Damakant Jayshi | Wausau Pilot & Review

The Board of Trustees of the Marathon County Public Library on Monday voted unanimously to endorse recommendations of a book review committee that will keep two challenged books in its juvenile nonfiction section.

The board made the decision after hearing public comments, a review of legal definitions and statute explanations governing library books and a brief rendering of library policy and the board’s limitation in restricting books on age and other grounds. The decision was also made amid a reminder that only parents can restrict access of their children to library materials.

“Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents – and only parents – have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children – and only their children – to library resources,” the five-member review committee said, pointing to the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights.

The review committee of two board members and three MCPL staff spent about 62 and 58 combined hours, respectively, to review ‘Making a Baby’ by Rachel Greener and Clare Owen; and ‘You Be You! The Kids Guide to Gender, Sexuality and Family’ by Jonathan Branfman and Julie Benbassat; according to the information provided by the committee in the meeting packet.

In its recommendations, the committee said the books should remain in the library’s collection and continue to be shelved in the juvenile nonfiction section of MCPL.

The meeting packet, which lists details of the committee’s work, also makes extensive reference to several policy documents that guide the MCPL, like the Free Access to Libraries for Minors, An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights and Freedom to Read, among others.

Under the free access principle, the Bill of Rights says “children and young adults unquestionably possess First Amendment rights, including the right to receive information in the library” and that librarians and library governing bodies “should not resort to age restrictions in an effort to avoid actual or anticipated objections, because only a court of law can determine whether material is not constitutionally protected.”

The committee noted that MCPL also adheres to the Bill of Rights’ principle that “libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

During the review, the committee discussed the books and examined supporting documents and professional reviews. The committee wrote that they found more 50 libraries in Wisconsin possessing ‘You Be You’ and found at least 77 copies of ‘Making a Baby’ in the state’s libraries, noting it was a testament to the books’ value. All of the 57 copies of ‘You Be You’ and most of the 77 copies of ‘Making a Baby’ were shelved in the juvenile section of those libraries, the committee found.

The body discussed three aspects during its review: whether the books fit the library’s Collection Development Policy, the location of the books on the library’s shelves, and the role of parents and guardians in selecting library materials.

The emphasis on the parental role is noteworthy given that a number of parents and county supervisors opposed the availability of these two and other books, contending they contain pornographic materials. Others opposed their placement in the juvenile section, saying they should be moved to the adult section. But some other parents wanted those books to be accessible to their children, saying others cannot impose their choice on them or their children.

The review committee said a patron’s objections should not keep others from accessing the information contained within this book.

“When a parent/guardian signs up for a child’s library card at the Marathon County Public Library, the parent/guardian acknowledges that they are responsible for determining what resources are appropriate for that child,” the committee wrote. “However, they cannot infringe on the liberty of other parents/guardians to determine what is acceptable for their children or to restrict access for any individual.”

The committee also reminded that the library collection policy requires that the library “recognizes and celebrates…all members of the Marathon County community, regardless of age, political or social views, gender (including gender expression), sexuality, race, ethnicity, or country of origin.”

During public comments, most speakers opposed the availability of the books in the juvenile section. Some speakers wanted the books removed altogether, and some said the MCPL should adhere to “Christian values and morals.” One speaker deemed the materials “illegal.” But one resident who supported keeping the books said the wishes of all in the community should be respected and said parents should not pressure the library to remove books because of personal preference.

Corporation Counsel Michael Puerner gave a presentation on the legal definitions and statutes that govern library materials. Under Wisconsin statutes, the Library Board of Trustees has “exclusive charge, control and custody of all library property,” Puerner said.

He repeated that materials in the library have statutory protections.

“Library board members cannot be prosecuted for materials available in the library,” Puerner told Wausau Pilot & Review after the meeting. “That is consistent with my reading of several of the potentially applicable statutes, which each have an exception for materials displayed within a public library.”

Some residents and supervisors have been pressing to remove books from the public library and demanded cuts in the library’s 2023 budget as a punitive measure. This prompted the county chair and corporation counsel to caution the supervisors about an appearance of retaliation. When the budget was passed, the proposed cut was drastically reduced and limited to $69,000. The figure was far below the originally proposed cut of $365,000.