ATHENS, Ala. (WHNT) — When members of the Athens-Limestone County Public Library Board of Trustees arrived for their monthly meeting on Thursday, many were surprised by the need to bring in extra chairs to the room.
It was a full house, with more than a dozen community members showing up to speak and listen in on conversations regarding what goes on library shelves.
This comes just weeks after Governor Kay Ivey sent a letter to the Alabama Public Library Service (APLS) with her “concerns about public libraries in Alabama.”
One woman, Elizabeth Stewart, referenced Gov. Kay Ivey’s letter and read excerpts to the board. Stewart said, “Statewide and also nationwide there’s been concern over materials that are placed within the young adult section, and that goes from children to all the way to juvenile and young adult.”
Stewart said she wasn’t there to get the board to ban books, but rather to have the board look into updating policies.
“There’s not really a lot of books in question at this library,” she said. “But what I did notice, is that like most libraries in the country, and the state of Alabama, we have outdated policies.”
“Unfortunately at this time, the Director of the American Library Association, she’s been very public that she wants LGBTQ and queer material available to all ages of children,” Stewart said. “My current concern with a lot of those materials is that much of it includes explicitly sexual material, some of it graphic in the fact that it’s pictorial in nature, and we do not have a policy at this library that is objective and goes into specific material based on ages.”
She then read a portion of the current Athens-Limestone Public Library policy that relates to sex. You can read that full section by clicking here and scrolling to page 32.
“I’m asking that this policy be addressed,” Stewart said. “A.) to remove the wording” she continued.
“I think you should have a section on sexual content, I think it should be objective and in accordance with what the Governor said,” Stewart said. “It should be easy for parents to point to criteria and know that this is the section of the library that this book should be in.”
“No one is asking for a books to be banned, but if a parent has a concern, should they have to wait for the next Board of Trustees meeting?” she said.
Stewart said rather than removing books from the library entirely, books are moved to a section where age limits are in place.
“It’s not censorship to have age-appropriate guidelines for access, we have age-appropriate guidelines for when you smoke,” Stewart said.
However, that brought up the topic of having to define what is and isn’t appropriate for what ages and what books would need to be moved.
Board Chairman, Chris Anderson, this is a subjective topic, and not all parents will agree.
“It’s hard to legislate taste,” he said. “There are certain TV shows that I wouldn’t let my child watch, but maybe she would.”
Other people who spoke at the meeting said they were concerned that censoring what is available would be harmful to people of the LGBTQ+ community.
“I feel like it’s pretty clear that there’s not a lot of sexually explicit books in the kids section,” Courtney Greene said. “My concern is that the real poke here is to eventually want to limit LGBTQ stories, even if they are written at an age-appropriate level.”
Greene said he hopes the library will consider diversity when looking at any policy changes.
“When the library board is considering updating this policy, I just hope that it is with a mindset that the library is for everyone, diverse stories are for everyone and everyone deserves to see themselves on the shelves,” Greene said. “For some kids, seeing themselves represented that way is like life and death.”
Christopher Reese, a librarian at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, had concern that taking certain books out of the children and young adult section would be a disservice to people learning about their own cultures, religion, family heritage, or race.
“The library must be open not just to Mrs. Stewart’s family, but to every family,” Reese said.
Reese said in Tennessee, a school district banned the book “Maus“, which depicts a Jewish family’s experience with the Holocaust. He said it was banned because it had “depictions of nudity and violence.”
“I understand why that’s not appropriate for many 7th graders,” Reese said. “But at the same time, my brother, his wife’s Jewish, he’s using that same book to teach his 7th-grade son about their family history, and what happened in their history. So what some families might see as obscene, another family might see it as their history, which is something that they need their children to know about.”
Now walking through the Athens-Limestone Public Library, it is clear that it has made some recent changes to help ease the concerns of some parents who were worried about their young children wandering into the young adult section.
It recently moved the young adult section further away from the children’s section.
In addition, the library also recently moved two books by author Ellen Hopkins because they contained material about drug use and sexual activity. “Crank” and “Tricks” were previously in the young adult section, and have now been moved to the adult section, after a library member challenged the content of one of the books.
While those books were previously in the young adult section, Anderson said they were rarely checked out.
“‘Crank‘, a little more popular, 2004, it’s been checked out 14 times” Anderson said. Of the 14 total times it was checked out at the library in the last 10 years, “two young adults, and 12 adults checked it out” Anderson said.
“We want to make this clear – we do not believe that our children’s section has graphic images of pornographic material,” he said.
Since this discussion was started by Stewart during the public comment period, the Board of Trustees was not voting on any related matters.
Anderson told News 19 that the Board of Trustees will look into updating the library policies because they have not been updated recently. However, they will do so with care and consult the public, the City of Athens, Limestone County, the Alabama Legislature, and speak with attorneys.
Anderson said that process could take months.
Another topic of the discussion was whether or not the Athens-Limestone Public Library would cut ties with the American Library Association. No action was taken on that.