FRONT ROYAL, Va. (AP) — A Virginia library with roots dating back to the 18th century could soon close because of a dispute over children’s books that expose readers to gay, lesbian and transgender characters.
Like many libraries across the country, Samuels Public Library in Warren County has found itself involved in a conflict about books with LGBTQ+ themes.
What sets Samuels Library apart is the very real danger that it will be forced to close entirely as a result of the dispute. The county Board of Supervisors voted in June to withhold 75% of its funding for the library unless the library board changes its charter to give the county more say in its governance.
The library, which is structured as a nonprofit and receives most of its funding from the county, has said it will run out of operating funds by the end of the month.
Melody Hotek, president of the library’s board of trustees, and Eileen Grady, the library’s interim director, say the county’s action is the direct result of a small group of activists who deride any children’s book with gay, lesbian or transgender characters as “pornography.” . ”
“This whole argument started because of LGBTQ in the library,” Grady said.
Emails to the five-member board went mostly unanswered, except for one supervisor, Walter Mabe, who said: “Such things take time to be resolved and I believe they will be resolved through discussion and adjustment on both sides can.”
Hotek said Tuesday members of the library board and supervisory board would meet this week and next as they continued to share various proposals that would change the leadership of the library board. Hotek said she was “cautiously optimistic” that an agreement could be reached.
Both sides “recognize that we are running out of time and money,” she said.
A community group called Clean Up Samuels has been pushing for changes at the library. One of its members, Thomas Hinnant, said the fight is about more than just the books themselves. He said the bigger issue is that the library board should be accountable to taxpayers, who provide most of the funding.
“It’s about self-government,” Hinnant said in a telephone interview. “The books helped people see how unrealistic the library’s curation policies are.”
Hundreds of complaints have now been filed about specific books, thanks in part to a “Beer, Babysitting, and Cleaning Up the Samuels Library” party hosted by Clean Up Samuels, where attendees were encouraged to submit objections.
The complaints range from titles including “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel which includes explicit illustrations of oral sex and masturbation, to “Bathe the Cat,” a children’s book that depicts a family with two fathers who mess up with household chores.
Hinnant said the Clean Up Samuels group focuses on books for minors that contain sexually explicit passages, as well as books that introduce children to transgender issues, even if those books are not explicit.
A community group called Save Samuels that formed to defend the library says the majority of Warren County residents oppose censorship of books on LGBTQ+ topics.
“I really feel like they’re just using this kind of ‘take care of kids’ message to cover up the fact that they don’t want LGBTQ books in the library,” said Kelsey Lawrence, one of the organizers Save Samuels.
Hotek and Grady said the library has done what it can to address community concerns. Books that relate to sexuality in any way have been moved to a separate section called New Adults. And parents can restrict their children’s library cards.
The library was founded in 1799 and is considered the second oldest in the state. It is separate from county government, although it relies on $1 million a year from Warren County to cover 75% of its budget.
More than a dozen libraries across the state have similar governance structures, Grady and Hotek said.
Lisa Varga, executive director of the Virginia Library Association, said the threat to library funding makes the challenge unique in Warren County.
“Books are being challenged everywhere in both schools and public libraries, but nothing compares to the tactics used in Warren County,” she said.
Varga said she was impressed with Save Samuels’ efforts to raise support for the library.
“People don’t want other people deciding for them what kind of books are available in libraries,” Varga said. “But it’s only when something like Front Royal reaches a tipping point that you see the outcry.”
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