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Oconee County Library board reclassifies books dealing with gender identification

The following is reprinted with permission from the Oconee County Observations blog

By Lee Becker

The Oconee County Library Board of Trustees accepted the recommendation of the Athens Regional Library System Reconsideration Review Committee on Monday and voted unanimously to move the book Other Boys by Damien Alexander from the Juvenile to the Young Adult section of the Oconee County Library.

The Board put aside the recommendation of the Review Committee that Nick and Charlie remain in the Young Adult Section and instead moved the book to the Adult Section of the Library.

Both decisions followed the recommendations of Board's own Book Action Committee and were consistent with the requests made by the two Oconee County citizens who filed Requests for Reconsideration of the classification of the two books.

The vote to move Nick and Charlie was opposed by three members of the Board and supported by six.

The Board took the action at the end of its hour-long meeting. Six citizens had spoken at the very beginning of the meeting, with four of them speaking critically about the library, and two offering support.

Three of the four who spoke critically are on the ballot in the upcoming May 21 Party primaries. Two are seeking posts on the Oconee County Board of Commissioners, which largely funds the Library, and one is running for the Board of Education.

Reconsideration Requests

The request by Laura Stimson to move Other Boysfrom the Juvenile to the Young Adult section produced no controversy among Board members.

I’m The Reconsideration Review Committee, made up of professional librarians, wrote in its report to the Board "that the intended audience indicates that this book is directed more toward young teens and should be moved to the YA (Young Adult) section."

The Book Action Committee, a subcommittee of the full Board of Trustees, recommended the same. Members of that Committee are Rubielen Norris, Deann Craft, Mike Eddy, and Matt Stephens, with Board Chair Mark Campbell serving ex-officio.

The professional Reconsideration Review Committee had found that Nick and Charlie contained materials appropriate for the 11 to 18 year Young Adult classification and recommended keeping the book in that section, but the Book Action Committee disagreed, recommending removal to the Adult section.

Board Member Angela Moss-Hill said "now that we have the middle school section kind of separate from the YA" the book should remain in the Young Adult section. "It is something that is pertinent to high school groups," she said.

"I read the book," Board Member Fred Lutz said. "It's not literature...I kind of like the way the BAC came out."

"I can assure you that all members of the Committee that reviewed this book read the book," Board Vice-Chairperson Norris said.

Moss-Hill, Laura Moore, and Rachel Watson voted against the motion to reclassify the book to Adult.

Speakers In Support

Four of the six speakers to the Board also had addressed it in January, when it accepted the recommendation of the Reconsideration Review Committee and the Book Action Committee not to reclassify four books citizens had requested be moved.Andrea Wellnitz, one of the January speakers, said on Monday at the meeting in the Bogart Library that "we are here because these books have a common theme, and that's that they are about LGBTQ children and their families. That's what the real issue is here."

"I really feel like when you censor a book or a program to sort of in some sense to protect one child," Wellnitz said, "essentially what you are doing is telling another child and another family that they don't belong here. And I firmly believe that all children and families belong in our public library."

Wellnitz was followed by Ally Carrick, who said she went to the library and read the two books that were up for reconsideration.

"I'm an adult, reading them wasn't enjoyable for me," she acknowledged.

Carrick said Other Boys "was put in the wrong section of the library...The book is clearly geared toward young adults. That is where it belongs."

Nick and Charlie "is now in the Young Adult Section of the Library, and that's where it belongs," she said.

It is based on another popular series by the same author, Carrick said, and it was actually made into a television show geared toward teenagers.

"If there is anybody who is concerned and don't want their kids reading these books," Carrick said, "the library has good Internet service. You're welcome to Google them before checking them out."

First Two Critics

Stephen Aleshire, who is running for Post 5 on the Board of Education in the Republic Party Primary on May 21, was the third speaker. He also addressed the Board in January.

"Currently there seems to be no evidence of a formalized procedure for reviewing how books are classified," he said. "And if there is a classification and formalization, I think it should be made available to everyone just so we all know what the playing field we're on.”

"If we knew that there was more than one person involved in this classification and we knew that there was a work product that might be available for review," Aleshire said, "I think it would go a long way to improve the relationship."

Suzannah Heimel, who is running for Post 1 on the Democratic Party Ballot in the May 21 primary, without party support, began her comments by saying “I'd first like ask if there has been any vetting of these speakers? Are we sure they live in Oconee County?”

“I think what is said is impacting you, is influencing you, and the way that you feel about the books that we have in our library,” she said. “Let me just suggest that maybe you look into a way to vet our speakers and make sure that they are actually residents of the county and not some additional neighboring county.All six of the speakers had indicated they lived in Oconee County in response to a question on the "Sign Up Sheet" and all of them except Heimel had listed a specific address in Oconee County.

Heimel, who also spoke in January, then switched to her continued concerns about the American Library Association, saying "I've been told over and over again that we are not a member of the ALA.”

“I've provided numerous documents that indicate otherwise to John Daniell, our Board of Commissioners Chair,” she said. “He has shown me nothing. If there are documents that show we are not a member of the ALA, please provide those. They don't exist. We are a member of the ALA.”

“So the situation we are in is what happens when we let the professionals look at the books and make decisions for our children and our books in our libraries,” Heimel said. “We need parent oversight. We need parent involvement. And we need some kind of oversight board of parents who can get together and look at these books."

“We're conservative,” she said. “Are we sure that these books are placed where we want them to be?”

Two More Speakers

Arik Garcia began his comments by holding up his phone with a picture he said he took at the Oconee County Library in Wire Park. He then walked around the table to show the image to each of the Board Members and the Library staff .“This was in the pre-K section display for our children to see,” he said. The image was of the book jacket for A Child’s Introduction to Pride by Sarah Prager. The picture shows the book, cover exposed, on a shelf next to other, stacked, but not displayed, books.

“The reality is it is not really appropriate for my child to walk in and see,” he said. “I think it is my responsibility as a parent to ensure that my children are taking out the right books that I think fit my philosophy that I want to share with my children.”

“But when it is on public display,” he continued. “I just think that it is something that we should be aware of. Maybe it was put up by someone else other than the library staff. I don't know. What I can say is that's what I saw. Maybe that is something that the library staff can walk around and just make sure that there are certain books that aren't on display.”

Victoria Cruz, who is running for Post 4 on the Oconee County Board of Commissioners in the May 21 Republican Party Primary, was the final speaker on Monday. She also spoke in January.She began by congratulating Valerie Bell, Director of the Athens Regional Library System, for changes Bell has made in the Young Adult section of the system libraries, including the two in Oconee County.

“You put some guardrails on the books that children can at vulnerable ages take out,” Cruz said. “In other words, children in that middle school, that vulnerable middle school age group, where parental presence is not always there.”

“I did read through one of the books that was in Young Adult section,” Cruz said, “and I thought the writing was atrocious. I really did. I thought the plot development was atrocious. Maybe it made sense, maybe it would have made sense to a child, a young reader, but I rather doubt it.”

“We're not trying to censor anyone's choices for their children,” Cruz said. “I have a gay niece. She is married. They are expecting a child in April. I haven't disowned them. Children change what they want. I think that my niece chose when she was in college. But now that choice has been pushed further and further down the line and I think we ought to take that into consideration."

Staff Reports

Following the Public Comment section, Board Chair Mark Campbell turned to James Mitchell for the Branch Manager’s report.

Mitchell reviewed upcoming programming and also reported that the Bogart Library in March had a 24 percent increase in materials borrowed compared with March of 2023, while the Oconee County Library had a 10 percent increase in materials borrowed over a year ago.

Both libraries had more than a 100 percent increase in visits over March of last year, he reported.

Athens Regional Library System Director Bell reported that the system has had 13 Requests for Reconsideration since July of 2023, with 12 of those in Oconee County and one in Franklin County.

“We consider ourselves partners with parents, in everything that we do at the library,” she said. “We do listen to our community when they talk to us and share their concerns,” Bell said.

The decision to create a “Middle Grades” section in the Young Adult Section of the Library is one response to comments of patrons, she said.

Bell ended her comments by saying “Yes, I am a member of the Georgia Library Association and a member of the American Library Association and that is paid for with my own money. That is my personal membership to those associations. No tax dollars go to that. That is from my paycheck.”

“And I believe it is important for a librarian, a director, or someone to have that kind of partnership for understanding what’s going on nationally with the library,” she said.

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Watching libraries regress is quite horrifying. Conservatives are scared of things they don't understand, and that’s probably because their parents censored their reading materials too. I’m quite happy it’s all in Oconee County, but I feel sad for the kids there. Especially the ones that are different from what their parents ‘prayed’ for them to be…

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