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Kansas town threatens to kick out library after it refused to remove ‘divisive’ books

 The Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library’s lease may not be renewed by the St. Mary’s City Commission.
Rachel Mipro
/
Kansas Reflector
The Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library’s lease may not be renewed by the St. Mary’s City Commission.

Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library is decorated for the holidays, with a snow-filled tiny Christmas village placed in the center of the book stacks. There’s a princess mural on one wall, complete with a unicorn, and a dinosaur figurine over by the children’s nook.

All of it might be gone come January.

The city council is debating whether to renew the library’s lease with the city following the library’s refusal to accept a lease clause asking it to remove all material that could be viewed as socially, racially or sexually divisive, including all LGBTQ content.

The library has been housed in St. Marys since the 1980s, operating on an annual lease with the city. The library serves eight locations, including Alma, Alta Vista, Eskridge, Harveyville, Olsburg, Onaga, St. Marys and Westmoreland, with county residents funding the library through taxes.

The St. Marys branch acts as the headquarters, with a designated “mini librarian” delivering books from the library to all other eight locations, visiting them each week.

If the lease — which ends late December — isn’t renewed, the library will have to pack up hundreds of books and equipment and move to another town, as there’s no other space in St. Marys that would be able to accommodate the library’s operations.

St. Marys resident Hannah Stockman, a stay-at-home mom looking after 13 kids, said the move would be devastating for her and others like her.

“At this point, it’s the only space left that we have for the public,” Stockman said. “We don’t have any pool or any other amenities through the community center. So people come here for many, many different reasons.”

Stockman said the library is one of the few places where her whole family can go together. Her children have become excited about reading and have been entertained by several of the library’s programs, as they were given coloring pages and other things. Stockman loves learning and put together an education program for herself using the library’s materials.

“Some of them are learning how to read and some of them don’t really want to read, but they come here and they get excited. I can’t provide that for them any other way,” Stockman said. “It just feels good to be here.”

Discussion of the library removal started this summer after a local parent was upset by the contents of “Melissa,” a book about a transgender child written by Alex Gino, and wanted it removed from the library. The book was formerly published by the title “George.”

Judith Cremer, the library director, said the book was added to the library after it made the William Allen White Award 2017-2018 Master List for grades 3-5, and has only been checked out four times.

Cremer said parents have the option of filtering which books their children check out, and can speak to staff about limiting their children’s access to certain books. She stressed that she and her staff aren’t trying to fight the council and aren’t interested in divisive matters. She’s been at the library for almost 20 years, and just wants to serve the community.

“We just are doing what public libraries do,” Cremer said. “We don’t really judge information, we are a reflection of the world and things that are in the world. We have information that has been published and mediated and checked for facts. So it’s a safe place that people can go to get access to that information. It’s not like we are handing out or advocating it in any way. It’s just there.”

Cremer asked the parent to fill out the standard form for challenging material, but the form wasn’t returned until the end of August, after a city council meeting in which council members asked that LGBTQ books be removed from the library, along with any books that dealt with racial issues or sexual issues.

During the August meeting, St. Marys City Commissioner Matthew Childs asked that a “morals clause” be added to the library’s lease during an August city commission.

The clause would’ve stipulated that the library not “supply, distribute, loan, encourage, or coerce acceptance of or approval of explicit sexual or racially or socially divisive material, or events (such as ‘drag queen story hours’) that support the LGBTQ+ or critical theory ideology or practice.”

“The discussion on the language that was used in that lease, it was very broad. It didn’t really meet the rule of law and it was problematic in a lot of ways,” Cremer said.

Cremer said she discussed the clause stipulation with regional library consultants and spoke with lawyers. She thought the issue had been dropped after they talked things over with council members.

Instead, commissioners began discussing creating their own city library, one without “divisive material,” in a council meeting earlier this month.

The lease renewal will be discussed at Tuesday’s commission meeting, with a decision expected then.

Stockman has been reaching out to every group she can think of to rally people in support of the library, talking to other libraries around the state, as well as PFLAG and Loud Light — nonprofits that advocate for the LGBTQ community. She said many people in the community were scared to speak out in support of the library because of a large religious presence in St. Marys, so she was looking to external sources of support.

One petition, started by Gerry Marstall, has more than 1,000 signatures in support of the library. Marstall listed all the services the library provides, including free reading programs, free summer lunches, and free Wi-Fi.

“If the library were forced to close or relocate to another town it would be catastrophic to all citizens in the St. Marys area,” Marstall said in the petition description.

This story was originally published on the Kansas Reflector.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Rachel Mipro