Library seeks dialogue on complaints about teen section content, protests about censorship

Recent complaints from members of a local church regarding what they describe as inappropriate materials at the Bartholomew County Public Library’s teen section have resulted in pushback from other citizens who are calling the effort censorship.

The Bartholomew County Public Library’s Board of Trustees’ Sept. 12 meeting continued for about two hours, with members of the public voicing their support for “freedom to read,” according to library director Jason Hatton. The statements were a response to recent complaints about inappropriate content received by the board.

Since April, a group of about five to 10 people from local Blessed Life Fellowship have been attending the library’s board meetings to complain about “inappropriate materials” in the teen section, Hatton said.

“Mainly these have to do with books that have some sort of sexual component to it, like sex ed and/or books with LGBTQ types of relationships and depictions,” he said. “And so this group has been very vocal about that and very demanding of the board to take action.”

He added that the group has not been very specific about book titles or their requests but has instead been more general.

Blessed Life Pastor Andy Robbins declined to comment on the matter or talk about his congregation’s concerns.

Library board member Stephen Shipley, appointed by the Bartholomew County Council, said that he’s spoken to the church members and they raise some “valid concerns” that the board should at least discuss. However, he added that it’s important not to generalize.

“I’ve gone over to the public library, to the teen section, and I’ve looked through a lot of the books,” said Shipley. “I don’t believe we have an issue with our teen section that is volumes upon volumes, shelves upon shelves of inappropriate books. But I do think there’s books that are questionable. And part of that … is the idea that you are going to promote sexual activity or sexual lifestyles or sexual images, typically via illustration, to an age group that ranges from 12 to 18.”

What’s appropriate for one age in this span may not be appropriate for another, he said.

As a sixth grade teacher at CSA Lincoln elementary school, he has taken kids to the library on school trips and seen some return with material that he felt was “not appropriate” for a classroom setting.

Board member Billie Whitted, appointed to the board by the Bartholomew County commissioners, said that there have been complaints from kids who don’t feel comfortable in the teen section.

“Parents are concerned because our library seems to have an over-emphasis on what they consider to be pornographic, homosexual, pedophilic and transgendered sex,” she said. She also said that certain materials may encourage unsafe behavior.

Shipley said another one of the group’s concerns is that there is not enough “diversity of thought” in library materials and that the library should be open to everyone, rather than promoting certain agendas.

The library’s response to the group’s comments has included going over the First Amendment and case laws surrounding it, as well as the American Library Association’s “Freedom to Read” statement, said Hatton.

He has also spoken to people individually and let the group know about the library’s process for “reconsideration of a book in our collection.”

“So what that entails is they would fill out a form talking about the book, describing what it is they find inappropriate and then giving it to us, where our selector, our librarian really digs into that book and tries to understand what the complaint is and why we have the book and whether we should still retain the book or whether we should move it to another collection,” he said. “… And then, if that’s appealed, then that decision comes to me and I do the exact same thing.”

However, he has not received any forms from the group, even after passing out copies at the board’s August meeting.

Whitted said that the group may feel that with all of the titles that need to be addressed, this would be too time-consuming.

It is Shipley’s understanding that these individuals are more focused on the idea of what’s age-appropriate than on banning specific books.

“I can’t speak for the board, but I know for myself and for, I would venture to say, everyone on the board, we strongly oppose censorship and removing books from the library,” Shipley said. “I want to make that very clear. And the group from Blessed Life that you’re referring to — I have yet to hear them say that they’re trying to remove materials from the library. It really comes down to age-appropriateness.”

He added that technically all books and materials in the library are available to any age group. However, they do have sections — such as the teen area — that are designated for different ages.

Hatton said that the library staff will be examining the issue and look at best practices around the state and country, as far as what other libraries are doing with teen materials. The local library will also analyze its own collection, take a survey of teen materials and, if changes are needed, develop a plan.

He said that the idea to examine best practices around the teen section had been in his mind already, but the decision was made after the board’s August meeting.

There has also been discussion about creating a middle school section to better differentiate between ages, said Whitted.

Shipley said that part of the local issue is that the group feels that its concerns are not being seriously considered.

“I always say that ‘sometimes our rhetoric undermines our message,’” he said. “And I think that they feeling like they haven’t really been heard has led to more aggressive rhetoric in the meetings, which is very uncommon, at least in my few years on the library board. We really haven’t had too much of that. I love having public comment, and I love the public taking more interest in what we do. But it’s important that the public feel like they’re being heard.”

He feels that there should be more dialogue.

The board’s August meeting featured “heated discussion” from the group, said Hatton.

“They really pushed on a couple of board members,” he said. “And a couple of board members definitely kind of felt that we should be looking a little deeper into what it is they’re saying, and again, there was some pretty heated words back and forth.”

After word got out about that meeting, there was a large crowd at the board’s Sept. 12 meeting, which he said mostly seemed to be made up of individuals who showed up to support the library and speak out in favor of freedom of speech and “freedom to read.”

Only a couple of people from Blessed Life attended the meeting, to Hatton’s knowledge, and none chose to speak.

He said that it was an “uplifting meeting” for library staff.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of negative — and a lot of honestly, some very dramatic and inflammatory comments that me, as library director is pushing an agenda,” said Hatton. “Not explicitly clear what that agenda is, but I do believe it’s about LGBTQ and that, basically, the library staff are trying to do harm to the community’s children by having what they deem as inappropriate materials on our shelves. And so it was nice to hear comments that we are doing the right thing.”

Shipley felt that Monday’s comments were the result of miscommunication, with people believing that some board members support censorship. He believes the actual issue at hand is making sure materials are in the right section based on age-appropriateness.

He added that he feels that everyone in the situation — library staff, the board, the group from Blessed Life and people concerned about censorship — is trying to do what’s best for the library and its teen readers.

One thing that makes the situation difficult, he said, is trying to determine the board’s role.

“Librarians are professionals, and this is what they specialize in, is choosing books and making sure those books are available,” said Shipley. “And so there needs to be a certain level of trust there. We’ve hired them to do a job, and therefore, we need to trust them to do that job. On the other hand, I think it really is the responsibility of the board to hear the concerns and not pass judgment on trying to determine what we think they’re trying to do but really hear them out and evaluate what are some steps that we can take. And I think Jason’s done that, with putting together the subcommittee.”

Whitted said feels there should also be more transparency about how library staff determines the correct age group for materials.

“Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association, is Sept. 18-24. Throughout the week, events will be held in libraries, schools, and organizations across the country to call attention to attempts to censor books and the efforts of libraries and educators to push back against censorship.

As part of this week, Hatton will participate in a panel discussion on censorship hosted by the University Library of Columbus and the Division of Education at IUPUC. This free and public event will be held at 4:30 p.m. Monday in the Summerville Room at the Columbus Learning Center.

Samantha Bresnahan, Public Policy and Community Engagement Associate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, will serve as a panelist as well.

The library also plans to hold a Banned Books Trivia Night at 6 p.m. Thursday.