Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County

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This letter was submitted to the Steubenville Herald-Star in September 2023 by the President of the Library Board of Trustees:

This statement is on behalf of the Board of Trustees for the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County. The public library is one of the greatest assets in our community. It offers so many good services and programs such as notary publics, museum passes, hotspots, tot times, story hours, crafts, game nights, book clubs, and so much more—all for free.
As you may be aware, the library creates displays to acknowledge many federally-designated awareness/celebratory months, such as Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March. On a regular basis, new awareness months are added. In the summer of 2022, the library added, systemwide, three new displays: Americans with Disabilities, Juneteenth, and Pride Month. Some people were and continue to be upset with the public library’s Pride Month displays that began in June of 2022. It must be said that the 2022 Pride Month display at the Schiappa Branch was disproportionate to other displays previously seen at the library. For that reason, standards were put in place to ensure that every awareness display is allocated an equal amount of space.
The public library serves a diverse population which includes members of the LGBTQ community. Some have suggested that because the LGBTQ community is in the minority, they should not have any representation in the library at all. This is a position that is in complete opposition to both library policy and the law—federal and state. It is not, and cannot be, the role of a public, secular, tax-payer funded institution to determine whose lifestyle is “moral” or “appropriate” and whose is not.
Like all tax-payer funded secular organizations, the structure of the public library does not permit it to advocate for any one religious group’s moral code, even if that group appears to be in the majority. Within our community, we have Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Pagans along with avowed Atheists, to name a few. While all faiths may share some common ground, even amongst the Christian population, different denominations/sects have opposing viewpoints on many things. Even if the public library were to suddenly change to a theocratic system of governance, which of the aforementioned groups’ theology should dictate how the library operates?
There have also been recent requests that the library begin its meeting with prayer. Again, the question would be who would pray and to whom? In a public, secular tax-payer funded institution, no religious group could be excluded from the roster should they aspire to participate. Would the inclusion of prayer at our public meetings be an opportunity for community members to learn about other faith traditions or just another source of division?
There are libraries around the United States who have yielded to the requests by patrons to move all LGBTQ books from the children’s section into the adult section of those libraries, without any regard to the age-appropriateness or content of the books in question. This means a primary book about a girl with two mommies was treated no differently than a YA (young adult) graphic novel that depicts explicit images. When those libraries were sued, they lost. The rulings may have been worded differently but, in essence, the libraries were told that their conduct was a violation of the First Amendment rights ofLGBTQ patrons.
At the September 12th meeting, the Board listened to approximately 24 patrons who insisted “I don’t believe in banning books” and then went on to say “I just want them removed from the children’s section.” However, in the eyes of the law, “removing” and “banning” are the same thing.
Throughout our country, there are also efforts to “remove” Bibles and other religious books from public school libraries, effectively denying those children access to those materials. There may come a time in the future when a significant number of patrons will insist that these books have no place in our own library system. At the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County, the same First Amendment protection that applies to LGBTQ materials will also apply to books advancing religious speech, even if
some patrons find that speech offensive.
Some have said the public library is no longer a “safe” place for children. They have expressed concern that the library is engaging in “indoctrination” by having books about children with two daddies or mommies as well as stories about children who are transgender. By “indoctrination” they may mean that the library displays materials espousing views that are not in keeping with values of individual parents. Parents who want their children to avoid LGBTQ materials entirely are finding it challenging to navigate the library in the same ways as they have in the past. They have expressed frustration that their children may encounter one of these books, making those children aware of the existence of LGBTQ people or that the books may unduly influence their children to view LGBTQ people as “normal.” However, while one family may be appalled to see these books, there are other parents who are thrilled the library is offering this content for their children. Though they typically do not attend the Board meetings, at various times, other patrons have also objected to content that has nothing to do with Pride Month: Harry Potter (it promotes witchcraft), Juneteenth (it’s divisive), Halloween (it’s pagan), evolution, astrology, diet culture, etc.
It is not the role of the public library to adjudicate morality for any of its patrons or their children. That said, the Board does take seriously patrons’ concerns that the collection of books in the children’s section is imbalanced. While the overwhelming majority of the books in the children’s section feature traditional families, there are in fact more “pro” LGBTQ children’s books than there are books offering a conservative Christian perspective on gender identity. The Board is working towards implementing the best policy to address these concerns, but the final response cannot be haphazard or purely reactionary.
We want to be extremely thoughtful because whatever we do will set a precedent for how the library addresses claims of imbalance or bias in the future.
Additionally, some patrons were upset that a local political group has donated additional LGBTQ children’s books to the library. It has never been the practice to solicit any individuals or groups outside of the library to donate books. However, many choose to do so, entirely of their own accord. Some books have labels indicating the name of the donor or some indication that the books are given in memory of a loved one. The library has never restricted the labeling of donations. It should be noted that library space is finite so, if there were to be a massive donation of books, it is possible that all of the books will not immediately make it to the shelves of the collection, especially if every book is about one
particular topic that is already well represented in the library.
We are deeply grateful to members of the community who have come forward to share their concerns. We are also appreciative that, for the most part, those individuals have conducted themselves with decorum. Some people have expressed frustration that the Board does not respond to public comments. The Board meeting policy states “In order to accomplish all business on the agenda and be respectful of everyone’s time, trustees will not be able to engage in dialogue with individual members of the audience and no immediate action will be taken on any public comment issue.” In keeping with this
policy, the Board does not engage in “back-and-forth” communication with the public at meetings. Still, we value public input and it does help to inform our decision-making. While this statement is printed on the sheet community members sign in order to speak at the meetings, a larger version will be displayed to make everyone aware of this policy.
There is a patron who regularly attends meetings and asks the Board what is the legacy that we want to leave to the library. It is my hope that the legacy of this Board will be that we consistently and faithfully upheld the First Amendment, even when it was unpopular to do so. The legacy of this Board will be that we tried to ensure that no group’s books would be “removed” from our public library because, to do so, would be anathema to the principles of free speech we all value so dearly.
Lisa D. Foster, President
Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County