Hidden DVDs, 'Curious George' racial undertones highlight library book challenges
At first, the Baker County Library staff thought it was a mistake. Several DVD movies from the library's collection were turning up in odd places. Staff discovered many of them stuck behind rows of shelved items or in rooms far from the other DVDs, jammed behind Spanish language items.
Then Library Director Perry Stokes realized it wasn't a mistake. For nearly seven months, someone had been deliberately hiding DVDs of movies with lesbian and gay themes. Between October 2016 and March 2017, seven DVDs were scattered around the Baker City library, some so well hidden that staff had to buy replacement DVDs (a few were found after the replacements were purchased).
"It started to look very purposeful, not that someone just misplaced them on a shelf," Stokes said.
The hidden movies were "Beautiful Things," "Free Fall," "Keep the Lights On," "Tipping the Velvet," "Longtime Companion," "Blue is the Warmest Color" and "Holding the Man."
After a little "good old-fashioned detective work," Stokes and his staff discovered the culprit: a "retirement age" man who was a regular at the Baker City library, and who had a history of complaints about books, movies and other material. When confronted, the man readily admitted the subterfuge, saying he "didn't think it was that big a deal," Stokes said. "He figured we'd find them eventually, so he didn't think he was doing anything wrong."
Stokes told the man he was banned from the library for six months. Stokes also reported the hidden DVD episode to the Oregon Intellectual Freedom Clearinghouse and the American Library Association as one of the state's 20 library book and material challenges between July 2016 and June 2017.
Baker County Library District's incident was included in the annual clearinghouse report on challenges to library material, which was released in late August to coincide with national Banned Book Week (Sept. 24 to 30).
"This was very unusual," said Stokes, who has director of the Baker County Library District for 10 years. "We periodically get informal complaints because somebody didn't like a book or they give us informal feedback about a book or a movie. But nothing quite like this."
Racist 'Curious George'?
Six public libraries around Oregon reported 20 challenges to books, movies and recordings this past year. Library patrons in Portland (Multnomah County), Grants Pass, Bend, Beaverton, Corvallis and Baker County filed complaints in the past year. Grants Pass patrons filed five complaints, the most in the 2017 report. Multnomah County library branches fielded four complaints.
A Beaverton City Library patron challenged the 2014 Norwegian film "Blind," because of nudity and explicit sex. The library retained the film in its collection.
One Portland-area complaint this year was a parent's concern that a copy of H.A. Rey's 1941 children's classic "Curious George," could be racist and was inappropriate for young children. The Kenton branch patron wrote in a statement of concern that the book's image of a white man (in a bright yellow suit and wide-brimmed hat) taking a young monkey out of Africa could be racist.
"There are potential racist undertones interpreted by readers," the patron wrote (the library redacted the patron's name from its report). "Taken from Africa by a white male triggered in me the horrific slave history our country has. Also, some of the things that George experiences, such as he smokes a pipe or is thrown in jail for trying to run away, is inappropriate for the age group this book is intended for."
The patron asked that the library take the book out of circulation from all its branches. "Our racial climate is very sensitive, and at the time this was written and enjoyed it was another climate," the patron wrote.
Library Director Vailey Oehlke wrote in an August 2016 response to the request that the classic book was still very popular with many patrons. "The library entrusts parents to decide for their children what is best suited for them," Oehlke wrote.
This isn't the first time "Curious George" or one of the off-shoot titles from the classic book have been challenged in libraries. During the past seven years, library patrons have challenged the Rey classic (and other "Curious George" titles) a handful of times. "Curious George Gets a Job" was challenged several years ago because a library patron thought an episode in which George knocks over a bottle of ether and then falls asleep promoted drug use.
Other library patrons have also claimed the original H.A. Rey book had racist overtones.
Shoved 'down my throat'
But Baker County's situation was different. Instead of challenging the DVDs, the patron took great care to hide them. "This is a new one," Stokes said.
The county library district has five branches and a bookmobile to serve nearly 16,000 residents. In Baker City, a "really cosmopolitan" town of about 10,000 on Interstate 84 south of La Grande, the library has 9,000 cardholders.
When Stokes talked with the culprit, he said hiding the videos was his way to push back on what he saw as society "shoving" LGBT lifestyles "down my throat."
"He said he was an old-fashioned person who wasn't raised where this kind of content as accepted," Stokes said. "He didn't like seeing it himself, and he didn't like children seeing it on the shelves.
"It wasn't an overt challenge, but certainly because he wanted to get away with it, it was a challenge to this kind of film genre."
It's not the first time someone has complained about the Baker City library's DVD collection, he said. The library district expanded its collection "after all the Blockbusters closed," focusing on "diversity of content, including indie films as well as major domestic productions."
"So, people are seeing things they aren't used to seeing," said Stokes, whose office is close to the DVD collection. "That makes some people uncomfortable."
Stokes' report on the incident was also a way to warn other libraries that it could happen to them, no matter where they were. "I wanted to let people know that this is another tactic that may be employed and it's not one we've seen before or even considered," he said.