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How A Public Library Used Third-Party Allies And ‘Listening Sessions’ To Dismiss Flak Over Pornographic Kids’ Books

‘I walked away suspicious that there wasn’t any point to this, feeling fake listened to,’ said one parent who spoke out at the Falls Church library.

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How are public libraries addressing rising concerns about their transformation into purveyors of radical racial and sexual ideology? The same way any bureaucratic organization would handle bad PR: hiring “impartial” third-party experts who share librarians’ ideological opinions, hosting carefully managed and curated “listening sessions,” and producing boring, abstruse documents that minimize criticism of that bureaucracy. At least, that’s what’s happening at Mary Riley Styles Public Library (MRSPL) in the city of Falls Church, Virginia.

MRSPL in November hosted a forum to solicit community input on the library’s future direction. The library also solicited public opinion via surveys, which even kids were welcome to complete. Yet as multiple local residents told me, their concerns — including the library featuring youth-oriented pornographic and/or sexually explicit material such as “Lawn Boy,” “Gender Queer,” “The Pants Project,” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” — were largely minimized or ignored.

Potemkin Meetings, Enigmatic Documents

Falls Church resident and home-schooling mother of eight Logan Horne and her husband both attended library-hosted meetings open to the public. During the first meeting, Horne voiced her opposition to the growing inappropriateness of the young adult and children’s collections. “I can’t possibly pre-read every single book my eight children bring home,” she commented. Another local resident at that session who preferred not to be named also expressed to MRSPL staff his reservations about the highly sexualized graphic novel content.

Perhaps to maintain a patina of objectivity and ideological diversity, the Falls Church Library director invited the vocal Horne to attend a more restricted follow-up one-day retreat guided by two members of a third-party organization called “ReThinking Libraries” that seeks to help libraries develop and market themselves. About 25 total other community members, staff, and individuals involved in local politics were also present at the event, which included reviewing the “findings book,” a 163-page document compiling all the information gathered during the community forums and written surveys.

One of the ReThinking Libraries staffers directing the follow-up meeting discounted all the children’s surveys because, he claimed, they were all clearly filled out by parents (several of Horne’s children completed the survey without their parents’ input). A member of the Library Foundation, which fundraises for the library, dismissed Horne’s complaints, challenging her to go out into the stacks and find something that was inappropriate. That same staffer also argued that young adult books with sexual content were “not pornographic” and that different people had different standards of what material was too sexually explicit for adolescents (that’s not exactly true, given current U.S. federal law on obscenity). 

“I thought it was incredible that no staff brought up the issue of sexually inappropriate material in the findings review or in the retreat,” Horne told me. “It was such a repeated issue in the surveys and yet there was no acknowledgment of it by the staff. … I walked away suspicious that there wasn’t any point to this, feeling ‘fake listened to.’”

Misrepresenting Community Concerns

A library Board of Trustees meeting that occurred the day after the retreat featured a recap of the day-long retreat attended by Horne. No mention of complaints to better screen books for sexually explicit content was included in the presentation by a ReThinking Libraries staffer. One member of the Board of Trustees noted that incongruity during that meeting and requested to know how the library would be incorporating community voices expressing such concerns. That same ReThinking Libraries staffer said the library would take that concern into consideration but sought to downplay its importance compared to other issues raised during the sessions.

“Everything the community brought up in the forum sessions can be massaged and presented in a controlled way that minimizes criticism of the library and staff, or frames issues in certain ways,” observed Horne. “I don’t have the sense we are having an open, good-faith discussion where both sides are truly communicating what they think.”

Horne is not alone in her frustrations. “No, our session was not adequately captured in the summary,” local resident Richard Hunter, who also attended the original session, told me when asked about the 163-page findings document produced by MRSPL. “I think our concerns are totally lost in the document.”

Hunter also complained that library officials sought to downplay concerns about sexual content. The document, he explained, cited “material … that they [session participants] felt were sexually explicit,” as if that concern was an entirely subjective one, held by a small minority. “Maybe we need people reading and showing the material at meetings etc., because otherwise they say it’s just our feelings,” added Hunter.

Entrenched, Protected Professional Bureaucrats

In early December, actor, writer, and producer Kirk Cameron was effectively banned from more than 50 public libraries in which he hoped to promote his new book, “As You Grow.” Many of those libraries regularly feature content and programs celebrating “gender fluidity, inclusion and diversity.” It did not matter if many local, tax-paying frequenters of those libraries and their children wanted to see Cameron; the technocrats managing those institutions decided on their behalf that pro-LGBT content is good, while “cisnormative” and “heteronormative” content is bad.

“The left believes they have a moral duty to advocate for certain communities and certain ideologies, which inevitably requires suppression or rejection of content perceived to be in opposition to said communities and ideologies,” Federalist Senior Contributor Chad Felix Greene recently argued. Indeed, the American Library Association published guidance to local libraries for how to covertly “queer the stacks” in communities where there is opposition to such content. Even when library bureaucrats and their third-party allies solicit community feedback, they employ byzantine tactics to devalue public concerns while obscuring their own ideological objectives through technical jargon.

The MRSPL library staff are scheduled to meet again in January with their third-party ReThinking Libraries allies to formalize a mission statement and action plan. It doesn’t require a graduate degree in Library and Information Science to predict how that meeting will go.

“The Mary Riley Styles Public Library is in the process of developing a strategic plan, the cornerstone of which is listening to all voices in our community,” Susan Finarelli, director of communications and public information officer for the City of Falls Church, said when asked to comment. “We take community feedback seriously and will continue to work with our patrons and community to best support all members.”

The community has been consulted, and now the experts will adjudicate. Horne’s husband said he recently saw MRSPL’s library featuring the following quotation: “Bad libraries build collections, good libraries build services, great libraries build communities.” Yet, as George Orwell might observe, not all communities are created equal.


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