“We serve everyone:” an Interview with Dominique Mendez
By: Alex Falck (The following post is part of the Librarians Lead Against Censorship blog series. In celebration of National Library Week and its theme “Libraries Lead,” the Intellectual Freedom Blog is highlighting the voices and experiences of fierce librarians who have defended the right to read in the past year. Learn more about the Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2017 and this year’s Banned Books Week theme “Banning Books Silences Stories. Speak Out!” at ala.org/bbooks/NLW-Top10.)
Last year, the West Chicago Public Library was thrust into the public eye when a patron challenged the library’s holding of This Day in June, a children’s picture book about a Pride parade. I spoke with WCPL’s Youth Services Manager Dominique Mendez about what led to the challenge and how the community responded.
OIF Blog: Let’s start with a little bit about yourself. How long have you worked in libraries?
Dominique Mendez: I started working in a special library at a for-profit company when I was in grad school in 2009, but I always knew I wanted to work with kids. When I graduated, I got a job in youth services at West Chicago Public Library. I left for a little while to be a YA librarian at another public library, but then I returned to be the Youth Services manager at West Chicago.
OIF Blog: For those of us who aren’t familiar with West Chicago, how would you describe the community and your patrons?
Dominique Mendez: We have a pretty diverse but close-knit community. A little over half of our patrons are Hispanic, there’s a growing LGBT community, a community of home-schoolers — it’s a real melting pot.
OIF Blog: Were you aware of This Day in June prior to the challenge?
Dominique Mendez: I didn’t know about This Day in June specifically, but we have other LGBT books in our collection, like Jacob’s New Dress and Princess Boy. Before the challenge, This Day in June had only circulated twice in two years, so it wasn’t on my radar. After the challenge, though, it got checked out a lot!
OIF Blog: Can you walk me through the series of events leading up to the formal challenge? What happened?
Dominique Mendez: It started off as an email that came in through a comment form on our website. The mother wrote that her daughter had found the book on our shelves. She didn’t want to talk about the subject with her daughter, and she asked us to remove it. I spoke with my library director first, then emailed her back. I acknowledged her concern and said that we buy books for everyone in the community, and I invited her to come to a library board meeting. She didn’t come, but her husband did.
At the first meeting, he expressed his concerns, thanked us for listening to him, and decided to stay and listen to the rest of the board meeting, when the board talked about keeping the book on our shelves. He said he’d come to the next meeting, and that was when he started to mobilize other people from his own personal connections. Our patrons caught wind of it and began to organize support for keeping the book on the shelves.
By the time the next board meeting came around on August 28, it had blown up. I was hearing from the press, from ALA, and someone had created a Facebook group in favor of the book. At the meeting, there were about 14 people who wanted us to remove This Day in June and about 150 who wanted us to keep it.
OIF Blog: What was that like? Did things get rowdy?
Dominique Mendez: No, not at all. We did have the West Chicago Police on hand for crowd control and there was a group live-streaming the board meeting, so I think that helped. Everyone was very polite and open to everyone’s thoughts. Nobody shut anyone down.
OIF Blog: Were you surprised by the challenge?
Dominique Mendez: Yes, I was really surprised! As I said, we have a pretty diverse community, and I hadn’t expected anything like this.
OIF Blog: Had you dealt with a book challenge before?
Dominique Mendez: No, never.
OIF Blog: Did it seem like a lot of people at the board meeting were coming in from outside the West Chicago community? If so, how did you and other West Chicago residents feel about that?
Dominique Mendez: There were some people from Chicago and other suburbs, but also a lot of our patrons, people we know by name. I didn’t hear any patrons complain about other people coming in, and I thought it was great to get this outside support. It really shows how much people value libraries and care about what we do.
OIF Blog: Have there been any lasting effects from challenge and the attention it brought?
Dominique Mendez: Directly after the board meeting, there were a few reporters coming in asking about what had happened, and a few patrons who reached out to let us know what they thought, even though the decision had already been made. By October/November it trickled off, but we did get some donations of This Day in June in our book drop, which was nice. It’s already in our collection, of course, but I won’t say no to free books!
OIF Blog: Do you have any advice for other librarians who are facing a challenge to their collection?
Dominique Mendez: I would say, do what’s best for your community and do what’s best for your patrons. You know them best, and you know what their needs are. A couple weeks after the board meeting, we received a request through the website for a book about puberty that has a conservative Christian perspective, and we bought it because it’s something our patrons wanted, just like This Day in June is. We serve everyone.
OIF Blog: Thanks, Dominique! And remember, dear readers, if someone challenges the materials in your library, we want to hear about it!
Alex Falck is a Teen Services librarian at the Chicago Public Library and volunteer librarian at Brave Space Alliance, an organization focused on the needs of trans people of color. Alex is particularly interested in hearing and amplifying the voices of historically silenced people, including people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and people with disabilities. Alex listens to lots of podcasts, and blogs at teenlib.tumblr.com. Find them on Twitter @AlexandriaFalck.