There are more than 5 million books in Hennepin County libraries.
Epics and sagas. Massive reference tomes and zines held together with staples. Histories and mysteries. Bedtime stories for babies. The greatest literature in human history. The pulpiest schlock you've ever devoured in one sitting.
Five million books. Not one of them banned. Not here.
"Do we have materials that are offensive? Of course we do. Our collection is a reflection of our society," said J.R. Genett, deputy director of support services for the Hennepin County Library.
Six to 12 times a year, someone questions whether one or more of those 5 million books belongs in a public library.
Library staff members research each challenged book — such as the "Barbie Gets Married" book one patron complained was upholding outdated gender norms. The librarians are happy to talk. They're happy to listen. They're happy to find you something else to read. But they're not going to ban that book.
"That book may be for you and your family, or maybe it isn't," Genett said. "But that doesn't mean you get to decide whether it is appropriate for other people in your community."
Libraries are a treasure. Not everyone treasures them.
"One thing that is true across the nation is that libraries are being devalued," said Minnesota State Librarian Tami Lee, who oversees the state's 137 splendid public libraries. "It's groups trying to engender a lack of trust in the professionalism of librarians."
In the first eight months of last year, the American Library Association reported 681 attempts to ban or restrict resources at school, university or public libraries, targeting 1,597 different books. It was the most widespread attempt at book banning since the group started keeping records two decades ago.
PEN America kept a running list of books banned from schools between July 2021 and June 2022: "To Kill a Mockingbird." "The Handmaid's Tale." "How to Be an Antiracist." "Lord of the Flies." "Gender Queer." "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass." "Peter Pan." "Brave New World."
There were book bans at schools in 32 states, hitting 1,648 different titles. Forty percent of the bans targeted books with LGBTQ characters or themes. Only one Minnesota school district appears on that list, to the credit of every school district but Wayzata.
The are 95,000 books available for checkout at the average Minnesota public library, with another 9,000 e-books available at a click. Why only 47% of us have library cards is a mystery.
Libraries used to be a haven. Now they're a target.
The East Central Regional Library system serves Aitkin, Pine, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs or Chisago counties. Its staff spent a solid chunk of 2022 dealing with complaints about the respected and frequently banned sex ed book "It's Perfectly Normal."
Most book challenges are settled at the library. This one dragged on for months until the library board voted overwhelmingly to keep "It's Perfectly Normal" right where it belongs.
It was the book challenge that got the most news coverage, but it wasn't the only one.
Somebody didn't want to read "Frockodile."
Somebody found out you can check out a board game like "Cards Against Humanity: Family Edition" at the library and wasn't happy about it.
Somebody didn't want to read the anti-trans screed "Irreversible Damage."
Somebody didn't want to read the educational comic book "Sex is a Funny Word."
Somebody didn't want to read "Arthur and True Francine," in which a cartoon aardvark says some genuinely unkind things about his teacher.
Somebody didn't want to read those books or play that game. Which is fine. But they didn't want anyone else in Aitkin, Pine, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs or Chisago counties to be able to read them either.
No matter how much you love books, no matter how much you cherish freedom of expression, almost everyone can think of a book they'd be tempted to ban if they could.
When Lee tackles the topic of terrible texts with students in her library sciences classes, she uses the example of the Little House books. The cruel, racist descriptions and illustrations embedded in those beloved childhood classics hurt generations of young readers.
"I have had students ask me, 'Would you take those [books] off the shelf?' And no, I wouldn't," Lee said. "I wouldn't take Twain off the shelf."
But what libraries can do is what libraries do best. Help you find a good book to read instead.
"Instead of 12 copies of 'Little House on the Prairie,' I might cut it down to two and then load up on other, wonderful books — like our own Louise Erdrich's 'Birchbark House' [series] and other Indigenous authors who have also written in similar fashion," Lee said. "And have a nice big choice."
The world is full of people who don't think like we think, or look like we look, or believe what we believe. Some of those people have written books.
Whether you read those books is up to you. Whether the rest of us read those books is not.