For the second time in less than a year, the Rumford Public Library in Rumford, Maine has faced criticism from those who feel that a display found in the library. which features several LGBTQ-themed books, is pushing the political agenda of the librarians. The controversy began last Autumn when the library put up a display of frequently banned and challenged books, several of which featured LGBTQ-themed books. Local pastors took issue with the display and accused the librarians of promoting political messages on ‘town time and the town’s dime.’
“I thought we had reconciled everything last year,” said library director Tamara Butler said last week. “I thought it was over.” The issue has been raised for a second time and the librarians and trustees are once again defending their monthly display from those who believe the books they show are inappropriate.
As the Press Herald reports, tension has once again surfaced after the interim town manager asked about the library’s policy regarding book displays and questioned whether or not the librarians were making political statements with ‘town time and the town’s dime.’
Trustees of the library have responded that their policy is that the librarians have the right to choose what books are on display. “It’s short and sweet,” said Jerry Cohen, a library trustee. “It shows that as a board we support what our staff does at the library. We don’t tolerate discrimination.”
Controversies like this are not exclusive to this library alone. The American Library Association’s yearly list of frequently challenged and banned books is made up almost entirely of books with LGBTQ themes. “We’re seeing an upsurge in the past few years of challenges of materials with LGBTQ themes or displays with LGBTQ books,” said the interim director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, Deborah Caldwell-Stone,.
Caldwell-Stone believes these issues are appearing more frequently die to the fact that LGBTQ issues are being discussed more and more in the United States. “We are clearly divided right now,” said Caldwell-Stone. “There are still ongoing efforts to police what people read and what they think about certain issues.”
The chair of the intellectual freedom group at the Maine Library Association, Joanna Breen, has stated she believes what is happening in Maine isn’t surprising, and that it isn’t wrong for people to ask why or how books are selected for display.
“Part of a democracy and part of a community is having dialogues about these things. The most important thing is to have these conversations like the ones they had in Rumford,” she said “We can’t have segments of communities deciding what is or isn’t appropriate. As a public library, our role isn’t to decide what is appropriate for other people. They need to decide for themselves.”
For four years, the library has put up a different display every month to bring different types of books with different themes to readers attention. A different member of staff chooses a theme every month and the themes often connect to world events such as holidays, the anniversary of an historic event, or charities. “We try to be inclusive and make sure all members of the community are represented through our displays,” Butler said. “It’s a nice way to highlight items in our collection that people don’t even know we have.”
In September, the library put up a display highlighting the most banned books listed by the American Library Association. The display went unchallenged until last year, when local pastors took issue with some of the LGBTQ books on display, which included Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, and My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata.
A letter signed by pastors Dan Pearson, Justin Thacker and Nathan March read: “The library should not be promoting a far left political view that sees homosexuality as acceptable and to be promoted over and against a conservative and traditional view that sees homosexuality as wrong and to be avoided. I believe that there are many who hold this traditional view in our area who deserve not to have these other views which are offensive to them thrust in their face in a library that should be neutral in its political views.”
“We don’t not put books out because the ideas might be considered controversial or dangerous,” responded Butler. “Some people may feel that way and that is their right, but we don’t suppress ideas.”
In order to address the issue, the library hosted a meeting regarding the display. “It’s an issue we needed to discuss,” she said. “If they are upset, they should be able to come to the library and express their opinions on both sides.”
“The library stands for free speech,” added Cohen, a second-generation trustee. “Whether they’re for or against the display we have, we’d like to hear about it.”
The meeting ended with the trustees agreeing to leave the display intact. Pastor March has since said that the letter he and the other pastors sent was misconstrued. “I don’t think any of us were trying to push an anti-gay agenda. There were a couple of visually provocative images and we were asking if they’d reconsider that in the display,” said March, “I wasn’t asking for book banning.”
Mary Ann Fournier, who erected the display to highlight Pride Month, said she was surprised by the controversy. “I never thought, ever, that this would be something I would have to deal with. This town, in general, can be forward-thinking, and it was proved to us by the amount of town support we’ve gotten and are still receiving.”
The story soon made headlines and the library has reported that it has received hundreds of emails from people around the world who say they support the library’s display and congratulated the trustees for defending freedom of speech.
Earlier this year, town manager Scott Cole received calls from a resident in Dixfield who was upset about the libraries’ display and asked library director Tamara Butler for an explanation.
Regarding the display, Cole said: “I have zero concerns about the content. I’m indifferent.” Butler has stated that she explained the librarians take it in turns to create displays and that they don’t have official rules for them.
Cole appears to have left the meeting with Butler still without an understanding on why or how the displays are made and told the Dixfield resident “It seems like people put out whatever they want on the table and there’s no rhyme or reason for it.”
“The practice was what it was and it seemed pretty loose to me,” Cole said in an interview.
In May, Cole received a letter from the libraries’ board of trustees which read: “You do not have the authority to decide what materials should be displayed in the library, nor do you have the authority to direct employee duties.”
Cole responded the next day with a letter which read:
“Without new information to consider, the current practice regarding ‘banned books’ seems tantamount to providing certain individual town employees with their own political platforms during work hours.
“As a town manager, holding charter-based supervisory authority over all town employees, I have to wonder if this is really a good idea for the workforce? Individual political expression by employees is not allowed on ‘town time and the town’s dime’ in other areas of municipal employment,” he wrote. “Why should library employees be treated differently? That is a question that must be asked.”
He added: “You have people loaded for bear who think it’s going to be a replay of last fall. I understand that, but you ask a few questions and you become a villain.”
Cole met with the trustees again this month, and said: “It’s like a free-for-all. It just seemed like it was employees doing as they please, on town time and town dime.”
The board has adopted a policy of which states that the library director must approve all displays, that local organizations can request space for exhibits or displays, and that all displays in the children’s library must be of interest to and appropriate for young ones.
The policy states: “As the library endeavors to present a broad spectrum of ideas and a variety of viewpoints, materials exhibited do not necessarily represent the views or imply the endorsement of the library trustees, administration or staff.”
Cole has since stated that he is satisfied with the library’s policy. “It’s unfortunate me asking some reasonable questions triggered a wave of hostility. I’m sorry for that,” he said. “I think people have moved on.”
“We don’t know what will happen in September,” said Butler after this latest wave of controversy, “but we will be addressing banned books again.”