Future of Kansas town’s library uncertain after outpouring of support at commission meeting
St. Marys City Commission to decide next month whether to renew the library’s lease
St. Marys residents fill a city commission meeting room Tuesday night, where many said they want the public library to stay in town. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
ST. MARYS — Following public outcry about censorship, the St. Marys City Commission decided to table a vote on renewing the Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library’s lease.
The lease is under threat because the library refused to comply with the commission’s request to remove all LGBTQ, sexual, racial or otherwise “socially divisive” content from its shelves.
But with the lease ending in December, the library is still in a precarious situation.
Every chair in the commission meeting room was filled for Tuesday night’s discussion about the library, with residents lined up against the walls to listen to debate. The majority of residents who spoke said they wanted the library to stay open.
Tom Graham, a veteran who has lived in St. Marys since 1970, said he had worked with LGBTQ people in the military. Graham said residents should accept that gay people exist, and that residents could simply exercise their option as parents to monitor what their children read in the library.
“Face it. Society is society. And that’s the way it goes,” Graham said. “You’ve got to accept it. You don’t have to appreciate it, but turn your head. But the library can control stuff up there. Put your kids on the list to have something removed. Please do not close the library.”
Commission members said they would vote on whether or not to renew the lease at a Dec. 6 meeting. The library’s lease ends Dec. 31. If the lease isn’t renewed, the library will have to pack everything and move to a different town because there is no other space in St. Marys suitable to accommodate everything.
The commissioners floated several ideas for lease renewal, including only letting the library have a short-term lease of two to three months, or installing a review committee that would monitor the public library’s materials.
“Whatever the term of the lease is, I’d like some sort of a group put together from concerned citizens to put some kind of local community together to help in determining whether or not texts and programs in the public library are up to community standards,” said St. Marys City Commissioner Matthew Childs.
In August, Childs pushed for adding a clause in the lease that would’ve stipulated that the library not “supply, distribute, loan, encourage, or coerce acceptance of or approval of explicit sexual or racially or socially divisive material, or events (such as ‘drag queen story hours’) that support the LGBTQ+ or critical theory ideology or practice.”
Judith Cremer, the library director, said the situation has been very difficult for her and her staff. She said she’s only been getting information about the lease status through the meetings, with no information forthcoming from the commissioners.
“I’m afraid that we’ll lose people because it’s a tenuous situation,” Cremer said. “We don’t know what to expect.”
The library has been housed in St. Marys since the 1980s, operating on an annual lease with the city. The library acts as the headquarters for eight locations, including Alma, Alta Vista, Eskridge, Harveyville, Olsburg, Onaga, St. Marys and Westmoreland, with county residents funding the library through taxes.
Some commissioners are pushing to get rid of the public library and install their own city-run library, where they would vet all material.
St. Marys Vice-Mayor Francis Awerkamp, a Republican who also serves in the Kansas House, said he wouldn’t support the public library in any form because of the LGBTQ material it housed.
“If they so willingly allowed that book in the library, I do not believe their standards have changed,” Awerkamp said. “I would like to make sure their standards have changed, and if their standards are not changed, I am in full support of a city running its own library that is locally controlled based on some objective standards.”
The commission has debated whether to renew the library’s lease for the past few months. Commissioners started the discussion after a local parent was upset by the contents of the book “Melissa,” written by Alex Gino, when his child checked it out over the summer. He wanted the book, which is about a transgender child, removed from the library.
The book was added to the library after it made the William Allen White Award 2017-2018 Master List for grades 3-5, and has only been checked out four times. Commissioners said they acted out of concerns that the library contained immoral material, citing the parent’s concern.
But the parent in question, Dave Perry, showed up at the meeting in support of the library. Perry said he is a lifelong St. Marys resident, and his family had a long history with the town.
“This was my library. I grew up with this library. My mom took me here as a kid,” Perry said. “I used to do my homework in the resource room, and it’s important, as a father, that my kids can go to the library as well.”
Perry said he still found “Melissa” to be completely inappropriate, but said he had it removed from the library and paid the library for the cost of the book.
Perry said Cremer had handled the situation well, and he wanted her and the other librarians to be able to stay in St. Marys.
“At the end of the day, the library stays as it is, as it was when I was a kid and our kids don’t have to read about chemical castration, which is a great thing,” Perry said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, only a few residents actually advocated for the contents of “Melissa.” Many said they didn’t support transgender content but felt that closing the library was too extreme.
Pastor Dean Scott, who works at the Baptist church in St. Marys, said the issue was already resolved, but residents needed to watch out for other LGBTQ books.
“They have beliefs that they believe in. But it don’t take much of a silver-tongued devil to come in and begin to pull you off of it,” Scott said. “Like was mentioned about that chemical castration, God said that he made male and female, he didn’t change it around.”
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