 120 people packed into a meeting of the Hamilton East Public Library Board on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023 at the Noblesville branch. A video screen shows a live feed of the meeting. The board voted to suspend a controversial collection development policy. - Lee Gaines / WFYI

More than 120 people packed into a meeting of the Hamilton East Public Library Board on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023 at the Noblesville branch. A video screen shows a live feed of the meeting. The board voted to suspend a controversial collection development policy.

Lee Gaines / WFYI

A controversial policy that resulted in the removal of hundreds of young adult novels from a suburban Indianapolis library system’s teen collection has been placed on pause.

The change comes after Hoosier author, John Green, publicly criticized the Hamilton East Public Library board for instituting a policy that resulted in the relocation of his novel, “The Fault in Our Stars” into the library system’s adult collection. Green’s comments brought national scrutiny and condemnation to the suburban library board, which oversees libraries in Noblesville and Fishers. 

It’s the latest development in a months-long debate over what children and adolescents should and should not have access to in the youth section of the library. 

HEPL’s new collection development policy, initially approved in December of last year, bars materials that contain depictions of sex, violence and repeated profanity from the library’s teen zone.

Library staff began a retroactive review earlier this year of its teen collection to identify any material that is not in compliance with the new policy. As of mid August, nearly 2,000 titles have been relocated to the library’s general collection, including Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Looking for Alaska,” along with other award-winning YA novels, like “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

The picture book "Why?: A Conversation about Race" by Taye Diggs was also moved out of the children’s section after a majority of the board said during a meeting earlier this summer that it violated the policy language regarding violence due to references to rioting.  

More than 160 people attended a Hamilton East Public Library board meeting Thursday afternoon in Noblesville. Many came to protest the board’s collection development policy. Some attendees wore t-shirts adorned with a quote from Green lambasting the library system’s policy. 

Both library staff and Green himself say that, due to a scene in which two characters in TFIOS have safe sex, that the book is not age appropriate for teenagers under the library system’s new policy.

 

But conservative members of the HEPL board asserted at the Thursday board meeting that the book is age appropriate and should be returned to the teen section. 

“I will agree that it was explicitly clear that two teenagers had safe sex in chapter 12,” said HEPL board member Ray Maddalone, who recently downloaded the book to read it. “But the policy says explicit description, not just explicit. I believe that 'The Fault in [Our] Stars’ does not meet that standard of explicit description.”

Outgoing board president Laura Alerding previously issued a statement blaming the library staff for the removing TFIOS from the teen section, claiming they did not properly carry out the board’s policy.

‘We can’t review every book’

At the Thursday meeting, Maddalone engaged in a tense back and forth with HEPL director Edra Waterman and the members of the board who voted against the collection development policy. 

“There's no question that sex happened on the page in [The Fault in Our Stars].” Waterman said. “And that's the definition that we've provided to the board. And if you want to update the policy to make that more clear, I would welcome guidance. We've been asking for guidance on this since January.”

According to board documents, TFIOS was moved into the adult section of the library in late May, and its removal from the teen section was first reported to the HEPL board in June

“We had a July meeting when this book was listed in the books that were moved,” board member Michelle Payne said. “Why, if there was such an issue with this book, why was it not brought up in July?”

“We can’t review every book,” responded Alerding. Most of the standing-room only crowd erupted in laughter. 

Waterman said there have been multiple discussions with board members “where the concept of zero tolerance, zero tolerance has come up when it comes to sexual content.”

Micah Beckwith, a conservative board member who helped usher in the new policy, claimed that he never had a “zero tolerance” attitude toward books that include depictions of sex. But board documents appear to contradict Beckwith’s statement; a review committee memorandum included in the board’s document packet for its June 2023 meeting mention the “zero-tolerance portion of the policy.” 

According to library documents, staff informed board members in February of this year that as much as 75 percent of the library’s high school age fiction and audio books would need to be moved to the adult stacks due to the new policy. 

Ultimately, the board unanimously voted Thursday to suspend the portion of the policy that involves reviewing and moving books. Maddalone and other board members said they would now welcome feedback on the policy from Waterman and her staff 

“I think this is the closest that we've come to collaboration in the last eight months,” said board member Tiffanie Ditlevson during the meeting. “And I'm really happy to hear this kind of conversation.”

TFIOS is still located in the library system’s general collection, according to Waterman. In an interview following the meeting, she said the suspension of the policy means the book is “likely to be moved.”

She said any plans to move books back into the teen section will probably “require more discussion before that happens.”

Debate continues

Dozens of people spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting; most urged the board to rescind its collection development policy and criticized the four conservative board members who approved the change of censoring books. 

“You are not the morality police. It is not your job. It is the parent's job to decide what the kids are going to read and when they're going to read… And it's the staff's job to say where those materials are supposed to be,” said Chuck Gibson, a librarian and a Fishers resident. 

Many of those who criticized the policy also expressed support for Waterman via signs and public comments. 

A minority of speakers expressed approval for the policy and appreciation for the board. 

“Every parent has the right to go check out any book they care to and give it to their child,” said Fishers resident Susie Abshire. “What we don't want are children running into this stuff, accidentally. Yes, they can get it on the internet, but why would we want our tax dollars providing it to kids that don't want it.”

The debate playing out at the HEPL is an example of a larger movement toward censorship, driven by unfounded concerns that many educators and librarians are sexualizing children. 

These concerns prompted Republican lawmakers in Indiana to pass a law earlier this year that allows residents to request the removal of books in school libraries that they consider harmful to kids, and it strips educators of a legal defense against charges that they distributed harmful material to minors. 

A recent report from PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of expression, found that book bans in schools increased nearly 30 precent during the first half of the 2022-23 school year, compared to the prior six months, and that books by and about people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals are frequent targets of book bans. 

In her closing remarks at Thursday’s HEPL board meeting, Ditlevson said it was time for the community to heal.  

“Like everybody said, this is everyone's library,” she said. 

The board also approved a new slate of officers; member Ditlevson — a conservative running for a seat on the Fishers City Council — was chosen, in a split vote, to serve as board president.

Contact WFYI education reporter Lee V. Gaines at lgaines@wfyi.org. Follow on Twitter: @LeeVGaines.

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