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Manatee commissioners discuss a closer examination of library materials

Some residents say the commissioners should leave the evaluation of materials to the professionals they hired to run the system.

Commissioners discussed processes for vetting, categorizing, and selecting library books.
Commissioners discussed processes for vetting, categorizing, and selecting library books.
Photo by Ian Swaby
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Access to books in Manatee County's library system is being questioned as the new Lakewood Ranch Library is on the verge of opening later this year.

Whether the conservative makeup of the Manatee County Commission impacts access to books and library materials was the subject of a Feb. 21 Commission meeting and figures to intensify in the coming months.

“This session has enlightened me of the narrow-mindedness that I’m seeing here,” said Friends of the Island Library President Julie Perry of the commissioners. “Trust our librarians.”

Friends of the Island Library President Julie Perry speaks at the commission meeting.
Photo by Ian Swaby

The commissioners discussed the possible vetting, categorizing and selecting of library books after they received a presentation on the county's library services department.

The commissioners said they had received some complaints on how certain books are presented in the library and whether that presentation is appropriate for young readers.

District 1 Commissioner James Satcher said it appeared the county was “funneling an outside amount of our funds and our efforts into getting left-wing ideology books on our shelves” as well as on the library app.

Satcher said he had not viewed the app personally.

He said a new system was needed to manage objections to book availability, amount of funding, or placement.

“The point is that we should go outside (of the library system), out of respect for that taxpayer, for that citizen, for that parent. We should have a process or a system that allows them to go outside of just the library and its board as it goes forward.”

Satcher called the American Library Association, of which Manatee County is a member, a “political organization.” He said he would be “100% in favor of leaving the organization at a future voting meeting.

Manatee County Attorney William Clague said however the board deals with the topic of books, it should be done in a way that is politically neutral.

All points of view

“That’s your safe harbor, to make sure that what you’re offering in your libraries covers all points of view, not just one particular point of view," Clague said. "It's a tough issue for a board of elected officials to deal with directly, book by book.”

However, he said an advisory committee to vet books and weigh in on them was “certainly” a legally defensible approach.

District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh and District 1 Commissioner James Satcher suggested forming a citizen's committee that could respond to complaints from residents about library content and presentation.

Library Services Manager Tammy Parrott said to Satcher that the library’s responsibility is to have books that represent all viewpoints.

Library Services Manager Tammy Parrott addresses the commission.
Photo by Ian Swaby

“(Assistant Library Services Manager Lynn Begraft) and I are both classicaly trained librarians, where we do believe in representing all segments of the community, and that means that we should have not just left, just to use your words, but also the right, and also the center. So, we need to make sure that if there are particular titles that we are missing, that we do look at those.”

She said what the county could do is take subjects, and bring in all points of view.

She said she would review the feed for the library app and see whether there were any filters being applied or any new content the library should be purchasing.

District 2 Commissioner Amanda Ballard said she wished to see the collections in the libraries include more conservative viewpoints, as well as material on Black history, gender identity, and economics. She said she wanted to see an expanded policy on child rentals of adult materials that include topics that involve sexuality and gender.

Baugh asked whether it was feasible to group all materials related to sexual orientation in one area. Parrot said that in general, those materials are together, grouped by the Dewey Decimal System in the adult area.

Leveling the inventory

At-large Commissioner Jason Bearden suggested reducing inventory of books on certain topics and leveling the inventory on certain subjects.

Parrott said that books that have been circulated extensively do not have significant resale value, however, she said it was possible to accommodate a collection review within the current development budget.

County Administrator Lee Washington said he would schedule work sessions for the board on the topic. He also disagreed with Satcher, saying the American Library Association has the highest standards when it comes to accrediting libraries.

“If we looked at all of the associations in which we find ourselves members of, I can assure you we would find fault with many of the things they might be currently doing,” Washington said.

He also said the library app was likely displaying the books that were most popular, in the way that a platform such as Audible might move bestsellers to the front page.

Parrott said a review process takes place for all materials introduced to the library.

She said a youth services department, with two librarians, consults on youth materials, while all purchasing goes through a collection development librarian.

Parrott said all books not intended for children are shelved in the adult section. 

“We do request that parents accompany their children to the library,” she said. “Under 12, they need to be with an adult. It’s part of the State Statutes.”

Parrott noted that parents can access a child’s library card to see what materials they have checked out.

The meeting was attended by numerous members of local Friends of the Library organizations and other interested residents.

Shannon Keever, communications director for Women’s Voices of Southwest Florida, who identified herself as a homeschooling parent and avid library user, spoke at the meeting.

“Librarian Jo Goodwin (former editor of the highly regarded Wilson Library Bulletin) said, 'A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone," Keever said. "I, for one, am appreciative that there are some materials in the library that offend me.”

Baugh said, "I think this board needs to set some guidelines about what we want to see, and how we want to see it. This is not working.”

Keever said she agrees that parents should be concerned about what their children are reading and accessing, but that the idea of censoring books will take the county down a “very slippery slope.”

“The library should be accessible for everybody who lives in this county,” she said. “That includes children, that includes families, that includes people experiencing homelessness. That includes teachers and students.”

She said her children's library cards keeps her informed about what they are checking out.

“I just don’t feel comfortable talking about selling off books that we don’t agree with," she said. 

Keever said the Manatee County area was not totally conservative despite the makeup of the Commission.

“I just want to make sure that we continue to see everybody being represented in the libraries. And if that means bringing in some more conservative books, that's fine, too. I don't oppose that. I do oppose getting rid of books, because how do you make the decision? Where do you draw the line between personal responsibility and government overreach? Do I really want a government dictating what my kids can have access to, when really that should be on me?”

Manatee County resident Cynthia Martens said that in working with schools to vet books, her views on the topic have changed since her high school banned certain books when she was 18 years old.

"I was very upset because I was 18 years old and I thought that we should have the freedom to read everything. Now I'm looking at it from the other side.”

She suggested computer systems match access level to an appropriate age. 

“God forbid they’re reading some of the books that I’m screening," she said.

Perry told the board that the collections were curated by educated professionals. 

“This is what they do," she said. "Would you want somebody who is not in your profession, telling you what to do?”



Ian Swaby

Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.

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