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Macon County Commissioners consider leaving Fontana Regional Library System

Karen Hawk, on the right, was accosted by one of the people leaving the Fontana Library Board meeting in March when Hawk asked why she wasn't staying for the meeting.
Lilly Knoepp
Karen Hawk, on the right, was accosted by one of the people leaving the Fontana Library Board meeting in March when Hawk asked why she wasn't staying for the meeting.

Libraries offer services from wi-fi and computers to crafts, health care navigation and more. The Fontana Regional Library System covers three counties, but vocal leaders in one county could change that fact.

The tension between the Fontana Regional Library System and the Macon County Board of Commissioners over the current collections policy continued to grow at the county’s meeting in mid-March. Commissioner Danny Antoine spoke about his support for an independent library.

“For those of you who have stated about pulling out of the Fontana Regional System, believe me I’m on board with that,” Antoine said.

Antoine encouraged the library board to set up a special adults-only section for what he calls “obscene” literature.

The Fontana Regional Library System confirmed that the county is exploring the possibility of the Macon County Library divorcing itself from the system.

“It’s not a simple process. It is a hard process that we are working on how to do this the best way because we can’t just pull out of that system and just leave the library hanging by itself,” Antoine said. “We have to have a system in place to make sure that the library is functioning correctly.”

A vocal group of more than 50 people came to the library board meeting on the same day to continue talking about the board’s collection policy. The board has said that they don’t intend to change the policy that was voted on in January. When they determined there would not be opportunity for verbal comment, most left. Karen Hawk was one of just four people who stayed for the meeting.

“I came and I was just fascinated that wanted a divorce from Fontana Regional Library but they didn’t stay for the meeting to find out what Fontana even does and that’s what this meeting is all about and they left,” Hawk said.

The Macon County Public Library in Franklin in March 2023.
Lilly Knoepp
An advocate responds to Karen Hawk, right, who asked why she was leaving the Fontana Library Board meeting in March. A group of 50 advocates left the gathering after the board announced it would not hear public comments at the meeting.

During the meeting, the library board discussed grants, expansion projects and more.

Regional director Tracy Fitzmaurice gave a report about two digital navigators hired through a grant to help local parents and other library patrons learn to use technology.

“We’re working with a school in each of the counties. And they have chosen parents that may be lacking digital skills are not be able to support their children with homework and the things that kids have to do in school these days,” Fitzmaurice said.

The project was funded by a $106,000 grant from the state to hire both positions.

Fitzmaurice manages the Fontana Regional System which includes three libraries in Macon County, two in Jackson County and one in Swain County. She started the role in January 2023.

“Fontana Regional Library came about in 1944, I believe. It was part of the Fontana Dam process. They raised money and started a book mobile service just out of Bryson City,” she said.

Two libraries in the system have plans to expand: the Marianna Black Library in Swain County and the Nantahala Library in Macon County. Each county owns their respective library buildings and are paying for the expansion, but Fontana owns much of the other property in each library so departure by a local library from the system could have big financial implications.

For example, when the current Macon County Library building opened in 2007, the Friends of the Macon County Library paid for more than $800,000 worth of furniture, fixtures and equipment, according to the library. All of those pieces are owned by the regional system, not the county.

Libraries in the Fontana System also benefit financially from their participation in other ways. The libraries are members in NC Cardinal - a statewide system that allows libraries across North Carolina to share books and other media. The Fontana Regional System pays about $10,000 annually for membership.

The Cardinal fee doesn’t include shipping or courier costs. In the last fiscal year, Fontana paid to move more than 36,000 books to local and statewide library patrons. Libraries who leave the system would have to independently fund membership in Cardinal. The membership is just one piece of state aid that Fontana receives as a system, Fitzmaurice said.

“So when the state aid comes, it comes to headquarters and is used to pay the positions of the Fontana finance officer and the director position,” she said. “We as public libraries, we can apply for federal e-rate, which gets us discounts on the internet, which as you know, is vital for public libraries. So all of that happens here and that is primarily what that state fund pays for.”

Local governments are allowed to leave the regional library system but it takes a year for the withdrawal to take effect.

Proponents of leaving the library say their biggest concern is children’s safety.

In 2021 and2022, five books were requested for removal but they did not include any of the books that have been brought up during public comment at meetings in Macon County. In March 2023, two books were requested for removal by Macon County residents: “Heartstopper: Nick and Charlie” and “Let's talk about it: The teen's guide to sex, relationships, and being a human.”

One of the books examines an LGTBQ+ love story while the other focuses on sexual education for teens. The patron recommends both books be removed or moved to the adult section. The library is considering removal.

A library spokesperson said “Let’s talk about it” was not available at the Macon County Public Library even though that is where the patron says they found the book in the removal request.

The book “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe is most often cited by proponents for new library collection rules at meetings and on social media. Fitzmaurice clarified that the graphic novel is currently in the adult section. The book has not been requested for removal.

The book was removed from the shelves of a Wake County library in 2021 but ultimately returned after the library updated its removal policy, according to the News & Observer.

The next Macon County Commissioners meeting is Tuesday April 11.

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.