Critics Revisit Library Incident that Paints Palin as Censor

Critics Revisit Library Incident that Paints Palin as Censor

Journalists and bloggers scrutinizing Sarah Palin’s record of public service have made national news out of a 1996 library incident in Wasilla, Alaska, where the Republican vice-presidential nominee was then mayor. The story that has emerged—in countless reports, from the blogosphere to the New York Times—paints Palin as a would-be censor and then–city librarian Mary Ellen Emmons as nearly losing her job for disagreeing.

An article in the September 4 Anchorage Daily News tried to clarify the 12-year-old story by looking at its own coverage of the incident, saying, “Back in 1996, when she first became mayor, Sarah Palin asked the city librarian if she would be all right with censoring library books should she be asked to do so.” The report goes on to say that “according to news coverage at the time, the librarian said she would definitely not be all right with it.” Emmons then received a letter from Palin, the News goes on to say, telling her she was going to be fired because she did not fully support the mayor. Emmons, however, was said to be popular with the public and, after a wave of support, kept her job, but resigned in August 1999, two months before Palin was voted in for a second mayoral term.

To make matters murkier, Emmons has been unavailable for comment, although she did tell ABC News September 10 that “I simply do not recall a conversation with specific titles.” Palin has not publicly addressed the current controversy. Reporters and bloggers have relied on local reports written at the time along with comments from other Alaska librarians who remember the incident.

Reporting October 28, 1996, the Sitka Sentinel said the newly elected mayor had “asked all of the city’s top managers to resign in order to test their loyalty to her administration.” Palin told the newspaper, “Wasilla is moving forward in a positive direction. This is the time for the department heads to let me know if they plan to move forward or if it’s time for a change.” Emmons, the Sentinel stated, “said she couldn’t speak without the mayor’s approval.”

June Pinnell-Stephens, chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Alaska Library Association, was quoted in the September 4 Daily News as saying she had no record of any books being censored in the Wasilla library nor any conversations about the issue with Emmons, who was president of the association at the time. But she did recall that Palin “essentially forced Mary Ellen out. She all but fired her.” Other librarians began criticizing Palin on the “Librarians Against Palin” blog, which was formed after the 1996 story resurfaced. Discussion also erupted on the electronic discussion list of the American Library Association’s governing Council and quickly turned into the kind of political debate that ALA’s 501(c)3 tax-exempt status prohibits. After the ALA executive office cried foul, the discussion was moved to the electronic list of the ALA–Allied Professional Association, whose 501(c)6 tax status permits arguing for or against a candidate for elective office.

The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman posted on the internet its original December 18, 1996, coverage September 6 “to accommodate numerous requests for the story from media worldwide and curious individuals,” with a caveat to readers: “Please note that not at any time were any books ever banned from the Wasilla city library.” Bloggers then began asking for a list of books that Palin wanted banned. A bogus list soon surfaced on the internet but it included books not yet published in 1996, and has been discredited at and elsewhere.

Written by Paul Stuart, a semi-retired Frontiersman reporter, the 1996 article suggests that at the very worst, Palin was sending up what Emmons (now Mary Ellen Baker and public services manager for the Noel Wien Library in Fairbanks) then called a “trial balloon,” to which Emmons responded with “a step-by-step blueprint of procedures for anyone wanting to challenge the selection and availability of library material.” ABC News, however, noted in the September 10 report that Stuart had said specific titles were at issue and recalled one of them as Pastor, I Am Gay by Howard Bess, who was pastor of the Church of the Covenant in nearby Palmer, Alaska. Bess said Palin’s church at the time, the Assembly of God, was pushing for the removal of the book from local bookstores, “and she was one of them. This whole thing of controlling information, censorship, that’s part of the scene.”

The December 1996 Frontiersman article quoted Palin as saying, “All questions posed to Wasilla’s library director were asked in the context of professionalism regarding the library policy that is in place in our city. Obviously the issue of censorship is a library question . . . you ask a library director that type of question.”

American Libraries’ attempts to obtain interviews with both Palin and Baker have been thus far unsuccessful.

Posted and modified on September 8, 2008. Revised September 10, 2008. Visit the ALA-APA link above if you wish to comment.