Library board opts not to remove challenged books

Speaker Kristy Shallenberger addresses Public Library Board of Cullman County members on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. (Cayla Grace Murphy)

CULLMAN, Ala. – The small back room of the main branch of the Cullman County Public Library System was packed Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, as residents filed in to attend the Public Library Board of Cullman County meeting. Attendees came to show support, hear settlements of book challenges, voice their concerns about the challenges’ validity and address various miscommunications with other branches in the county.

The books challenged at the board’s Sept. 19, 2023, meeting were “Prince & Knight,” “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Lily and Dunkin,” all three of which fall into the juvenile or young adult categories.

After approval of minutes, financial report, director’s report and a motion to ask for appropriations from the City of Cullman, the board heard from four speakers, two of whom spoke at last month’s board meeting and were given five-minute time slots versus the typical 10-minute time slots due to the topic being the same as last month’s.

Shirley Arnett

Arnett began her time by saying she feels that she and her argument have been misrepresented.

“I assure you my commitment is only to protect our children,” she stated. “I persevere and am here to ensure that our taxpayer-funded public library has clear guidelines in place to protect our children from the pornography creeping into our Alabama libraries.”

It is unclear to which books Arnett was referring when she said “pornography.” The three challenged books being discussed are not pornographic in nature.

Arnett followed her statement by sharing that while the book challenges have happened recently, her research began several months ago, comparing a list of more than 100 books she found questionable with the library’s current collection. Arnett said that while those titles were not present, she did find three she took issue with.

“Now, it is not for me to judge; that’s God’s job, but it is for me, as a taxpayer, to request that my taxes do not fund agendas with which I disagree.”

Arnett followed by setting a clear expectation that as the submission for reconsideration was first put in nearly three months ago, she expected a decision during the meeting.

Lance Conn

Conn began his time by stating his concern for both the intent of book challenges and how those who are challenging books are treating the library, as well as a call for unity.

“No matter how the argument is phrased, we know that these book challenges are driven by anger, hate and malice,” Conn said plainly. “You can’t say that you don’t hate LGBTQIA+ individuals, but then demand that books featuring LGBTQIA+ characters and voices be suppressed. These actions are incompatible.”

Conn expressed concern about how some previous meeting attendees have conducted themselves on Cullman County Public Library System social media pages, saying, “I have seen harassment of the Cullman Public Library System on several social media posts.”

Noted Conn, “The library isn’t perfect. None of us are. But I yearn for the time when we as a community strive to move forward in unity through our diversity, where we allow the differences to permeate through us and strengthen us in the spirit of friendship. I will not remain silent while my friends, neighbors and fellow citizens are unfairly demonized and attacked. I will not indoctrinate my children to hate.”

Krysti Shallenberger

Shallenberger began her time by describing her relationship with the library growing up as a “Conservative homeschooled kid,” and sharing concerns about access to intellectual freedom should the book challenges pass.

“These books are being attacked based on very vague definitions of ‘sexually explicit’ content and ignore decades of success in laws and guardrails guiding children and young adult literature, while also overriding the judgment of other parents who may disagree with these attackers,” she said. “In my opinion, the only common theme in their content that led to the challenges would be that they represent the LGBTQ community.”

Shallenberger shared, “Our LGBTQ community is composed of people who grew up in Cullman, with roots reaching deep, entwining with our churches, schools and people here today.”

She then read an excerpt of an email sent to the board members in attendance from a family in Cullman with two moms, one named Christy Gibb:

“I have lived in Cullman pretty much my entire life. I pay my taxes, go to church, run my kids to school and sporting events, spend time with family and friends. We sing songs and say our prayers before bed. My kids also have two moms.

“I believe that most who know us would say we are a kind and generous family. Our boys are wild, funny and adventurous. They often wonder why some people are so mean to our family. They are told their moms are going to hell, that their family is gross, etc.

“We then have to go and try to defend those people. We have to tell our boys that we live in America and while our family believes “XYZ,” other families don’t. But, we know that God has called us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Even when they are cruel, we should show them God’s love.”

Shallenburger closed her time by saying, “Relocating these books from the children’s section sends a vicious message to this Cullman family. It says that a public library does not have room to represent them based on the beliefs of a very small minority, in a community of tens of thousands.”

Board vote

Jill Meggs, who was appointed to the board Tuesday, Oct. 17, by the Cullman County Commission, abstained from voting on the challenged books as she had not reviewed the content, but did note, “I don’t think this a political issue. I think this is just a parents’ rights decision.”

She offered the idea, along with board member Rusty Turner, that perhaps a special system could be put in place to help parents be more informed about the content of books their children might select from the library’s collection, which Interim Library Director Josie Harrington agreed should be discussed.

The board members present who had reviewed the challenged books – Tanya Allcorn, Turner and Drew Green – discussed the content of the books and unanimously agreed to keep the books in the library’s collection and maintain their place in the children’s and juvenile section.

Library system questions

Representatives of the Hanceville Library, Pam Reid and Cathi Bradford, voiced frustration at the lack of communication from the library’s main branch with its satellite branches. Reid noted that while Harrington had attended the Hanceville Library board meeting the week prior, members are still unclear on certain issues.

Reid noted that with Cullman’s library system opting to get rid of late fees and lost fines through its partnership with Unique Management Services, the Hanceville Library is left with no steady monies coming in, leaving it in a deficit as far as keeping refreshments on-hand for its children’s programs and updating its book collection.

“We have three book sales a year, and y’all know how those go. So we’re going in the hole, basically,” explained Reid.

“We felt that there are holes in some processes, and maybe we can fill in those holes,” chimed in Bradford, who raised concerns with how funds are distributed through the library branches and voiced frustrations with the fact that books cannot be returned to any library branch, as they could be in years prior.

Reid, Bradford and Harrington discussed at length the status of libraries in Cullman, with Harrington noting how status affects funding for most library systems. “Satellite” libraries are typically not afforded funding from main libraries for general bills or programs, while “branches” of libraries typically do receive funding from main libraries. At this time, it is unclear according to the bylaws of both libraries whether Hanceville or other libraries in the county are “satellites” or “branches.”

“When it comes to other branch’s programming or general bills, that is not in our budget, which, it should be, if they are branches,” said Harrington. “That’s why I say they’re in a weird place (status-wise).”

Turner suggested an open forum type of meeting, to include representatives from all libraries in Cullman, and Harrington agreed that a meeting between those representatives, town leadership and the Cullman County Commission would be beneficial to determine next steps that both the main library and other libraries can take to ensure that programming can continue and collections can continue to be refreshed.

In other business:

  • The board motioned to begin reviewing the bylaws and bringing them up to date. The board will go section by section to review the current bylaws and vote on any changes, beginning at the next board meeting.
  • The board discussed paying Harrington “director” pay while she is performing interim director duties; major points of discussion included Harrington taking on “above and beyond” duties during her role as interim director, such as dealing with storm damage and bylaw revisions. The board motioned to write a letter to request a change in pay for Harrington.
  • The board discussed the posting of the director position, noting that while one week is typical for internal hires, 30 days is typically best for outside candidates. Green suggested requesting a higher salary to attract more qualified candidates due to the education and experience requirements of the position. Meggs motioned to table the matter to discuss a possible salary increase with the Cullman County Commission. Currently, the advertised salary is $57,000.
  • Turner, Allcorn and Green were named to the nominating committee in order to vote on officer positions at the next meeting.
  • The board discussed changing the formatting of its financial reports; Meggs, who has an accounting background, offered to teach Harrington different ways to format the reports to increase ease of reading, which Harrington agreed to.
  • Board members who have not viewed “Trustee Training” videos this year will begin doing so at the next meeting. There are eight videos that are about eight to 10 minutes long.

The next board meeting will be Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, at 4:30 p.m. in the back room of the Cullman County Library located at 200 Clark St. NE.

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