When Challenges Coalesce

July 16, 2009

The proximity of Chicago to southern Wisconsin gave embattled officials of the West Bend Community Memorial Library, located some 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee, a platform to offer their hard-earned insights at "Intellectual Freedom on the Front Lines: West Bend Library Supporters Share their Story." The program was cosponsored by ALA's Freedom to Read Foundation and Intellectual Freedom Committee. Director Michael Tyree, Young Adult Librarian Kristin Pecoll, library board President Barbara Deters, and ousted trustee Mary Reilly-Kliss, as well as West Bend Parents for Free Speech founder Maria Hanrahan, told the complicated story of the library's oft-stymied attempts since February to address a reconsideration request by area residents Ginny and Jim Maziarka. The problem, explained the panel, was that the nature of the couple's challenge kept evolving: It began with a February 6 letter of concern in the library book drop about Pecoll's "Over the Rainbow" link on the library's YA page, and moved on to seek the removal and/or relocation of an expanding list of, at first, gay-positive titles and then any YA book containing sexual content. Soon the city attorney was involved, mainstream press and blogs were weighing in. "How do you counter blogs with the facts?" Reilly-Kliss asked rhetorically, musing that "It never occurred to me that I'd be collateral damage" until she and three other library trustees recommended for reappointment were kicked off the board April 20 by the town council for not satisfying the Maziarkas.  She characterized the prevailing viewpoint of the couple and their supporters as "If you listen to me, you agree with me and will do as I wish." "This was a public relations disaster," admitted Deters, revealing that officials never thought to retain a PR adviser because the situation didn't happen explosively, "but built, and built, and built." West Bend staff and trustees were getting nasty emails, phone calls, and even accusatory comments at the grocery store even as Hanrahan's advocacy efforts were beginning to lure freedom-to-read supporters into the open. Ultimately, the board voted 9–0 June 2 to maintain the collection exactly as it was—with young-adult materials clearly marked as such and shelved in a section geographically separated from both children's and adult titles. Additionally, the library will add several reparative-therapy titles on becoming heterosexual that the couple had recommended. Nonetheless, Tyree sees the subsequent weeks as more of a plateau than the end of library challenges. For one thing, Reilly-Kliss explained, the town council has declared the trustees' replacements as being "more diverse" because none of them have degrees in education. Then there's the matter of an unrelated civil complaint from four men in Wisconsin who belong to the Christian Civil Liberties Union and who seek $30,000 apiece for emotional distress they suffered from the West Bend library displaying a copy of Francesca Lia Block's Baby Be-Bop, as well as the book's public burning outside the library.""Some organizations feel they have a lock on paying taxes," Tyree observed. As for Young Adult Librarian Pekoll, the Maziarkas' challenge has prompted her to wonder whether the library community could preempt such complaints with workshops "about connecting to and talking with their teens" and using the library safely. She also noted that the era of librarian-authored content makes it advisable to devise a reconsideration procedure for challenges to homegrown web pages.