Former librarian accuses Orem of book, display censorship
Courtesy Orem City
On Wednesday, schools and libraries across the U.S. will begin celebrating Black History Month. How the holiday will be observed in the Orem Public Library is still not clear.
For Rita Christensen, former head of the Children’s Department of the Orem Library, the ramifications are crystal clear.
“Our nation will soon celebrate Black History Month in February and Orem librarians still will not be allowed to put up posters or book displays on the Heritage Month topics that focus on specific groups of people,” Christensen told the Daily Herald.
On Jan. 9, Christensen departed Orem for a new position at the Salt Lake City Library. She left Orem amid numerous concerns — namely claiming incidents of nontransparency, censorship and fearmongering. Christensen also compiled a 38-page document detailing her experiences over the past two years including meeting videos, transcripts and recordings.
Orem City Council member LaNae Millett, the body’s liaison to the Library Advisory Commission, declined to comment.
Harrison Epstein, Daily Herald
“I have been warned on numerous occasions by my (Orem) employer to be careful of what I do and say, so as not to become insubordinate,” Christensen said. “Nothing that the city or library does should be a secret. Everything should be transparent.”
Christensen notes her feeling that other employees in the library are concerned to speak out in fear of being considered insubordinate and, subsequently, being fired.
“It seems as though the current mayor and certain City Council members just keep getting away with their draconian tactics and uncompromising unfairness,” Christensen said.
Christensen noted a sense of confusion among library staff about how to proceed with displays and activities because orders are given in person, meaning there’s no paperwork or emails for employees to reference.
“There is a crisis of management on how to implement the ban and what exactly it includes,” she said. “Does it include decorations, activities, programming, book lists and website information?”
Isaac Hale, Daily Herald file photo
She explained that different departments are holding events in ways that others could view as “off limits.” The Children’s Department, she explains, implemented passive programs related to different heritage month celebrations.
“Library employees cannot specifically use the words ‘Black History Month’ and display the associated books or posters in the library,” Christensen said.
This does not mean the library has not had activities, story times and other offerings for each month, but Christensen believes those are also scrutinized.
“Heritage months are a wonderful opportunity for librarians to promote and display books on diverse groups of people that reflect our community and foster greater understanding and empathy. But at this very moment, our elected leaders are not harnessing the potential power of diversity. Instead of creating connection, belonging and bridges, they are building walls, barriers and fences,” she said.
One focus for several years among members of the Orem City Council has been the LGBTQ displays established during Pride Month each June. In 2021, council member Terry Peterson since sent a letter of concern about the display in the children’s library to the city council.
Harrison Epstein, Daily Herald
“The goal of the Orem Public Library is to serve all of our diverse community,” Library Director Charlene Crozier told the Daily Herald in 2021. “The Orem Library had displays featuring books and movies about LGBTQ+ characters, subjects and authors.”
Crozier added that the Library Advisory Commission was aware of the displays and supports the library’s efforts to serve a traditionally underserved population in the community.
In 2022, though, new concerns arose as city leadership changed hands, particularly around whether or not the library budget would be affected if certain displays or books appeared.
On May 30, 2022, Crozier sent out a librarywide email to ease concerns. The subject of the email was “Social Media Campaign – no budget cut was threatened!”
Christensen took exception to that possibility, saying that she and other staff members were in a meeting where discussions lead them to believe — that it was at least implied, she said — that if the planned Pride display was not modified, the budget would be threatened.
On Sept. 19, 2022, Christensen met with Crozier, asking if there were options for cultural heritage month displays, calling it “heartbreaking and maddening.”
“I wish that we had more, um, understanding about this. This type of advocacy doesn’t work with this type of council. So I wish that the idea of putting pressure on them could make them … think and (act) differently,” Crozier told Christensen. “But I’m not sure it is going to work. It hasn’t proven to work when we had the challenge in June.”
“Because it is part of the horrible challenge of not embracing, but tolerating and existing in a place where we can’t call all the shots. Or we can’t, you know, make decisions that we want to make, but we disagree with direction and all those kind of things. But, I don’t want people to have this kind of toxicity built up in them because I’ve been living with it since, uh, last year when we had come in and confront staff about perfectly harmless books,” Crozier said.
She went on to say that there’s a feeling support for the library lessened since Peterson’s initial letter of concern.
“I have been copied in on their emails where people thank them for doing these things that we think are deplorable,” Crozier said.
In referring to library staff’s feelings and trepidation, Crozier said she feels it “straight through the core.”
Rather than having multiple displays of LGBTQ books, as they did in 2021, the Orem library in 2022 opted to have a single display in the adult books section.
Accusations of censorship by Christensen were not limited to displays, but individual books as well.
On Feb. 23, 2022, a Maturation Books Go-Forward planning meeting was held in the media auditorium including Christensen, Crozier and other library leaders.
“Previous to this meeting, Char (Crozier) asked me to move the children’s maturation books to ‘closed stacks,’ upon request by City Council member LaNae Millett,” Christensen said.
She added that parents were offended to ask for maturation books that were locked up in closed stacks, particularly with books written for grade-school level readers. Utah holds maturation classes when children are in the fourth grade or approximately 9 years old.
According to Christensen, Millett continued pressuring Crozier, asking if maturation books had been moved to the closed stacks.
“I said that I absolutely would not censor the books by returning them in closed stacks. That if I had to ‘do something’ with the books, that we could do what Provo and Weber county libraries do — place them in the teens collection,” Christensen said.
However, Christensen said she still received occasional phone call from Crozier, asking about specific titles that should be moved.
After the planning meeting, Crozier also told Christensen that Millett was going to visit the children’s library to conduct an “audit” to make sure that it was keeping children safe.
On Feb. 4, the Black History Mobile Library will be in the parking lot outside of the Orem Library Hall from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. for individuals and families.