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Oconee County Library board votes on books some say have objectionable content

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

By Lee Becker

The Oconee County Library Board of Trustees on Monday voted to reject the request of four county residents that four books in the Oconee County Library be reclassified because of their content.

At the meeting, Board Chair Mark Campbell also announced that the Library, closed since Thanksgiving, will reopen at the new Wire Park location on Feb. 3.

The Board met in a mostly completed conference room at the new library while construction crews were working just outside the meeting room window. The main part of the library remains under construction.

Fourteen people signed up to speak, at the beginning of the meeting, and 13 actually did address the Board, urging the Board either to follow the recommendation of its two review committees and retain the books as currently classified or to move the books as requested by the four library users.

Two of the four who spoke had requested that two of the books be reclassified, and they argued that the two books dealt inappropriately with gender identification.

The vote to accept the recommendation of the Athens Regional Library System’s Reconsideration Review Committee and the Library Board’s Book Action Committee was 7 to 1 for three of the books and 8-0 for the fourth.

Matthew Stephens, an appointee to the Board from the Oconee County Board of Education and Oconee Middle School Principal, cast the three votes to reject the recommendations of the two committees that the three books not be reclassified.

Reclassification Requests

The vote on the four books for which requests for reconsideration had been filed was near the end of the meeting.

Campbell (center) with procedure flow chart

Stephen Aleshire had asked the Board to move the book Different Kind Of Fruit by Kyle Linkoff from the Juvenile to the Adult Section of the Library.

Laura King wanted the Board to reclassify from the Young Adult to the Adult section Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell.

Victoria Cruz requested that the Board move Man O’ War by Cory McCarthy from the Young Adult section to the Adult section of the library.

Joyce Reifstech filed a request that the Board move Tomboy by Liz Prince from the Young Adult to the Adult section as well.

The Library System’s Reconsideration Review Committee, made up of library professionals, reviewed each of the requests, wrote reports detailing its analysis, and recommended that each of the books remain as classified.

The Book Action Committee, a subcommittee of the Oconee County Library Board of Trustees, accepted the recommendations of the Reconsideration Review Committee and forwarded those recommendations to the full Board for action on Monday.

Initial Citizen Comments

Those wishing to address the Board of Trustees had been asked to sign in as they came into the room and indicate if they were an Oconee County resident. All but one said they were Oconee residents.

Bonanno

Board Chair Mark Campbell called the first speaker forward just more than a minute into the meeting, asking each person to speak for no more than three minutes.

Danielle Bonanno, Executive Director of Inclusive Recovery Athens and President of Athens Pride and Queer Collective, said “today we again find ourselves here debating whether or not books with queer characters will be allowed to reach the hands of queer youth.”

“I honestly cannot believe we have to continually revisit this topic,” Bonanno continued. “As a society, we must recognize that educational excellence and diversity, equity and inclusion go hand in hand.”

Thea Canby was next to the speak, and Canby said “I’m a veteran, I’m a teacher, and I’m a trans woman. “Libraries have always been important to me. They’ve been a safe haven throughout my entire life.”

“When rest stops, gas stations, and restaurants are unsafe,” Canby said, “I find the nearest library, and they’ve always been safe and affirming spaces.”

“These stories that we’re talking about aren’t telling them who to be,” she said, referring to what she called “queer children.” Canby said the books “tell them that it’s ok for them to be who they are.”

“Please keep these books where they are,” Canby asked. “That is where they save the most lives.”

“I support the subcommittee’s recommendations to not ban books,” Gregg Hagadorn said when he came forward to speak. “Americans invented public libraries so all people can read freely.”

Following Speakers

Suzannah Heimel, the fourth speaker, said “I’m an Oconee County resident” as she began her comments. “I’d first like to ask, are we sure everybody who is speaking here is actually an Oconee County resident? Is there anywhere we’re going to verify that?

Helmel

"Because I honestly feel as an Oconee County resident that if you are not an Oconee County resident–you know who you are–you should not be speaking in a meeting here when we are speaking about the Oconee County Library,” Heimel said.

“This is not about book banning,” she said. “This is about appropriately placing books, putting books, so that we don’t have books that are inappropriate for little kids.”

“I’m not talking about LGBTQ,” she said. “I’m talking about sex and profane language and inappropriate pictures and graphics. That is the books that many of us are speaking of. We are not speaking about LGBTQ.”

Dan Matthews, former Watkinsville City Council Member, said “I don’t believe that any of the books need to be moved.”

Two Who Requested Reconsideration

Aleshire and then Cruz, who had requested that Different Kind Of Fruit and Man O’ War, respectively, be reclassified, were next to speak.

Cruz

"I was raised by a child psychiatrist,” Aleshire said. “I have a lot of background in psychiatry. I went to medical school. I have more than 40 years of practice experience.”

“My concern with this issue has nothing to do with so called pornography or so called inclusion,” he said. “My reason for requesting book reclassification is based on well-established behavioral and psychological science.”

“As a doctor, a medical doctor who practiced for over 40 years, I feel that I have enough depth of knowledge in this area of human psychology.”

“These books of concern force children under the ages of puberty to confront and incorporate developmental tasks for which they’re not ready physically, developmentally, or psychologically,” he said.

Cruz reminded the Board that she was only asking for a “reshelving in a different area” of Man O’ War.

“I thought that book was inappropriate for young adults because it deals with all aspects of the gender confusion that is occurring right now,” she said.

“I also have a medical background,” she said, “and I also can’t help but notice that the mental illness problem in youth is escalating at almost an exact proportion as the incidents or the occurrence of the LGBTQ Plus communities.”

Mixture Of Comments

Mary Walters, who said she does not live in Oconee County, said she wanted to applaud Aleshire and then Cruz.

Wellnitz

Kids are so vulnerable,” she said. “They are innocent from the start. They should have that ability and freedom and God-given right to enjoy that innocence for as long as possible.”

“A lot of this needs to be dealt with potentially, possibly from a mental health stand point--and spiritual,” she said.

Andrea Wellnitz said professional librarians “have worked hard to make sure that these materials are where they need to be.”

“And I just feel frustrated that there’s a small group of individuals in this county that want to make it harder for them to do this,” she said.

“This is a public library for all families so that everyone can feel like they belong here,” she said.

Since both review committees have recommended that the books not be reshelved, Wellnitz said, “they need to stay where they are.”

Process Explained

Rebecca Billings, the next to speak, said she had turned in a reconsideration request and it was not on the list to be considered at the meeting.

Valerie Bell, Executive Director of the Athens Regional Library System, which includes Oconee County’s two libraries, told Billings that “right now we can only accept five challenges per quarter for the entire region.”

Bell said Billings’ request will be on the agenda for the next meeting in April.

Billings said more books are being ordered for the library “that have this kind of content for children that is inappropriate...So we’re kind of not making headway in trying to get these reclassified or removed from the children’s section.”

“It’s not about LGBTQ,” she said. “It’s not about people not feeling safe or feeling included. It is age appropriate, and these are not age appropriate.”

“We have received four today from Oconee County,” Bell said of the reconsideration requests when Billings had finished. “We’re doing five total for the region.”

“We have staff that read the books, that actually go through and read the books and review and do research on the books and the reviews of the books and all of that,” Bell said. “And that takes time. We don’t have an unlimited number of staff to do that for an unlimited number of books.”

Paul Keck followed Billings and said “I do think that we should just respect the decisions of the library personnel on where things are shelved.”

Personal Testimony

The fourth book being challenged was Tomboy, and the next speaker addressed it specifically.

Haight and Aleshire

"I was considered a tomboy my entire childhood,” Rue Haight said. “It wasn’t even a designation I chose. It was assigned to me by others who needed a name for my discomfort in dresses and love for the outdoors.”

Tomboy the book came out in 2014, my senior year of high school,” Haight said. “I wish more than anything that I had the opportunity to read this when I was growing up, instead of as an adult.”

“I would have been able to see that I wasn’t completely alone and that the big thoughts that spun me out as a child were valid,” Haight said. “This book is a call to kids that don’t feel respected by their peers to hang in there and look for a community who will accept them for who they are.”

“This is exactly the kind of message that belongs in the young adult section of the Oconee County Public Library,” Haight said.

Jason Kelly said he would decline his chance to speak, saying “It’s already been said.”

Julie Mauck said she wanted to speak to “challenge some of the things that were said because they’re basically fiction. Nobody here is challenging LGBTQ content. It’s not about that.”

“We’re not debating queer characters,” she said, “as the president of the Athens Pride and Queer collective would like you to believe. We’re debating sexually explicit material, whether its heterosexual or homosexual does not matter.”

Library Opening

“This is an active construction project,” Campbell said late in the meeting, though it was unlikely anyone in the room needed to be told that, given the work visible just outside the windows as the meeting progressed. “But I’m happy to be here in this building,” he added.

Interior of library

"So Feb. 3 is the expected opening,” he said.

“Just an exciting time for the library, moving into this new location, and we’re ready for it to happen,” Campbell said.

Campbell, proposed, and the Board approved, a committee of Daphne Norton, Laura Moore, and Angela Moss-Hill to make decisions on art for the new library.

“There’s some art at the old space and exterior art that’s not coming here,” Campbell said.

Campbell said the meeting room being used by the Board will be available even when the library is closed for public meetings. Access to that room is off the courtyard at Wire Park.

The main entrance to the library will face Barnett Shoals Road, he said.

Vote By Board

Campbell began the discussion of the four books being considered for reclassification by holding up a green and blue sheet that he said explained the “process that’s part of the a written policy that’s established by the region.”

The board votes

The sheet lists six steps, from submittal of a reconsideration request, to creation of a review packet, to recommendation by librarians, to recommendation of the Book Action Committee of the Library Board of Trustees, and to a decision by that Board.

Beginning with Different Kind Of Fruit, Campbell presented the recommendations of the professional Reconsideration Review Committee and of the Book Action Committee.

For all four requests, both committees had recommended that the books not be reclassified.

Each vote took place without discussion from the Board.

Stephens offered no explanation of his negative vote on the first three books or his positive vote in support of the recommendations of the committees on Tomboy.

Board members present were Frederick Lutz, Moss-Hill, Campbell, Norton, Rubielen Norris, Moore, Deann Craft, Mike Eddy, and Stephens.

Eddy, principal at Dove Creek Middle School, also is an appointee of the Board of Education.

Moore represents the city of Watkinsville, and Craft the city of Bogart.

The remaining members are appointees of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.


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