Library debate rages on, 15 months later

By Jonathan Gallardo, Gillette News Record Via Wyoming News Exchange
Posted 10/4/22

Nearly 15 months have passed since a group of Campbell County residents voiced their concerns about books with sexual content that were readily available to kids and teens in the Campbell County …

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Library debate rages on, 15 months later


Nearly 15 months have passed since a group of Campbell County residents voiced their concerns about books with sexual content that were readily available to kids and teens in the Campbell County Public Library.

In the months that followed, the community was divided. There were protests and an unprecedented volume of book challenges from people claiming the library is purposely pushing the sexual indoctrination of children by having certain books available to them in the children’s and teen sections.

In response, residents on the other side of the debate rushed to the support of the library staff.

This led to some emotional and contentious meetings.

Things quieted down in the late spring and early summer. A book challenge has not come before the library board since late February.

But thanks to the Campbell County Public Library Board’s most recent decision, there’s been a renewed interest.

The library board looks very different from last year. Of the five people who served on the library board a year ago, only one of them remains. The other four have all been appointed within the last seven months.

Monday, the board voted 4-1 to form a committee to come up with a rating system for books in the children and teen sections. The five-person committee will not be reviewing books themselves, but rather it will create a system that parents can use to rate the books.

Other decisions, such as changing the mission statement to include the phrase, “while upholding community standards,” and instituting a child policy, were on the agenda but were tabled.

At a library board meeting Monday, board chair Sage Bear said she picked five people to serve on the committee: Sheri England, Gail Cruse, Christopher Boiallis, Candace Young and Gabby Messick.

“This is a parent-driven rating system, it will not be perfect, there are gray areas, but at least it will be a start,” she said.

Wednesday morning, Bear said these five were people that she’s talked to about the library and “have shown concerns.” She tried to get as diverse a group of people, she said, from a variety of ages and political backgrounds.

She noted that other forms of media, such as movies, TV and music, all have rating systems, but books do not.

In March, during Bear’s interview with county commissioners, she said books should have warnings like TV shows do.

Board member Charlie Anderson, the only one who voted against the committee, asked what the purpose of this committee would have.

“It’s just a proposal to the board to have a system in front of the books,” Bear said. “There’s not a lot of help for parents in vetting books.”

The committee will not be reviewing the books, she said.

“My idea is something like, put an ‘S’ if there’s sexual content, a ‘V’ if there’s a violence,” Bear said, adding that whatever system the committee comes up with could be completely different.

Librarian Elizabeth Albin said the library already has a group of people that accomplishes this very purpose: the librarians.

“We know our patrons better than anybody else,” she said.

Youth services librarian Darcy Acord said she’s concerned about the notion that the library “is not a safe place for parents to bring their children.”

“I hear a narrative … that librarians are shoving books into kids’ hands and parents’ hands, promoting agendas,” Albin said. “That’s simply not true.”

Wednesday Bear said what she’s trying to do with this committee is bring more transparency to the library. While the library’s staff is there to help, “librarians aren’t always available, and people don’t always ask,” she said.

“There’s a lot of books that just have subliminal messages that parents aren’t aware of,” Bear said. “This is not meant to offend, but I obviously offended people.”

Bear said she was appointed to the board “to bring common sense and community standards to this library.”

“What are community standards? Well, some would say that we, the board, are the community standards because we have been selected by an elected group,” she said.

More than two dozen people spoke at Monday’s library meeting. Many of them opposed the committee, while others praised the library board for doing the right thing.

Dallas Remme, the parent of a teen who volunteers at the library, said the committee is nothing more than government overreach “that aims to place barriers between individuals and with information they choose to consume.”

“It is my right and responsibility to guide my child’s access to information, not the right nor the responsibility of a special committee,” Remme said.

Jenny Sorenson, an English teacher, said the library was a big help to her several years ago when, two days after her husband passed away, she found herself faced with a tough parenting question. A library book gave her the answer she needed.

“When it comes to parenting or sexuality, there is no cookie-cutter response to those two things, no one size fits all,” Sorenson said. “I do not want the board to impose on my individual rights as a parent.”

Teens, and most people in general, don’t like doing what they’re told, said Sorenson’s daughter, Avery.

“If you are going to put these rating systems on books, like sexual content or violence, teenagers are going to want to read those more,” she said.

Avery added that teens aren’t going to stop having sex just because a group of people doesn’t want them to, and that it’s better to teach these teens about safe sex, rather than “just leave them to the wind.”

Susan Sisti said teens should not be having sex because it’s against the law, and that by promoting “sex acts and sex toys,” the library is encouraging kids to break the law.

“It’s actually illegal for a child under 17 to have sex in our state,” Sisti said. “It’s illegal. That is in our state statute.”

In Wyoming, the age of consent is 17.

A lot was made of the phrase “community standards.”

Hugh Bennett said voters made it clear what the community standards are by not electing the three “most liberal” commissioners — Rusty Bell, Bob Maul and Don Hamm — to the board in the primary election.

Judging by the books at the used book sale this week, many of which were donated by the public, Kathy Halvorsen said Gillette reads books on a wide range of topics.

“What exactly are Gillette values? I always thought Gillette values included freedom, helping neighbors, equality, kindness and live and let live,” Halvorsen said.

Mary Konrad said she’s not sure what the community standards are, because not everyone is the same.

“There are groups that think Harry Potter is awful, that Halloween books are awful, some of the magic books are awful. Those are standards we don’t share,” she said.

England, who was one of the five people appointed to the committee, said she still doesn’t know where all of this controversy started from.

“When was there a problem? Did we have problems with our kids and our parents?” she asked. “It didn’t seem to be connected to any incident or any crisis that happened in the library.”

Sally White, who attended a recent library board meeting to present on artwork she made during the library’s creative aging class, said she was “aghast” to see a “hate-filled atmosphere from some members of the community towards anyone not going along with their agenda.”

Some people said they were concerned about MassResistance’s ties to this movement in Gillette.

Kevin Bennett said MassResistance, an organization headquartered in Massachusetts, has helped local efforts, but that it “hasn’t controlled our efforts or our work entirely.”

He said residents reached out to MassResistance for help when they realized what was going on at the library, and that the movement is “an organic expression of our community.”

Helen Hayden said these books can cause the kids who read them “to experiment, which can cause them to have health issues.”

“It results in broken homes, more physical and mental health issues, suicides, pedophiles, rapes, addictions,” she said. “Young people have enough to deal with in school that they don’t need these books; they don’t need gender, sex of all kinds, abortion books in their face causing more confusion.”

Ben Decker said he’s asked for the library to add books, and they were rejected.

“I believe they were declined because it doesn’t fit the library’s agenda of promoting LGBTQ lifestyle,” he said.

Sisti described the book “Sex is a Funny Word” as a “sodomy book for 4-year-olds,” and she believes some books should be removed from the library entirely because they’re inappropriate.

Elin Mayo said the library, particularly the children’s department, was very helpful when she was pregnant with her second child to help explain to her first child what was going on.

“I’m pretty sure I did show her that book that Ms. Sisti didn’t approve of,” Mayo said. “She wanted to learn how that works.”

She added that many kids in the community learn about sex, and it’s not from a book.

“If you’re outside on a farm or a ranch, you learn that stuff pretty quickly,” she said.

Gail Cruse said that by keeping books about sex in the children and teen sections, the library has shown “a reckless disregard for children, and no amount of intellectualizing or pontificating high-flown intellectual discussions can make it right.”

Tex McBride said the people who have challenged these books are advocating for government overreach to promote their own beliefs.

He was part of an online group chat last summer, discussing Mikayla Oz, a magician who was scheduled to perform at the library. McBride said some people in that group began “making up facts” and talking about things that had not happened here.

“It became apparent this was not about protecting children, it was about pushing an agenda,” he said.

McBride said what makes America great is that “you can read what you want to read and nobody can stop you.”

“Somebody you may not agree with has the ability to go and enjoy things you may not agree with, but it doesn’t affect you, your property or your rights,” he said.

“This discussion is not about censorship, it’s about responsible adults taking care of the next generation,” Hugh Bennett said.

He added that the liberal agenda, which has infiltrated the library, is set on tearing America down.

“If you believe LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter, then you believe in inclusion and all the other interesting approaches to dissembling American society and destroying the family,” he said.