Wary of recent news that controversial books prompted criminal investigations into Gillette’s library director, Jackson library officials are trying to prevent similar hostility from bubbling over in their own district.
On Oct. 21, Kip Roberson — the new director of Teton County Library, appointed in June — proposed a new intellectual freedom policy and request for reconsideration procedure, which formalizes the complaint process should any member of the public take issue with a library book, CD or tape. The library’s board members are asking for public comment before they vote on the two-page document Dec. 16.
Roberson told the News&Guide the complaint process required “immediate attention” in light of what’s happening in Campbell County.
In September, residents asked the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office to investigate the Campbell County Public Library board and Director Terri Lesley for alleged criminal activity that included promoting books about sex and sexuality.
The Campbell County Attorney’s Office has decided not to pursue charges, because, as attorney Michael Stulken explained, the materials in question were not “obscene” as defined by Wyoming law, the Gillette News Record reported Friday.
Still, public pressure on the library persists as more than 20 titles have now been flagged by patrons. Multiple library directors and advocacy groups were concerned about the tsunami of criticism.
“It is an attack on the foundation on which public libraries are built upon: access to information, the freedom to choose what that information is, what form it takes, what it looks like,” Roberson said of the situation in Gillette.
With a long history of directing public libraries across the country, from New England to Seattle, Roberson said free access to controversial content has always been under attack.
“People always want to dictate what you can read or watch,” he said.
At the same time, he’s concerned that the situation in Gillette signifies a contentious political environment that has come to define the country, one where vigilantes call for the prosecution of public servants.
“We’d like to think that’s not going to happen in our community,” he said. “But we also want to be proactive and have something in place that allows us to react to something like that if it were to happen.”
Currently, Teton County Library has a short paragraph guiding material challenges in its material selection policy, and an accompanying form people can fill out if they find content offensive or inappropriate.
Most disputes are resolved by a verbal conversation with residents, Roberson said.
He said the only conflicts he’s heard of involved mothers who didn’t want certain content in the children’s section.
The library’s current material selection policy states: “Censorship of material is to be challenged in order to maintain the librarian’s responsibility to select materials which are carefully balanced to include various points of view on any subject.”
If people file a formal complaint, current policy requires a written response from the library’s director. The concerned individual can also contest the director’s decision, which bumps the complaint to the Library Board for final determination.
In light of recent events, Roberson said, the management team wanted to highlight the importance of intellectual freedom.
The new policy states: “The selection of library materials is made on the patron’s right to read, listen, or view, free from censorship by others. The Library holds censorship to be a purely individual matter and declares that while anyone is free to reject books and other materials of which they do not approve, they may not restrict the freedom of others.”
The library describes diversity of viewpoints as essential to democracy and defends its decision to put content deemed controversial, unorthodox or unacceptable on its shelves.
“The Library does not stand in loco parentis,” or in place of parents, the policy states. If parents or legal guardians don’t want a child exposed to certain material, that responsibility is on them.
The policy also states shelf labels exist only to describe genre, not to restrict access or endorse content.
Patrons are encouraged to have informal discussions with library staff first, but if they still disagree with certain content, the proposed reconsideration model outlines a five-step procedure:
1. Teton County residents receive a reconsideration form (along with a copy of the American Library Association Bill of Rights, the Jackson branch mission statement and materials selection policy).
2. They submit the form to the library director, and the board is notified.
3. The director joins a reconsideration committee alongside the collection services manager and an employee in charge of the subject or genre in question, who together cross-reference the questioned material against their existing policies.
4. Within 21 days the director delivers a written verdict and explanation of the committee’s decision.
5. The concerned patron can submit a written appeal to the Library Board within 10 business days. The board’s decision is final.
That process mirrors the existing protocol, but it expands the initial determination to include two additional employees alongside the director. It also ensures materials are reviewed based on objective standards rather than personal beliefs.
Library Board Chair Peter Stalker was unavailable for comment because he was traveling internationally. The board’s liaison to the Teton County Board of County Commissioners, Mark Newcomb, said he sees the proposed policy as a great way to get ahead of potential controversy.
Newcomb said he was grateful “to see our library and library board be proactive. It sounds like a well-balanced policy that really protects our freedom of speech and the right to access information but at the same time provides a venue for expressing concerns to the library.”
“People always want to dictate what you can read or watch.” — Kip Roberson teton county library director