A North Idaho librarian has received a distinguished award for her work providing safe spaces for LGBTQ+ teens amid community backlash.
Denise Neujahr, a district teen librarian at the Community Library Network based in Post Falls and Hayden, is the recipient of the 2023 American Library Association’s Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity.
Established in 2014 by the American Library Association and Daniel Handler, otherwise known by the pen name Lemony Snicket, the award annually recognizes a librarian who has faced adversity with integrity while helping improve their community.
Neujahr will receive the award — a $10,000 cash award and an item from Handler’s private collection — during the American Library Association Annual Conference & Exhibition in Chicago in June.
Neujahr has worked as a librarian in North Idaho for over 12 years, and she received the prize after her coworker nominated her for her work supporting local LGBTQ+ youth.
In 2019, Neujahr began the Rainbow Squad Program, a monthly program for LGBTQ+ youth and allies to connect and participate in non-academic activities. Neujahr continued the program virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, and she has seen the program grow from just five students in attendance to now 35 students who regularly attend the program.
“I’ve done youth services work in libraries for 24 years, and I’ve always noticed that the library seems to be a magnet for kids that are in the LGBTQ+ community,” she said. “I wanted to create this program for them because I felt there was a need in northern Idaho.”
Neujahr said she splits the middle schoolers and high schoolers into different programs, and the meetings typically include a craft activity, games and a snack.
“They just get to be themselves without any judgment or bullying which they experience daily at school, church or home,” she said. “We just wanted a safe place where they can be themselves and make friends.”
In addition to the youth program, Neujahr said she and her coworker lead the Rainbow Squad Parent group, a program that began two years ago allowing the teen’s parents to connect and have refreshments. The parent meeting is held at the same time as the middle school program, and it often includes guest speakers to talk to the parents.
Library takes steps to protect patrons after protesters oppose LGBTQ+ program
Two years into the program, Neujahr said religious protesters from a church in Hayden began appearing at the library while kids from the Rainbow Squad Program entered the building.
“They were literally right there as the kids were coming in, right in their face, just shouting things at them,” she said. “We had never had protesters before.”
After protesters began appearing, Neujahr met with the library director and the library attorney to establish a policy that would ensure people stay 25-feet-away from the library when protesting. In the following months, Neujahr said police presence was necessary at times to ensure protesters would not get close to the kids.
In one instance, Neujahr said a man from the group of religious protesters fought with police outside of the library during the program, and he was later arrested for allegedly trespassing. She said that police found a loaded gun and knife with him during the time of his arrest.
“I do realize in Idaho people carry you know, I get that, but it was scary,” she said. “There is this man who claims to be so involved in his church but yet brings weapons to a children’s program.”
Neujhar said she regularly receives hateful calls. Last week, she said the library decided to cancel the Rainbow Squad Program for the day because of the threats she and her family have received.
Despite the threats and opposition from some community members, Neujahr said seeing the impact the program has on the teens motivates her to continue her work. In the last two years, Neujahr said some of the kids in the Rainbow Squad have started calling her “Mom.”
Neujahr said she has always been interested in a career path that would allow her to help improve youth mental health. Before becoming a librarian, Neujahr said she considered becoming a child psychologist.
“I think about teens,” she said. “We we have lost teens to suicide, we have teens that are suffering from traumatic home lives and we have a lot of teens we visit at the juvenile detention center. I see a lot of these teens struggling … But I try to be that positive adult for them.”
LGBTQ+ library organizer talks legislative efforts to ban library books
Neujahr said that libraries have always stood for being inclusive to everyone, and she said legislative efforts to ban library materials are an attack on the LGBTQ+ community.
Earlier in April, Gov. Brad Little vetoed a bill that would have allowed a parent or legal guardian to sue a school or library for $2,500 in statutory damages if their child were to access visual or reading materials that depict “sexual conduct” or content that is “harmful to minors.”
Neujahr said the bill was vague because every person could have a different definition for what they see as “harmful to minors.”
“Libraries have never changed what they stand for,” she said. “The LGBTQ+ community is a part of our population. It is a community we serve, so they deserve to see themselves in books.”
Neujahr said the Community Library Network is in the process of implementing a plan to have children’s cards available. This option would allow parents to choose if they only want their children to check out books from the children’s section.
“It’s just going to take us a really long time because we have a lot of material,” she said about implementing the plan. “We are really trying to listen to everybody and to make everyone happy as much as we can.”
Neujahr said that books at her workplace also undergo a “weeding” process, meaning that if a book has not been checked out in two or three years, then it gets taken out of the library collection.
“If these books are still in the library, that means they’re being checked out and there’s a need or a want from them from the community,” she said. “If they weren’t being checked out, then they wouldn’t be on the shelves.”
Neujahr said she remains passionate about her work in Idaho libraries, and she believes that libraries should include materials from diverse backgrounds.
“It’s just so important to have books on everybody,” she said. “Every culture, every belief, every political or religious background. That’s what the library does. It’s the holder of information, and not just one type of view or one type of information. It’s all views and all people.”
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