Audience members attend an Ozark – Dale County Library board meeting Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023 in Ozark, Ala. (Alabama Reflector Photo by Stew Milne)
OZARK — A meeting Wednesday over a call for the Ozark-Dale County public library to remove books with LGBTQ characters and themes drew over 100 people and led to fierce arguments over parental rights and censorship.
The meeting came after the library received complaints about two books in the library’s young adult section from Dale County Commission Adam Enfinger, who did not speak at Wednesday’s meeting. But Ozark Mayor Mark Blankenship, who has campaigned on the issue on his Facebook page, told the meeting said that he had requested the books be removed months ago, and he did not believe that he had to do anything else.
“I’m telling you, it is terrible when you read this stuff, and we do not need them in this library,” he said.
The official reason for the meeting was to discuss the library’s process of reviewing books. The library had received two official complaints from Enfinger. But the crowd was also discussing public social media posts from the mayor that focused on LGBTQ+ books in the young adult section.
The Alabama Reflector has not reviewed the books submitted for consideration by Enfinger. The commissioner’s Facebook page identified them as The Mirror Season and Only Mostly Devastated. The Mirror Season, by Anna Marie-McLemore, and Only Mostly Devastated, by Sophie Gonzalez, are published by Macmillan and identified as being for ages 13-18.
The attempt to remove the books brought strong pushback from other attendees of the meeting.
“This government must represent all of the people of Ozark, not just the majority,” said Alden Rocha, an adult library volunteer who identified herself as a conservative Christian. “People in the LGBTQ community are taxpayers too, and they should have access to the books that they and their kids request.”
The meeting comes amid attacks on libraries in Alabama and nationally. The Alabama Political Reporter reported that some people in Prattville have complained about some books with LGBTQ+ content in books in the local library. Requests to remove the books have gone to the Prattville City Council.
According to the American Library Association, requests to censor library books and resources reached a 20 year high in 2022. Simultaneously, some libraries in Montana and Texas withdrawn or been directed to withdraw from the American Library Association.
The tense gathering Wednesday lasted three-and-a-half hours, with some speakers getting cut off for personal attacks and one sharing the results of Open Records requests about the controversy. The large doors of the meeting room had to be opened to the outside had to be opened to abide by occupancy codes, and board members and attendees fanned themselves with paper due to the heart. At least five armed law enforcement officers were present.
Mike Cairns, the vice-chair of the library’s Board of Trustees and moderator for most of the meeting, said that the initial informal complaint was about pictures of the stickers used to mark LGBTQ books.
Liz Delaney, the chair of the Ozark-Dale County Library’s Board of Trustees, said the library board places books in sections the publisher specifies, such as children or young adult.
The book remains there unless someone fills out a reconsideration form that would lead to a review by an independent committee, which decides whether to keep the book in place or move it to a different age bracket.
People on both sides of the debate saw their time cut for violating rules of order established by the Board of Trustees.
Cheryl Bass said that she felt that LGBTQ books should not be in the library because the “LGBTQ is an abomination to God.”
The board asked her to stop speaking, saying her comments were a “personal attack.” Bass said that she was “speaking from the heart” and her mind.
“I can speak from the heart and be very uncivil, but I’m trying my best not to do that,” said Cairns.
Adam Kamerer, who started a Facebook group that opposed the moving of books, began reading messages between the mayor and board members that he received through a records request, saying it would give context “about the conversations that were made.”
Karen Speck, library director, identified one of the text messages as from her. The text messages show Mayor Blankenship asking about the removal of books and sending pictures of stickers that said LGBTQ+ on them with a rainbow sticker.
The reading of the messages led to an uproar from the crowd, with some attendees shouting that it was a personal attack, and the Board left a few minutes early for lunch. When the board returned, they said they had voted at lunch, not publicly, that Kamerer’s comments were personal attacks, and he would not receive his time back. Kamerer has posted the FOIA messages publicly on his Facebook page.
Jim Hill, the first speaker at the meeting, said he would prefer to remove the books, but asked that they be moved to a monitored section.
“I did not remove this stove from our home to keep our children from getting burned,” he said. “We simply kept an eye on them.”
Amanda Hirschman, who said she moved to Ozark a few years ago, said that parents are the “moral authority” for children, but it ends with the family. She said she didn’t want the books removed but moved to the adult section or their own section, and suggested people who complain about a book read it first.
“Having these books moved to maybe an adult section or a section on their own seems a very reasonable workaround for some of the outrage that’s been going on,” she said.
Hillary Miles, who said her mother used to be the children’s librarian, said that she was “extremely appalled” at the government having control over the books she and her children could access.
“If you cannot separate your religious beliefs from that civic duty, then you lack the ethical foundation representative of a community leader,” she said.
She said that the banning of the books was unconstitutional. She said that there are books in the library she might not let her children read but that is her decision as the parent.
“I would also like to propose that it be required in your policy that anyone submitting any book for review have a valid library card,” she said.
Some members of the board called for the removal. Trustee Monica Carroll, who read a sexually explicit passage from The Mirror Season after recommending attendees remove children from the room, said the community should follow procedures to help identify those books from the library.
“This is not LGQBT, you hear me?” she said. “This is heterosexual filth. I’m begging the community: Come help us. We have a process.”
Christina Faulkner, secretary of the board, said that she did not believe in censorship, but she also doesn’t believe that the passage ready by Carrol should be read by young adults. The library defines young adult as 12-17.
“We definitely cannot monitor and parent an entire county of children,” she said. “It is not our job.”
Faulkner proposed at the end of the meeting a process where parents could potentially sign a waiver that would allow those under 18 to access books that could have “mature” content.
“They can check out those materials but other children whose parents don’t agree with them, checking out those materials and feel like then those materials would be beyond their ability to check out and that parents also sign an agreement understanding that if they’re concerned about the children’s ability to access materials in our library that they need to be with their children to monitor what their children have access to,” she said.
The board plans to discuss the idea with their lawyer prior to their next meeting on Sept. 20.
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Updated at 6:07 a.m. on Sept. 5. An earlier version of this story said an EMT was present at the meeting. The EMT in question was working in a volunteer capacity for the library on that day and was not on duty.
Sept. 20. This story was updated to correct “Macmillan” capitalization.
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