Future of Kansas town’s library in jeopardy over refusal to remove ‘divisive’ books

ST. MARY – The Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library is decked out for the holidays, with a small snow-filled Christmas village nestled in the center of stacks of books. There’s a princess mural on one wall, complete with a unicorn and a dinosaur figurine by the children’s corner.

All of that may be gone in January.

The city council is debating whether to renew the library’s lease with the city after the library refused to accept a lease clause requiring it to remove all material that could be seen as socially, racially or sexually divisive, including all LGBTQ content.

The library is located in St. The library serves eight locations, including Alma, Alta Vista, Eskridge, Harveyville, Olsburg, Onaga, St. Marys and Westmoreland, with county residents funding the library through taxes.

Branch of St. Marys acts as headquarters, with a designated “mini-librarian” distributing books from the library to the other eight locations, visiting them weekly.

If the rent which ends at the end of December is not renovated, the library will have to pack up hundreds of books and equipment and move to another city, as there is no more space in St. library operation.

The resident of St. Marys, Hannah Stockman, a stay-at-home mother of 13 children, said the move would be devastating for her and others like her.

“AAt this point, it’s the only space we have for the public,” Stockman said. “We don’t have any swimming pool or any other amenities through the community center. So people come here for many, many different reasons.”

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Stockman said the library is one of the few places her whole family can go together. Her children are excited about reading and are entertained by several library programs, as they are given coloring pages and other things. Stockman loves to learn and prepares an educational program for himself using library materials.

“Some of them are learning to read and some of them don’t really want to read, but they come here and get excited. I can’t provide that for them any other way,” Stockman said. “It feels good to be here.”

Discussion about removing the library began this summer after a local parent was upset by the content of “Melissa,” a book about a transgender child written by Alex Gino, and wanted it removed from the library. The book was previously published under the title “George”.

Judith Cremer, library director, said the book was added to the library after it made the 2017-2018 William Allen White Award master list for grades 3-5 and has only been checked out four times.

Cremer said parents have the option to filter which books their children check out and can talk to staff about limiting their children’s access to certain books. She emphasized that she and her staff are not trying to fight the council and are not interested in divisive issues. She has been at the library for almost 20 years and just wants to serve the community.

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“We’re just doing what public libraries do,” Cremer said. “We don’t really judge information, we are a reflection of the world and the things that are in the world. We have information that has been published and mediated and checked for facts. So it’s a safe place where people can go to get access to that information. It’s not like we’re sharing it or advocating it in any way. It’s just there.”

Cremer asked the parent to fill out the standard form for challenging material, but the form wasn’t returned until late August, after a city council meeting in which council members asked that LGBTQ books be removed from the library, along with any books . that dealt with racial or sexual issues.

During the August meeting, St. Louis City Commissioner Marys, Matthew Childs, asked for a “morality clause” to be added to the library’s lease during a city commission meeting in August.

The clause would state that the library will not “provide, distribute, lend, encourage or coerce the acceptance or approval of sexually, racially or socially explicit materials, or events (such as ‘drag history classes’) that support LGBTQ+ or ideologies or the practice of critical theory.”

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“The discussion about the language that was used in that lease was very extensive. It really didn’t meet the rule of law and it was problematic in many ways,” Cremer said.

Kremer said she discussed the clause’s definition with regional library consultants and spoke with attorneys. She thought the issue was dropped after they talked to council members.

Instead, commissioners began discussing creating their own city library, one without “separative material,” at a council meeting earlier this month.

The lease renewal will be discussed at Tuesday’s commission meeting, with a decision expected afterward.

Stockman has reached out to every group she can think of to rally people in support of the library, talking to other libraries across the state, as well as PFLAG and Loud Light — nonprofits that advocate for the LGBTQ community. She said many people in the community were afraid to speak out in support of the library because of a large religious presence in St. Louis.

A petition, started by Gerry Marstall, has more than 1,000 signatures in support of the library. Marstall listed all the services the library offers, including free reading programs, free summer lunches and free Wi-Fi.

“If the library were to be forced to close or move to another city, it would be disastrous for all citizens in the St. Marys area,” Marstall said in describing the petition.


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