Library employees fired over censorship of graphic novel

NICHOLASVILLE, Ky. — Sharon Cook is either a hero or a villain.

She is either due your thanks for doing everything in her power to protect children from obscenity or she is due your disdain for wantonly taking away the constitutional rights of the people of Jessamine County.

She never meant to do the latter. She absolutely meant to do the former.

It all started in the fall of 2008, and she is still doing it. The proof is in her knapsack, in a bright yellow flexible file folder, hidden from prying eyes. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume IV: The Black Dossier. It has pink and yellow highlighter tags sticking out, marking the pages that contain explicit sexual content.

It is the Jessamine County Public Library's copy, which she has checked out and not returned. She is being fined 10 cents a day for her breach of library contract — and for her moral stand.

She was, she says, simply appalled that a child could find a book that contained so many outright visually obscene graphics in the Jessamine library where she worked. So nine months ago, she challenged its right to be included in the collection, and when that failed, she simply checked it out herself.

In effect, she removed the book from circulation. She checked it out over and over and over with her library card until a patron of the library, unaware of the circumstances of the book, put a hold on it, asking to be the next in line to check it out.

When Cook went to renew The Black Dossier on Sept. 21, the computer would not allow it because of the hold. Cook used her employee privileges to find out that the patron desiring the book was an 11-year-old girl.

This would not do.

On Sept. 22, Cook told two of her colleagues at the library about her dilemma, and Beth Boisvert made a decision. She would take the book off hold, thus disallowing the child — or the child's parents — ever to see the book.

On Sept. 23, both Cook and Boisvert were fired. They were told by library director Ron Critchfield the firings were a decision of the library board.

Cook, 57, and Boisvert, 62, suddenly got support from people they didn't even know who heard about it on the Web or at church or in the news.

What followed has become a battle of principles that is larger than the women ever imagined.

It has become a question of what public libraries are enshrined to do, what role they are to play in monitoring children and whether they get to decide what people get to read.

What complicates this is that the graphic novel in question meets no standard of obscenity by the law.

While it does contain many images of varied and explicit sexual behavior, it has been the subject of academic study. It was named by Time Magazine as one of its Top 10 Graphic Novels of 2007 and called "genius," applauded for its ability to "pluck out the strange and angry and contradictory bits that underlie so much of the culture we live and think with today."

On Oct. 21, at its first meeting after the firings, the library board of directors found they needed a policy for public comment. Fifty people showed up unannounced to tell the library what they thought on the board's recent personnel actions.

Also on hand were Cook and Boisvert, who had prepared a power-point presentation of their case. It wasn't, they say, about keeping their jobs. It was about the fact that they had thought the book they found on the shelves of the library had originally been a mistake.

And the shock, they say, was that it wasn't. (The book had been bought originally because a patron had requested it.)

The presentation was created to explain that the Jessamine library's collection "currently contains material, readily available on its shelves, that is improper for children to view."

Moreover, they say they wanted to warn the library board that Kentucky law prohibits distribution of pornographic material to a child and they are concerned that the Jessamine library could be in felony violation.

They wanted to offer a plan for resolution: Because the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1973 that obscenity could be determined by local community standards, Jessamine County citizens should determine what they want their children to have access to.

They wanted to then suggest that the library change its policy on censorship.

Boisvert said she wanted them to know that "because we are a conservative community, we will choose to have our children protected."

Cook and Boisvert were never given the opportunity to speak. Neither was anyone else in the gallery. The reason given: It was not on the agenda.

People left really, really riled.

Director Critchfield has repeatedly said the library will not comment on personnel matters. The library, instead, has been left to try to speak through its policies.

The one most often pointed to is that any child 17 or under must have the consent of a parent or guardian to have a library card. And no child under 11 should be in the library unsupervised. (Parents choose if their children can access the Internet or if they can check out DVDs.)

Last week, new 81/2-by-17-inch posters went up around the library. "Parents and guardians, did you know?" they blare, explaining the policy the parents signed when their children took out cards and how to review the materials the child has checked out.

The Jessamine library had, before any complaint, adopted the American Library Association's policy manual and code of ethics as its own. (It is also the policy and code of ethics adopted by the state library association.)

It states: "Expurgation of any parts of books or other library resources by the library, its agent, or its parent institution is a violation of the Library Bill of Rights because it denies access to the complete work, and, therefore, to the entire spectrum of ideas that the work was intended to express."

Further, in the ALA's Code of Ethics: "We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representations of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources."

Critchfield has made a form of public comment: an open letter in the Jessamine Journal. In part, he wrote:

"As customers of a public library there is a First Amendment expectation to respect the rights of all persons — what one person might view as questionable might be quite important and relevant to another."

As to the charge about Cook's concern that the library was in violation of the state obscenity laws?

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, acting director of the ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom, says no U.S. library employee has ever been charged with that in a situation like this. Most states, including Kentucky, have written in an exclusion provision to that law, barring prosecution of libraries and education and scientific institutions.

Cook and Boisvert are not librarians. Generally, you must have a master's degree in library science to merit the professional title "librarian." The majority of library employees do not have an MLS. These paraprofessional positions go by a variety of titles depending on the library system.

Cook and Boisvert do not pretend to be librarians. Cook was a full-time employee of the library for four years before her firing. Boisvert worked 11 hours a week for more than two years before she was let go. Both women live in Jessamine County.

Cook says she consulted with a manager at the library at almost every step in her decision-making process about the graphic novel. She says when it first came to her attention, "someone suggested we spill a cup of tea on it. Instead I checked it out."

She then went through the proper procedure of challenging the book, something any patron can do. That required a committee, including Cook, to read the book.

"People prayed over me while I was reading it because I did not want those images in my head," she says.