GILLETTE — During a week designed to focus on books being challenged for being inappropriate, the staff at the Campbell County Public Library were spending some of their time responding to more than a dozen forms challenging books in the library’s collection.
Saturday was the final day of Banned Book Week, a national event that takes place each year in the last week of September and spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools.
It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries.
Library director Terri Lesley said the library has celebrated Banned Book Week for at least as long as Lesley has worked there, and she can’t remember one time in the last 25 years that someone had an issue about it. And before this summer, very few books were challenged.
For three months, the Campbell County Public Library has received criticism for its inclusion and promotion of LGBTQ materials to children and teens. Library staff are now working through the dozens of challenges that have been submitted.
Lesley said that since Aug. 9, 18 unique titles have been formally challenged. There have been 35 requests for reconsideration submitted, Lesley said. Sixteen letters have been sent out to the people who filled out the forms, and more will be sent next week.
Some of the challenges don’t ask that the books be removed, but that they be moved to a different section of the library.
All 16 of those letters said the books will remain in the library in their respective areas.
“We feel like the items are correctly placed in the collection,” Lesley said. “But we still have a ways to go.”
The situation is not unique to Campbell County. There are libraries in other communities around the country that are facing similar issues this year, including in Virginia, Tennessee, Texas and Missouri.
“I think this is bigger than our library,” Lesley said. “This is a political movement, and we just happen to be caught in it here.”
Lesley said that between letters, emails and phone calls, she hears from at least half a dozen people a day who are standing up for the library.
“I feel pretty good that we have a lot of support out there,” she said.
Kevin Bennett said the fact that the library was promoting Banned Book Week in its teen section flies right in the face of the people who asked that books be moved.
“You’re flouting the community who is bringing these things to your attention, it’s downright insidious,” he told the library board Monday.
On Sept. 27, during a meeting between the library board and commissioners, Commissioner Del Shelstad suggested cutting the library’s funding.
He said the library shouldn’t come asking the county for more money because in his opinion, “we shouldn’t fund you at all.”
Commissioner D.G. Reardon, who had called into the meeting, asked if he’d heard Shelstad correctly, and if Shelstad meant he wanted to close down the library.
Shelstad said he wanted to cut funding to the library, and ”if that means closing it, then we close it.”
Thursday, he clarified what he meant.
“I didn’t mean 100 percent of their funding,” he said. “I said cut their funding. That comes in a lot of shapes and sizes.”
As a county department, the library receives county funding through a number of different channels for a lot of different things. How big of a reduction in funding the library could see remains to be seen, Shelstad said.
“I never said one time I wanted to close the library,” he said.
More than a dozen people spoke at a library board meeting Sept. 27, which took place after the meeting with commissioners.
Susan Bennett said the library is in danger of losing its relationship with the Campbell County School District.
“We’re going to make sure that there’s no more field trips to the library, your summer reading program, it’s going to be jeopardized, and so is everything else you do with children,” she told the library board.
She and her husband Hugh Bennett filed a report with the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday, accusing the library of disseminating obscene material. A report was forwarded to the county attorney’s office.
She said the public trusts the library to make the children’s section a safe place to be, and that the library has betrayed that trust.
“They trust you as elected boards, administrators, with our taxpayer dollars that we work hard for ... to be responsible,” she said.
Local pastor Ed Sisti said “it’s books in the library that divide us.”
Intellectual freedom is just another word for socialism, he said, while sex education is sexual indoctrination.
“There’s no freedom at the library for parents that want to protect their children,” he said. “You should be listening to us, we pay for this library. That’s why the funding could be cut.”
Matt Heath, a father of two boys, spoke in support of the library, calling the people on the other side of the issue bullies. He said they’ve called him a number of things, from liberal to bad parent to child molester.
“What you’re seeing is a lot of shock politics,” he said, adding that he doesn’t see any intentional evil or indoctrination going on.
“The community divide is not the library, and it’s not the books,” he said. “The community divide is coming from a dozen people that decided they wanted to divide the community. I don’t know why.”
Jane Gebhart asked the board to not go with “what the angry crowd” is saying, and said the commissioners need to tour the library to see how books are classified and why.
Vicki Swenson said although some of the books that are being challenged are “very questionable,” she does not believe the library is intentionally harming children.
She added that while values and opinions are important, they should not be the main thing driving the library.
“I think the political agenda is on that side, it’s really hard to watch,” Heath said, adding that he’s speaking up because “hypocrites and bullies need to be stood up against.”
The library is supposed to serve the community, Shelstad said, and by not listening to “a portion of their community,” it is failing in providing that service. He said if a nonprofit organization or another county department were doing the same thing, he’d propose cutting their funding as well.
There are some people who want the books to be removed, and there are some who want them to remain, Shelstad said. The simple fix would be to “just move those books. That fits everybody’s needs.”
He said he’d like to see this come to an end soon, and he sees one of two ways where that happens.
“No. 1, the library board decides to help us fix this issue,” he said. “(No. 2), the commissioners will take action to resolve the situation, whatever that looks like.”