Cullman library board discusses challenged books, censorship

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(Janet Chandler)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Tensions rose at Cullman County Public Library System’s board meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 19. The board heard from several community members about challenged books in the library’s collection – both for and against. The books discussed were “Prince & Knight,” “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Lily and Dunkin,” all three of which fall into the juvenile or young adult categories. 

Former Vinemont Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Shirley Arnett shared concerns about these titles and what she referred to as the “agendas” of books in the library’s collection, as well as their placement in the library itself. Arnett mentioned specifically “Prince & Knight,” taking great issue with the fact that the publisher donates a portion of proceeds to a nonprofit that advances LGBTQ acceptance. 

“It clearly has an agenda because the back of the book states that a portion of the proceeds of the book goes to LGBT acceptance, and I don’t want my tax dollars to pay for that,” said Arnett. 

That brought forth another discussion on the source of funding used to purchase books for the library collection. 

“In some instances, if we were to follow through on censorship, then funding could even be pulled,” noted Board Treasurer Lea Scott, who acted as meeting leader due to the vice chair being unable to attend.  

“At this point, we do not research every publisher to see where they send their proceeds,” stated Library Director Josie Harrington in reference to Arnett’s concern, noting that many books in the collection are determined by member requests and nominations. 

Cullman resident Lance Conn spoke plainly about the value of access to these materials at large, mentioning that his family has made great use of the library as a resource for homeschooling. He mentioned through his three-minute agenda allotment that his family has even checked out two of the three books in question, “Prince & Knight” and “Heather Has Two Mommies.” 

“The truth of the matter before us today is whether we accept that non-traditional families exist in Cullman County and whether we allow people in our community to treat them with contempt and disgust,” said Conn. “I for one know exactly how my extended family would react to this notion. I’m pretty sure my great-great-great-grandfather would have told people to mind their own business and to never try to tell him how to raise his own children.” 

Conn followed with a scripture reference and ended his time slot saying, “Scripture goes on to tell us who our neighbor is, which is everyone. Whether anyone likes it or not, the LGBTQIA+ that already live in Cullman are your neighbors.” 

A supporter of the library who wished to remain anonymous, in a letter that was read aloud by Harrington to those in attendance, posed the question of the future economic development of Cullman, should these bans pass. “I dare say any new business or outside industry worth their salt will not be accepting of book bans, censorship and discrimination towards any citizens, and may not choose to locate in Cullman. The potential is there to hit the county/city in the pocketbook and stifle economic development. No company of excellence wants to move to a town that does not value libraries that are run by experts in the field, has a county/city leadership that only caters to certain domineering groups and not all citizens and discriminates.” 

The board motioned to table review of the challenged titles in question, with Board Member Rusty Turner saying a decision shouldn’t be made until the titles in question could be read and reviewed by the board members personally. The decision will be discussed at the next meeting, scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, at 4:30 p.m. at the main branch of the Cullman County Public Library. 

Background: www.cullmantribune.com/2023/09/09/county-commissioners-sign-clean-up-alabama-petition-regarding-libraries  

Library director position 

Harrington, named director last month after the board voted errantly in executive session, has now been named interim director as motioned by the board, pending a public posting of the job position.  

Harrington said that while the back and forth has been confusing, she intends to apply and welcomes others to do the same. 

“I have been here as the assistant director and I am passionate about our library and community. If there is someone even more qualified than me to be director, that’s fine, too. I enjoyed being assistant director as well, and my purpose of serving Cullman County as one of its librarians remains the same,” she said. 

In other board meeting business, Hanceville Public Library Secretary Cathi Bradford expressed concerns over a miscommunication about Unique Management Services, a collections-type agency that the library works with that aims to collect overdue materials. Bradford’s concerns were that the functionality of the system itself was not discussed with the Hanceville branch, leaving many patrons with collection-style letters and worried about possible credit impact. The board motioned to re-write the notice letter to include “friendlier” verbiage. 

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