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She’s a 2nd-generation Utah school librarian. But after 10 years, she needs a break

Former Brighton High School librarian Catherine Bates stands in her kitchen on June 23, 2023, and holds up a sticky note that a student gave to her. The note reads, “Thank you for creating a safe haven for me.”
Martha Harris
Former Brighton High School librarian Catherine Bates stands in her kitchen on June 23, 2023, and holds up a sticky note that a student gave to her. The note reads, “Thank you for creating a safe haven for me.”

Catherine Bates sits at her kitchen table next to six boxes of books. Her main bookshelf stands empty and her second bookshelf — which used to be a globe stand — is also bare. In her living room, an old wooden card catalog cabinet sits on piles of books, acting as her TV stand.

This is the home of a librarian preparing to move.

For the last decade, Bates was a teacher librarian at Brighton High School in the Canyons School District. She knew she wanted to be a librarian since she was in high school herself because her mom was also a school librarian in Utah. Bates spent a lot of time in libraries growing up, so it wasn’t a surprise when she pursued a master’s degree in the field.

She starts to describe why her work felt so “incredibly rewarding” and then cuts herself off. Bates grabs a yellow sticky note off her kitchen wall. The note was given to her by a student and reads “Thank you for creating a safe haven for me.”

She’s at a loss for words for a few moments. “That makes it worth it,” she said as her eyes start to water.

But as much as Bates cares deeply about her students and loves libraries, the job has taken a toll on her mental health. She won’t be returning to Brighton and will instead move to Oregon. She isn’t sure if she’ll work in a library there.

“Maybe if I just take a little break and maybe do something where I'm not losing sleep over my people or my library,” Bates said. “Maybe if I could just go work and then come home and not tear my hair out over it, things would be a little better.”

Book Banning

Canyons School District made headlines in 2021 after KSL reported the district removed several books from its high schools because a parent in the district complained. Bates spoke out when that happened because she did not think the district was following its own policies.

In 2022, the Utah Legislature banned “sensitive materials” in schools, meaning material deemed “pornographic or indecent.” School districts had to create their own policies to review challenged books in order to comply with the law.

This past June, the Utah State Board of Education told lawmakers that districts statewide received at least 547 book review requests over the 2022-2023 school year. However, that number only represents 79% of students in the state since not every district responded to the state board’s survey.

Bates attributes multiple factors to why she is quitting but said the rise in book challenges and book bans over the last couple of years has certainly played a role.

Her mom was in a middle school library for over 10 years, she said, and only received one book challenge.

“I remember when that happened to her and she was really stressed out about it.”

When Bates reflects on her recent career, she estimates she has dealt with some form of book banning or censorship every month for the last two years.

“It is not sustainable,” Bates said. “I can’t do it.”

Bates has been on several review committees for challenged books, but when she was asked to be on a committee for “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood, she said she declined.

“I knew they were going to take it out and I didn't want to be a part of that,” Bates said. “It kills me to think that I can't hand that book to a student, especially like an AP lit student. That could change somebody's life. It could change [somebody’s] perspective.”

Books to her are “empathy developers” and so it made her uncomfortable that students wouldn’t be exposed to certain stories. Bates said when she was making a decision to remove a book, that decision would affect the more than 2,000 students at her school, and some of them do not have another way of accessing books. She also wanted to make sure that each of her students could see themselves represented in a book in her library.

“The purpose of a library is to level the playing field,” Bates said. “The whole point is for equal access to information for everyone.”

She felt helpless because most of her frustrations were not with her own district. They were with the lawmakers behind the “sensitive materials” law and those continuing to discuss which books belong in school libraries. She said there are lines for what is and is not age appropriate for students, but she doesn’t think the Legislature has the training or experience to draw those lines. To her, the way the law is interpreted doesn’t match up with her professional training.


English teacher Jennifer Mattson not only worked with Bates at Brighton High, but she also taught her when she was a student there. Through watching Bates, Mattson realized how central a library is to a school and its students.

Mattson said Bates helped students with research, found books that would get them interested in reading, advocated for them and provided a safe space.

“She was great,” Mattson said.

In 2022, the Utah Library Association gave Bates the President’s Award. A colleague described her as “exactly what every school in this country needs in their library.”

Mattson has seen a high burnout rate among her colleagues during the pandemic, so she’s not surprised by Bates’ decision. There is a lot of pressure put on educators and an expectation that they are “on call 24/7.”

“It’s draining. I don’t know how you would make healthy boundaries,” Mattson said.

For Bates, the rise in book banning has just added fuel to her unhealthy boundaries with her job. She’d come home and think about her students, the books she’s had to remove, her district’s policies surrounding books and the state’s law. She enjoys reading young adult books but struggled to read them for pleasure without thinking about how she would hypothetically defend the book she was reading.

“If I could get to a point where I am not emotionally involved in the decisions that are being made, everything would be a little bit better. But I don't know how to do that when, like my entire life, I felt very strongly about what libraries are and how important they are,” Bates said.

If she had prioritized herself over her library, Bates said, she might’ve been able to stay in the profession for longer. She added maybe she would’ve had less of an impact on the students, but at least she would still be there.

‘Time to go’

The realization came to Bates last summer, as she was working on four requests to review books in her library.

“I don’t want to do this,” she said. “I don’t want this to be my job for the rest of my life.”

The “this” was defending books that she felt that people with more authority than her, lawmakers and administrators, already believed could not be defended.

“What we believe doesn’t match up. And I think that is really problematic,” Bates. “I don’t think they want an employee like that, honestly. They want somebody who will toe the line.”

Rebekah Cummings, with the Utah Library Association, thinks Bates quitting is a loss for Brighton High students. Since Bates has been at the school for a decade, she’s built student relationships and trust that can’t be rebuilt by a new librarian overnight.

“We’re losing someone who has a lot of valuable experience, possibly out of the profession completely and at the very least to another state,” Cummings said.

She’s heard a lot of discontent from school librarians in Utah and worries more librarians will leave for similar reasons as Bates. Cummings said people become school librarians because they enjoy the work, not because they think it will make them rich.

“Honestly, when it gets to the point where they’re not enjoying their job anymore, I think it will eventually lead to more people leaving the profession,” Cummings said.

Bates said she has received a lot of support from parents in the community, especially after she spoke up in 2021. But she also reads the emails requesting book reviews. Sometimes there are accusations that she is a “groomer” because of books in her library. They wouldn’t name her directly, but she was the only librarian in her school.

Those comments outweighed the positive ones for Bates. They were hurtful when she felt like she had dedicated her life to education.

“I don't know that I've ever felt like I really fit in in Utah very well,” Bates said. “But this experience certainly has made me feel like, ‘Wow, my values are different from these people's values, and maybe it's time to go.’”

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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