Staff Response

To: Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library Board of Trustees

From: Gina Millsap, Executive Director

Date: February 13, 2009

Re: Expression of Concern from Mrs. Kim Borchers

This is a difficult situation we find ourselves in. It seems everyone has an opinion. There have been articles and editorializing in the media, lots of comments from the blogosphere and several letters to the editor in the Topeka Capital-Journal. Clearly, many people care about their public library.

As I’ve thought about my responsibility to assist you in making good decisions for the Library, I realized something was missing. I’ve inundated you with policies, books—- lots of things written by other people. I’d like this to be from me to you.

Because I work with a lot of smart people who have concerns and questions, I invited all library staff members to read and review my comments. Fifty of them took me up on my offer and shared their perspectives and ideas. While I understand that you may not agree with what I say, I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts.

The Library’s attorney, Chuck Engel, is preparing a legal response and recommendation. This memo will not address legalities but policy, questions and core values that I hope will inform the Board’s deliberation.

This is your decision. Whatever that decision is, we will implement it to the best of our ability.

Background

In November, 2008 staff received an Expression of Concern from Mrs. Kim Borchers requesting that four books in the Library’s adult collection, The Joy of Sex, The Joy of Gay Sex, The Lesbian Kama Sutra and Sex for Busy People be restricted to adult access and check-out, citing Chapter 21-4301c, also known as the “harmful to minors statute” of the Kansas Statutes. Staff reviewed the Expression of Concern and in accordance with the Library Materials Selection Policy responded, declined to take any action in restricting access by age to these titles. Mrs. Borchers then sent a letter to the Board of Trustees on December 28, 2008, making the same request of the Board.

Policy – The Library Materials Selection Policy and the User Confidentiality that are most relevant to Mrs. Borchers’ request.

The first is within the Expressions of Concern section, “While customers are free to reject for themselves materials they do not approve of, they may not restrict the freedom of access to others.” (Library Materials Selection Policy, p. 17)

Staff Interpretation: While Mrs. Borchers has every right to restrict her own children’s access to these books, she does not have the right to make that request on behalf of all parents and other people in the community.

The other relevant section is Labeling (Library Materials Selection Policy, p. 5) which states, “The Library labels collections to facilitate access by making it easier for customers to locate materials. The Library does not label materials to warn, discourage, or restrict access based on a value judgment of the content, language, or themes of an item.”

Staff Interpretation: Mrs. Borchers’ request is in conflict with the labeling statement. Her intent is to restrict access to content created by mainstream publishers, and readily available in stores, libraries and other locations to all ages.

The User Confidentiality Policy states: The privacy of an individual’s use of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library facilities and collections, attendance at Library-sponsored programs, and communications with Library personnel shall be maintained except as required by applicable state and federal law. Staff Interpretation: Mrs. Borchers’ request that these four books be shelved behind a desk and that people would have to ask for them and demonstrate they are eligible to view and check them out is a violation of the privacy guaranteed in this policy.

Questions to be considered

In December, 2008 the Board approved a strategic plan including a new mission and goals. “Your place. Stories you want. Information you need. Connections you seek.”

How would restricting access to these titles further the mission and vision of TSCPL?

How would a decision to restrict books by age affect policy, procedure, organizational values?

What research or information is available that suggests that the way some 9000+ public libraries in the U.S. currently manage their collections for all ages is illegal or detrimental to children in any way?

Ultimately, what would putting these books behind a desk accomplish?

Unintended Consequences

I am concerned that there will be unintended consequences to a decision to restrict library materials by age.

· The slippery slope – How many other books might fit the as-yet-undefined criteria for restriction by age? Currently, there are 600+ books in the Library’s collection with subject headings relating to sex, sex instruction, sexual behavior, fertility, etc. Will staff be expected to review all of these titles and assign some or all of them to a restricted collection? What other titles or subjects may be subject to review and sequestering? Will any individual or group with a concern or issue view such a decision as a tacit invitation and be given the same opportunity to restrict or remove titles they find objectionable? At what point might staff simply stop ordering titles in a variety of subjects that are wanted and needed by library users fearing that someone will find them objectionable? What about the privacy of the user? If an adult or teen needs information or simply wants to look at these titles, how will we protect confidentiality and ensure that they are not intimidated or made to feel that a request to view these materials labels them or sets them apart from other library users?

· How will this affect our partners and donors? There is little neutral ground on this issue. People and institutions view it through their own experiences and social, political and religious beliefs. The effects of a decision to restrict will go well beyond the walls of the library and will affect much more than our library users and our community. Staff members have already heard informally from partners and donors that they would not look favorably on a decision to restrict access to books.

· What are the effects of a legal precedent? If the decision to restrict is based on the harmful to minors statute, this becomes a decision that has far-reaching effects on the Kansas library community. Our colleagues and their trustees are concerned that a decision by the TSCPL Board of Trustees will set a precedent that could have negative consequences for them. We have already heard from several of our colleagues in the North East Kansas Library System.

· What legal and financial risks does this pose for the Library? Two other public libraries have been involved in lawsuits over this issue in recent years.

· What if the national media focuses on this issue? There is also our reputation to consider. The recent controversy about the teaching of evolution did little to advance the ability of Kansas to recruit qualified professionals or promote the notion of Kansas as a great place to live, work and raise children.

The Decision

Ultimately, access to information is the purpose of the public library in our society.

Our policies embody our purpose and core values. Intellectual freedom, access and knowledge as an antidote to ignorance are an integral part of this community’s and this Library’s values. These values are at the heart of what we do and we take them very seriously.

We may debate whether a decision to restrict access to these books is a major change in policy. As your executive director, I offer the opinion that it is. A major change in our policies means we must review our mission and our values. Making this change will require a review of our mission, values and all other policies and procedures in order to avoid inconsistencies in how we provide access to library materials.

I respectfully submit that I believe that the Board of Trustees should affirm its current Library Materials Selection, Circulation and User Confidentiality policies with two changes. 1. Lift the restriction on R-rated films in the Circulation policy. 2. Discontinue the practice of putting certain magazines behind the service desk, including Playboy. That will ensure that we are consistent in the way we provide access to all library materials and ensure user confidentiality.

Again, I appreciate the opportunity to ask questions, express concerns and offer a recommendation in response to Mrs. Borchers’ request. I hope that you find this helpful as you consider your decision.

Sincerely,

Gina Millsap

Executive Director