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Library collection policy leads to calls for book bans

Opponents of the collection policy voice concerns at the Fontana Regional Library meeting on March 14, 2023.
Opponents of the collection policy voice concerns at the Fontana Regional Library meeting on March 14, 2023.

A group of individuals who want to limit access to local library shelves found themselves facing an unusual irony: blocked from making verbal public comments about their viewpoints. More than 50 people left the Fontana Regional Library Board of Trustees meeting in Highlands on March 14 after the board discontinued public comment.

“You are trying to censor the public. You’re doing exactly what you are claiming that we are trying to do. This is not right and all of y’all know it,” Jim Gaston of Franklin said.

Before they departed with loud disdain for the policy change, Gaston and others submitted written correspondence to the board that will be responded to at the next public meeting.

“Nice to see y’all – should have gotten to know us,” shouts one woman.

“So it sounds like you don’t care about what happens at the meeting,” another responds.

“I care about children reading garbage!” the first replied.

After the departure, the library board members read the by-laws and explained their reasoning for cancelling public comment. According to their by-laws, public presentations are optional. 

“We feel that we have a lot of things to do and actually we are a governing board and we just need to move forward without the public session,” Fontana Board Chair Ellen Snodgrass said in the meeting.

“Because we can’t address public comment but we can address written correspondence,” Regional Director Tracy Fitzmaurice explained.

“We can address written correspondence, exactly,” Snodgrass said during the meeting.

The two library leaders explained that their newly-appointed lawyer confirmed public comment was not required.

Collections policy divides regional system

The current flashpoint was the result of months of debate about the regional library system updating its collection development policy- a hot political topic at libraries across the country.

The Fontana Regional Library serves six libraries in Jackson, Macon and Swain Counties. The library system is a nonprofit organization that receives funding from each county. Each county is responsible for the library facilities and then also gives additional money for operations.

Macon County supports three libraries (Nantahala, Franklin and Highlands), Jackson has two libraries (Sylva and Cashiers) while Swain’s library in Bryson City also includes the Fontana Regional headquarters.

Fitzmaurice became the regional director of Fontana in January after working at both Macon and Jackson County since 1991, following an initial stint as a volunteer.

“I had never really considered working in a library and then I fell in love with it,” said Fitzmaurice who is also the the Jackson County Librarian.

“Back in 2005 and 2006, the income was decreasing and the Fontana Regional Library could no longer afford to do a standalone director,” she said. “So in 2006, they decided to share that role between one of the county libraries and the director from Bryson City. And so I am carrying on that until we can afford to get a full-time director.”

The collection development policy revision started the work in June of last year. Then a committee took on the work and brought the new version to the board. The board voted on the changes, some of which focused on updated technology and access, in January.

“Once the collection development policy was approved in January, we have no plans at this time to change it,” she said.

One piece of the policy that didn’t change is that Fontana Regional Library affirms the American Library Association’s Library Bill of rights. “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment,” it read.

The updated policy includes support for intellectual freedom. “Access is provided readily and equitably to users, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, age, disability, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or political views,” it read.

Censorship, LGBTQ+ community and children

Some of the controversy in the region mirrors conflict on the national scale about book censorship, particularly around LGBTQ+ issues.

The Macon County library featured Pride displays for several years, but community criticism reached its peak in 2021 when there was a Pride display in the children's section.

After some patrons expressed concerns, the library did not set up a Pride display in the children’s area in 2022. There won’t be any Pride displays at the library this summer, Macon County Librarian Abby Hardison announced in February.

In June 2023, all book displays at the Macon County Library will be based on the Summer Reading Program theme which is “All Together Now: Kindness, Friendship and Unity.”

Macon County Commissioner Danny Antoine has been outspoken about the need for library content pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community to be out of reach of children since before he was elected.

“I’ve always heard about how people force their religious views on us and on our children. Please tell me, the way that we are dealing with this whole LGBTQ community right now – is that not doing the same thing? So it’s okay for one side to do it but the other side can’t. How is that right?” then-candidate Antoine said in response to then-county commissioner Paul Higdon’s comments about the Macon County Library’s pride display in June 2022.

“I think the article written in the Asheville Citizen Times was shameful against a man who loves and serves the people of our community,” he continued.

Antoine took issue with the paper's use of the term "homophobia."

"How about Christian-phobia? Do we ever hear about that? Who will stand on this side of history right now with me,” he said. 

Antoine attended the March Fontana Library meeting and left after it was shared that there would be no public comment.

He spoke later that evening at the Macon County Commissioner’s meeting, advocating for a separate section for “obscene” literature.

“And the fact that the Fontana Regional system won’t work with us even in terms of separating them to make it even in the adult section where kids can’t access them. For me personally, that proves that now you have an agenda," he said in the meeting. "It’s not even about these books, it’s more about an agenda and the fact that we are typing to hypersexualize kids. That’s a perverted situation."

Fontana’s updated collection policy

The updated collection development policy states in a section on controversial topics that, “The Library collection will be organized and maintained to facilitate access. No collection materials, book club selections, storytime selections, or library displays will be labeled, restricted, sequestered, or altered because of any controversy about the author, subject matter, or intended or potential audience.”

Some of the books do have genre stickers for mysteries, young adult or inspirational fiction but Fitzmaurice drew a distinction between the labelling and possible censorship.

“Those are considered viewpoint neutral labels. They are a guide to people that are wanting maybe mysteries and it's just a quick find. It is called “viewpoint neutral” because there is no prejudicial outcome by seeing those labels,” she explained. The genre labels are mainly designated by publishers.

“Prejudicial labels are used to restrict access. If a book has an LGBTQ sticker on the spine, it is seen as a warning that that has content that is needs to be warned against,” she said. “The group in Macon County wishes that books were labeled so they could tell their children not to touch those books. And that is restriction, that is censorship, and we are committed to not censoring our collection.”

While the library will not censor books, there are rules in place children’s safety at the library. The safe child policy states that children under the age of eight must have parental supervision at the library and there are more rules about how minors can check out books.

Anyone under the age of 16 must have a parent or guardian sign to receive a library card. Parents or guardians are responsible for the reading, listening, and viewing of library materials by their minor children as well as any fees or damages to items checked out by the child according to the Fontana circulation policy.

If patrons think that a book should be removed from the library, they must complete a formal reconsideration form and submit it to the library.

Reconsideration requests at Fontana Regional Library

Despite months of heated public meetings, only five reconsideration requests were made in the entire system since 2021 as of early March.

All five were from the Macon County system in 2022.

The books did not include any that have been brought up at past public meetings. The titles were, “Strangeworlds Travel Agency,” “Minecraft Vol 1,” “Home at Last,” “All Out: The no longer secret stories of queer teens throughout the ages,” and “Irreversible Damage: The transgender craze seducing our daughters.” Four of the five mentioned the LGBTQ community while “Strangeworld’s Travel Agency” took the Lord’s name in vain.

Contrary to the other complaints. The issue with the “Irreversible Damage” title was that it harms the trans community. Fitzmaurice says none of the books were ultimately removed and explains the reasoning behind keeping this book on the shelf.

“One of the issues is when we go through our selection process, reviews from reliable sources are considered, and that book is reviewed as a good book on that topic for people that are concerned that children or adolescents that go through any transgender surgeries would be harmed. It is the sort of book that can cause upset for sure if you are a trans person going through those very same things,” she said. “One of the reasons we kept that on the shelf is there are people that use it for research.”

In BPR’s reporting on banned books, there were no book removal requests for Macon County school system or 11 other school districts in the region. The only school board with request for removal was Haywood County Schools with three formal requests to remove “What is Black Lives Matter?” All 13 districts responded to the requests for 2021-2022. Graham County Schools responded that they do not have a removal policy.

Haywood did not include informal complaints like the 2022 conversation about “Dear Martin” which was removed from a Tuscola High School classroom.

The situation in the region tracks with statewide reporting which found that race and sexuality were the most common issues in the 189 book challenges bought in the last two years across the state’s 115 public school districts.

The tension between the Fontana Regional Library and the Macon County Board of Commissioners remains unresolved. Fitzmaurice shared with the board at the March 14 meeting that the commissioners are looking into what it would mean to leave the library system.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.