The Downtown Juneau Library, April 7, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

The Downtown Juneau Library, April 7, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Juneau board has no plans to follow Mat-Su’s lead on banned books

‘The Great Gatsby’ can still be taught in capital city

The president of the Juneau Board of Education said that they have no intention of following the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School Board after it banned five books from their curricula on April 22.

“This is a surprise to the school board,” said school board President Brian Holst in a phone interview. “The Juneau School District has no plans to do anything like this.”

The MSBSB voted 5-2 to remove “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, and “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien.

“I think I read both “Catch-22” and “The Great Gatsby” when I was a student at JDHS (Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaat.at Kalé),” Holst said. “They’ve been a part of education for a long time.”

Juneau School District doesn’t have any sort of banned book list. There were books colored with blatant racism toward the Alaska Native people that were replaced, in favor of better texts, Holst said.

“We do not have a banned book list,” Holst said. “A few years ago we identified a few books that were egregiously culturally insensitive so we don’t include those books in our curriculum. There was no need for them, given there were better resources for the grade levels.”

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Holst said that a lack of public comment at the meeting may have led to the 5-2 vote to remove the books from the school district’s curriculum.

“There was no public comment at that meeting,” Holst said. “My guess is that there are many parents across America who would like to see classic literature respected in the curriculum.”

While the decision will not remove the books from school libraries, said head of the Alaska Library Association Deborah Rinio in an email, it will limit student’s interaction with the complex themes presented in the books stripped from the curriculum.

“Class discussions of books can provide a safe forum for learners to grapple intellectually and emotionally with difficult issues under the guidance of an experienced educator,” Rinio said in an email. “Reading literature with challenging themes can aid learners in developing empathy, critical thinking skills, and knowledge of other cultures and experiences.”

Holst echoed the sentiment, saying to trust Juneau’s teachers to help students become stronger and more prepared people by examining complicated and difficult issues.

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“In Juneau, we have a lot of trust in the ability of our education system and people need to be prepared for the world they’re living in,” Holst said. “That means talking about controversial topics, and doing so in a structured environment is probably best for students.”

Libraries are protected from exclusion by the Library Bill of Rights, Rinio said, which states that books shouldn’t be removed purely because of their origin, age, background or the views of the authors. Libraries should also not remove books because of partisan disapproval of the content, Rinio said.

“From what I can gather, it appears the five books removed from the MSBSD curriculum were labeled as ‘controversial’ by the MSBSD Office of Instruction. Exactly why or when is unclear to me,” Rinio said. “It is important to note that what is controversial is subjective and whether a book is considered controversial is not a criteria by which it should be included or excluded from curricular resource lists or library collections. It is unclear why these particular five books were singled out.”

Juneau Public Libraries Marketing Coordinator Kate Enge said that the same bill of rights protects Juneau’s libraries, which are separate from the school’s curriculum and libraries in any case.

Per the policy of the Alaska Library Association, Rinio said, the books will continue to circulate at public libraries in the Mat-Su region.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757.621.1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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