It was an emotion-charged Liberty City Council meeting Tuesday night, as a packed house filled the council chambers to hear about a recent issue at the Liberty Municipal Library concerning a questionable book that found its way into a display in the children's section. The situation was brought to the council by Whitney Brents. This concerned library patron discovered the book Tell Me: What Children Really Want to Know about Bodies, Sex, and Emotions, by author Katharina von der Gathen.
The book was purchased in May 2020 and was initially cataloged for the juvenile section of the library, which is defined as grades third through sixth. Still, even that designation seemed inappropriate by most standards due in great part to the nature of certain images depicted in the book, which at best would be considered obscene in most cases and was by most in attendance. Still, those in opposition to the book's content went a step further and condemned them as pornographic in nature.
Before those in attendance addressed the issue, City Manager Tom Warner addressed it head-on and spoke to the nature of the process at the time of the acquisition of the book.
"The book in question was purchased in May 2020 from funds from the memorial trust fund. It was cataloged in the juvenile section, and this was a recommended age group by the publisher of 8-14 years old. It was originally displayed in the juvenile section on the top shelf. We are unsure how it got to a lower shelf before it was found by the patron. The library was notified by this patron, and the book was immediately removed from the juvenile section and would be removed and re-cataloged and featured into the adult parenting section. To ensure that future incidents like this do not occur, we are currently checking each title and book in the juvenile section to verify that it is cataloged properly," explained Warner.
At that point, Warner set out a new set of standard guidelines that the library would follow in the future for selecting and placing a book on the shelf. This new process would have several levels of approval and include multiple employees to sign off on the books before reaching the library's shelves.
After Warner addressed the council and those in attendance, Brents took to the podium to address the audience on the book under fire and other practices she felt did not reflect the community.
"I want to begin by saying that I do not in any way hate, despise or wish ill to come to anyone at the library. This is not a vendetta. I have received nothing but kind and helpful service on my visits there. I love the library," said an emotional Brents.
She spoke of her love for the library and the books before addressing several ongoing concerns she had at the library.
"This didn't start on Wednesday. This started back in June of 2020 when we contacted Mr. Warner about a growing concern that we'd seen on the social media feed of the library and the library in person. The library is a taxpayer-funded entity, so it should therefore cater to the needs, values, and desires of its patrons, and yet the trends that I've noticed are in opposition to what I know of our community. It seems that instead of taking cues from the community at large, the parties responsible for content curation are using professional reviews to give us all the newest and latest social trends. Mr. Warner responded to the email stating the requirement is content neutrality and that the library staff was to provide only information that was content-neutral, whether in person or on social media. That was almost a year and a half ago." explained Brents.
She further expressed concerns over the political and social leanings of books and the desire that the library makes an effort to provide both sides, but that they make an even more considerable effort to screen and place books in appropriate areas.
"I have continued to see books on display that seem to lean to one side of social issues. I understand that I will not agree with everything in the library, and I don't expect to, but I do expect to be able to find information from both sides, that I can make the most well-informed decision on whatever issues I'm undertaking. That being said, when my children go to the library, they're not visiting on the premise of research or discernment. They want to go to the library to get books about dogs and cats, and horses and llamas, and magic treehouses and Prince Edward Island and Narnia, whatever. They certainly aren't going there with serious life issues on the brain, and they aren't going to find the latest so-called health information, and when I am walking around with my children and come across concerning books, or they bring them to me, I give them a look through, and I was really surprised with this one," exclaimed Brents.
Others in attendance addressed the council in support of Brents and expressed similar concerns over the process for screening books, which Warner addressed in his opening statement to the discussion on the topic.
There were supporters of the library in attendance as well, and most of them seemed to echo the sentiment that the book was undoubtedly obscene. However, some still believed the library itself was under attack by some in the community, referring mainly to conversations that had spread via social media.
Library Board Treasurer Stacy Sundgren addressed the council and spoke to what she felt was the nature of the book and expressed disagreement with the idea the book was, in fact, pornographic.
“In all the years my family and I have been involved with the library, I have never heard anyone speak of pursuing a political or social agenda one direction or another, nor have I ever seen the slightest evidence among the books of such a thing. Our local communities, our state, our nation, or our world are composed of many different views and beliefs. Having books in our library that offer insights and information to opinions that differ from our own in no way promotes any specific agenda. As for the accusation of pornographic books in the children’s section, the books drawing that complaint are not written, published, or marketed as pornography,” argued Sundgren.
She further defined pornography as is stated in a number of prominent English language dictionaries before declaring her case for the book itself, before drawing the ire of some in the crowd and support of others.
“The images in these books and the text that accompanies them, while explicit, were created to inform and educate. They don’t even come close to matching the definition of pornography. I understand that the books from which the images were taken and posted in public social media pages have never been checked out. I’ve known Donna Abshier since she came to work at the library, I have known many of the past staff members, and I am well acquainted with those that work there now. Time and time again over the years, I have witnessed the herculean efforts of all these people to go above and beyond to make our library the very best it can be. Donna and the staff have tirelessly endeavored to create a friendly, educational and safe environment for both children and adults. That includes the never-ending process of screening books and materials for only those things that are the most highly rated and recommended. I can say to you with complete confidence that neither Donna nor any staff member would ever purposely allow material into our collection that would be harmful to children or anyone else. Our community is beyond fortunate to have such a dedicated, diligent and caring group of librarians working at the Liberty library. The reckless, unfounded accusations against our library and staff members have been very disturbing to watch unfold. The vile, hateful Fahrenheit 451 type responses that have been generated by those actions actually leave me with great concern for the staff and the library itself. My family and I, the Liberty Library Board and Friends of the Library, stand in full support of Library Director Donna Abshier and all the staff members of the Liberty Municipal Library,” said Sundgren to the applause of library supporters in attendance.
Several other community members addressed the council, some expressing concerns over the book and others supporting the library and working to find an amicable solution.
Mayor Carl Pickett addressed the issue and gave his thoughts on the ordeal.
“I can’t speak for my fellow councilpersons, but I think we here would all agree that the book is pornographic; it's obscene clearly. I want everyone to know that’s the position of the council,” Pickett continued, “I still want to make a point that this council is concerned about the kids, and not just the Liberty kids, but whoever goes to the library, any kid that’s in the city of Liberty and the community. We care about those kids. We want them to be protected. We want them to have the proper social guidance, parental guidance, and the city wants to be a part or play a part in providing goods and services to them like we do our adult citizens.”
In the end, the very vocal and lively discussion on the book lasted well over an hour, and the consensus was clear that the book was obscene at best, but for some had a place in the library, and others, it certainly needed to be harder for children to access. The library is open for business and offers over 60,000 books for the public to access and utilize for any number of reasons.
Liberty Municipal Library is open Mon. – Thurs. from 10-6 pm, Fri. from 1-5 pm, and Sat. from 10-4 pm. The library is located in the Geraldine D. Humphreys Cultural Center at 1710 Sam Houston St.