There’s a really horrifying censorship story unfolding in Anchorage, Alaska. But much as I wish I could tell it, part of the reason the true depths of what’s going on there aren’t being shared broadly is because of how officials are using their state’s FOIA laws to keep that information impossible to access.
The story is out of the playbook we’re seeing across the country, and it’s destroying the Anchorage Public Library.
Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson won a very tight mayoral race in late May 2021. Of note were the tactics his team took to intimidate and suppress voters, including stationing people outside voting areas to watch who was going in and out of those areas. He is radically anti-LGBTQ.
Among the first tasks for Bronson was appointing a new director for the Anchorage Public Library. The most recent had retired, and the first candidate Bronson put forward was Sami Graham. Graham, who had failed in her attempts to win a school board seat the previous election, had no library experience, no library degree, and had reached out to Bronson’s transition team about wanting to get involved somehow. She is a proud conservative.
After backlash from the public, the Assembly did not confirm Graham’s appointment. Bronson needed to find another person, and he did immediately. This candidate was Judy Eledge who, coincidentally, also lost a school board election earlier in the year (indeed, in trying to pack the Anchorage Public Schools school board with a conservative slate, more than one did not succeed).
Eledge also has no library experience, but her choice proved a little less controversial than Graham, despite her outspokenness as a conservative. She was the President of the Anchorage Republican Women’s Club. She was a Republican elector for Alaska in the Electoral college.
Despite the fact the job required library experience and a library degree, Eledge was approved by the Assembly without being qualified for the role.
One of the powers of the Anchorage Mayor is that they can appoint who sits on various boards within city departments. Up to 150 board positions are available annually, and all board seats end after members have served for three years. In October of 2021, numerous library board seats were available for appointment.
Bronson packed the board with his friends, including Dennis Dupras, a state trooper (who has posted queerphobic, all lives/blue lives matter material on Facebook), Doug Weimann (with right wing affiliations), Travis Gularte (proudly posting right wing social media posts), and Deb Bronson (his wife). A fifth appointment was that of a teenager, Denali Tshibaka. She’ll become important shortly. She serves as part of Anchorage’s Youth Advisory Committee.
The Anchorage Public Library board notes begin to shed light into what Eledge aimed to do in her role as Director. Among those were to “ensure a safe environment for employees and others to have honest discussions with differing views and opinions,” as mentioned in the October minutes. She met with leaders of homeschool cooperatives and began to invite them into library partnerships (the results of which aren’t clear). Likewise, Eledge began to talk about the library’s strategic plan, which, coincidentally, is under the Mayor’s direction.
When December rolled around, the new board was introduced by none other than Sami Graham. It’s then things took a real turn. Eledge brought a Bible Story Hour to the library, allowing her pro-life, right-wing friend Wendy Perkins to partner with one of the librarians on this event.
Denali Tshibaka brought up “inappropriate books” during this initial meeting. Remember Denali is the teen appointed to the board for youth input. Perhaps it’s pertinent to mention that she is the daughter of Kelly Tshibaka, who ran a Trump-endorsed campaign to win Lisa Murkowski’s U.S. Senate seat and lost. December’s meeting minutes note that Denali found “inappropriate” books in the children’s section, specifically noting those were transgender books. Gularte bolstered her discussion by mentioning something about “men in dresses” being derogatory. Denali’s task for the January board meeting would be to research these inappropriate books and present on them to the board.
In January, Denali gave a presentation to the board. Below are the minutes:
The board discussed options and landed on reorganizing the books “via age group” would be enough. Interestingly, Weimann noted he was having the same problem at his elementary school with “inappropriate” books.
This comes to light because Lily Spiroski, a teenager serving on Anchorage’s Youth Advisory Committee, stepped out of their role. They felt that Bronson’s leadership was hateful toward queer people, and this move at the library showed the ways in which censorship of queer voices played out under his leadership (remember: he appointed all of those in support of this “reorganization” project).
Judy Eledge actually stepped down from her role as director in November, though she still played some kind of role thereafter. Utilizing the powers granted to her by the city charter, Anchorage Municipal Manager Amy Demboski took over control of the library as director in January. Dembowski wields her power in that role in some fascinating ways, namely in the fact she’s issued gag orders to staff and administration in the library.
And it’s here where the story I’d been hoping to tell falls apart.
On Tuesday, February 8, I submitted a FOIA request to the city of Anchorage. To do so requires sending the request to department heads, meaning that to FOIA information about the library, that request goes to the library director. As Demboski has ceded Eledge, this meant the FOIA request went to her.
I requested the following:
In the above-linked piece, Demboski reminds the library staff and administration that they’re not allowed to use email to communicate among city departments. This came February 10, two days after my request was submitted. It’s likely a coincidence, but the message itself is chilling: staff cannot communicate.
A series of emails followed between myself and Demboski, including an initial response that no records could be quickly found. I would be able to continue to request, but because it would be time-consuming, there would likely be a fee assessed. Oh, and I needed to provide a list of “all staff” noted in my request, which I copy and pasted from the library’s website (seems like “all staff” wouldn’t be a hard thing to search on their end, but I support I can copy/paste).
The note came back with the estimated fee: $940.
For being unable to find anything in an initial search to suggesting that the above search would take over 23 staff hours is certainly something. Without a budget for FOIA requests — I’d have paid up to $30 or so on my own — I’m unable to access information that should be publicly available.
But this is precisely what a corrupt system wants to happen. By making FOIA financially inaccessible, the full story can’t be told.
What’s going on in Anchorage is what’s happening in public libraries around the country. Among them, ImagineIf in Kalispell, Montana. In Pikes Peak, Colorado, the director left after the city council appointed a conservative board. The director at Mid-Continent Public Library in Missouri left for a similar reason, as his new right-wing board rejected inclusive programming.
This Week’s Call to Action
Tune into this rock star panel of authors who’ve had books challenged, alongside professor Emily Knox, who is a scholar on censorship. The panel is Tuesday night, March 29, at 7:30 pm eastern.
For more ways to take action against censorship, use this toolkit for how to fight book bans and challenges, as well as this guide to identifying fake news. Then learn how and why you may want to use FOIA to uncover book challenges.
Book Censorship News: March 25, 2022
- The Llano County Public Library director was fired from her job. Two weeks ago, the board closed their library advisory board meetings to the public. This Texas library, which had a new board installed late last year for the sole purpose of materials review, also closed down to remove titles from the children’s area. An anti-censorship group has formed to oppose the board. The director being fired isn’t a surprise, but it is disturbing.
- A parent running for the Southwest Allen County School Board in Indiana has organized a “book investigation team” to coordinate book challenges and removals from across the district.
- The superintendent at Granbury Independent School District (Texas) was caught being explicit in the kinds of books he wanted pulled from shelves.
- Regional School Unit 34 in Maine had a challenge brought for Milk and Honey. The book will remain on shelves.
- The Forsyth, Georgia, county school superintendent thinks parents should have more rights in determining the books in their school libraries. They’re reworking their collection development policies to do just that.
- An update on the book censorship attempts going on in Lafayette, Louisiana. Challenges may now go through the board, not the library, cutting professionals out of the equation and putting the board with its history of anti-LGBTQ practices, in charge.
- All Boys Aren’t Blue will stay on shelves Worcester County, Maryland.
- Unfortunately, that same book was pulled from shelves in Wicomico County Public Schools in Maryland.
- Iredell-Statesville Schools Board of Education in North Carolina received a 33-book challenge from the local Moms For Liberty contingent and demanded a private meeting with the board. That won’t be happening. You may remember them from the incident of someone demanding they have the right to enter a school to photograph the library.
- Two more titles from the Polk County, Florida, challenge will remain on shelves: Melissa (George) and The Vincent Boys.
- I am paywalled from this news source, but a second round of book challenges stemming from Moms for Liberty were submitted in Brevard County, Florida.
- Wappingers Central School District has removed Gender Queer.
- A thorough story about the wide-spread book challenges and censorship happening across Michigan.
- In West De Pere, Wisconsin, the school board is giving parents more weight into book decisions. Parents are mad about The Kite Runner and This Book is Gay. I’m paywalled, but here’s the article for more details.
- Cherokee County, Georgia, schools have seen a steep increase in book challenges this school year. This article points out a parent comparing a scene in Homegoing to 50 Shades of Grey, which is a choice.
- In Derby public schools in Kansas, Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian will be relocated to the middle school and the board was pleased to note that the challenge against We Are Not From Here will no longer be an issue when the teacher who got the book through a grant leaves the district at the end of the year. That’s one way to do it.
- “‘I was dismayed by the scenes of violence and torture,’ Williamson said, before quoting a passage that included the F-word.” Must be tough knowing that Satrapi lived that violence. Persepolis still under review in Franklin, Pennsylvania.
- Idaho journalists got ahold of a “secret folder” that fueled the passage of House Bill 666 — the library book challenge bill. There’s a reason the Senate doesn’t see this doing anything but dying.
- More parents like these in Cedarburg, Wisconsin.
- So Far From the Bamboo Grove will remain in the curriculum at Silver Lake Middle School (Rhode Island).
- In Shawnee Heights schools (Kansas), four books will remain in the library: The Hate U Give, All Boys Aren’t Blue, Beyond the Gender Binary, and Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness.
Also In This Story Stream
- You Need To Talk About The Sex Parts in Banned Books: Book Censorship News, May 20, 2022
- The School Board Project, Round One: Book Censorship News, May 13, 2022
- How to Update Your Book Challenge Forms (with Template): Book Censorship News, May 6, 2022
- How One District Is Pushing Back Against Book Banning: Book Censorship News, April 22, 2022
- What Do School Boards Do?: This Week’s Book Censorship News, April 15, 2022
- No Actions Offered to Librarians to Help With Book Bans From National Org: Book Censorship News, April 8, 2022
- Technology for Parent Monitoring of Student Library Use is Being Developed by Follett: This Week’s Book Censorship News, April 1, 2022
- What Are Obscenity Laws?: Book Censorship News, March 18, 2022
- Why Didn’t The New York State Education Department Defend Its State Librarian?: This Week’s Book Censorship News, March 11, 2022