Palin, libraries, false lists, real questions

The amount of attention about the whole deal with the Palin/Wasilla public library question has been gratifying, but there’s also been confusion too — and some of it has been over the top. A very handy blog post over at the LA Times sums it up:

News that Sarah Palin made inquiries about banning books shortly after becoming mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, has quickly been followed by speculations of what books she might have targeted….In fact, one widely circulated, very long list (which appears, among other places, on Librarian.net’s comment string and has been disavowed by the website’s owner) is obviously false because it includes four books that had not yet hit shelves when Palin became mayor in 1996 — “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” all by J.K. Rowling.

I’d not seen this list before it was (quite appropriately) called to my attention as being false yesterday — it was calculated to appeal to the emotion but rightly was called on for being inaccurate. (Like, say, a certain speech at the RNC last week.) That this list apparently circulated widely without people checking on its accuracy is distressing, and does nobody any favors.

There’s still a larger question, though, and as I said in my previous post on the matter, we’re dealing with something that is murky — a loaded word, but not inappropriate. Essentially nobody had cohesively or clearly questioned the basic exchange as reported in the Anchorage Daily News story, so to requote:

When the matter came up for the second time in October 1996, during a City Council meeting, Anne Kilkenny, a Wasilla housewife who often attends council meetings, was there.

Like many Alaskans, Kilkenny calls the governor by her first name.

“Sarah said to Mary Ellen, ‘What would your response be if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?” Kilkenny said.

“I was shocked. Mary Ellen sat up straight and said something along the line of, ‘The books in the Wasilla Library collection were selected on the basis of national selection criteria for libraries of this size, and I would absolutely resist all efforts to ban books.’”

As the LA Times post notes, we’ve now received something clearer — the Mat-Su Frontiersman, the newspaper which reported the exchange which the ADN story uses for its article, has now made that original 1996 article available on its site. So to quote it in some detail — the spelling mistakes you see result from the transcription as made by the Frontiersman:

Library Director Mary Ellen Emmons last week said Palin broached the subject with her on two occasions in October – once Palin was elected mayor Oct. 1 but before she took office on Oct. 14, and again in more detail on Monday, Oct. 28. Besides heading the Wasilla City Library, Emmons is also president of the Alaska Library Association.

The issue became public last Wednesday, when Palin brought it up during an interview about the now-defunct Liquor task Force. Palin used the library topic as an example of discussions with her department heads about understanding and following administration agendas. Palin said she asked Emmons how she would respond to censorship.

Emmons drew a clear distinction Saturday between the nature of Palin’s inquiries and an established book-challenge policy in place in Wasilla, and in most public libraries.

“I’m not trying to suppress anyone’s views,” Emmons said. “But I told her (Palin) clearly, I will fight anyone who tries to dictate what books can go on the library shelves.”

Palin said Monday she had no particular books or other material in mind when she posed the questions to Emmons.

Emmons said in the first conversation, before being sworn in as mayor, Palin briefly touched on the subject of censorship.

But on Monday, Oct. 28, Emmons said Palin asked her outright if she could live with censorship of library books. This was during a weak when Palin was requesting resignations from all the city’s department heads as a way of expressing loyalty.

“This is different than a normal book-selection procedure or a book-challenge policy,” Emmons stressed Saturday. “She was asking me how I would deal with her saying a book can’t be in the library.”

Monday Palin said in a written statement she was only trying to get aquatinted with her staff at the time. “Many issues were discussed, both rhetorical and realistic in nature,” Palin added.

Emmons recalled that the Oct. 28 conversation she pulled no punches with her response to the mayor.

“She asked me if I would object to censorship, and I replied ‘Yup’,” Emmons recounted Saturday. “And I told her it would not be just me. This was a constitutional question, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) would get involved, too.”

Emmons said Palin asked her on Oct. 28 if she would object to censorship, even if people were circling the library in protest about a book. “I told her it would definitely be a problem the ACLU would take on then,” Emmons said

Asked who she thought might picket the library, Palin said Monday, “Had no one in mind … again, the issue was discussed in the context of a professional question being asked in regards to library policy.

As the Times reporter adds after her choice of quote:

Rhetorical? Well, OK … if she says so. Still, it seems like an odd getting-to-know-you question to me.

And therein the problem still. Yesterday, I wrote this to the correspondent I mentioned last week:

…Let me give Palin more of the benefit of the doubt than I’ve done yet: assume….that Palin simply feels Emmons is too much a political appointee from a previous officeholder (more than fair) and wants to make clear that Emmons has to be responsible to whatever the concerns of the current one are (equally fair)….Hindsight is entirely 20/20 — Palin 2008 might look back on Palin 1996 as having done or put things then she would not do now, having learned through experience — and at no point have we heard that she has tried to do anything similar to this specific case in later years, so ‘rhetorical’ may be the only word for it.

All that said — why this sledgehammer question in particular? What was the context it was presented in? (IE, was it brought up amid other questions re: library agendas — say, budget or employee supervision — or was it the sole one?) And why three times? If it was a case of a strong personality trying to hit an equally strong personality where it hurts, then the choice of weapon and sore spot is still suggestive. And if in the end it was simply Palin trying to show to others that Emmons was recalcitrant given the loss of her preferred candidate, by casting the argument where book-banning was seen as the ‘correct’ way and resistance to it ‘incorrect’…very dicey, very much a heavy risk, especially if Emmons herself was seen as a very popular figure with widespread support in Palin’s constituency. I am less concerned than I was, but I am not fully reassured.

These last questions remain open for the most part. Consider this specific part from the Frontiersman report:

Palin used the library topic as an example of discussions with her department heads about understanding and following administration agendas. Palin said she asked Emmons how she would respond to censorship.

So we do have somewhat clearer context that had earlier only been implied — as I said in the letter of mine I quoted, an officeholder under the mayor “has to be responsible to whatever the concerns of the current [mayor] are.” They can be disagreed with but they can’t be dodged, and here Emmons disagreed and did not dodge.

Yet the choice of question for Palin bring up — especially when in context it already had been brought up by Palin as mayor before — is still very suggestive. I find it very hard to believe that Palin had not been aware this was a classic hot-button issue for libraries in general, and Emmons’s responses — even more forceful in the Frontiersman article than in the second hand report via the ADN, with reference to ACLU involvement if necessary — are strong.

Further, the end of the article provides more detail that I think had not already been known before, specifically the last two paragraphs:

The timing of the issue comes at a time when Emmons is trying to get the book-challenge policies of the Wasilla Library and of the Palmer City Library in line with the Mat-Su Borough policy, revised in December of last year.

Emmons described the new borough policy as “a very good one.”

It is a step-by-step blueprint of procedures for anyone wanting to challenge the selection and availability of library material, Emmons explained. “it is a good process, and almost all public libraries have one.”

The borough’s policy was revised mainly to replace the borough manager as the final decision maker with a formal Reconsideration Committee Mat-Su Borough Manager Don Moore said Saturday that changes were made, with the blessings, after a dispute that was resolved about two years ago involving a challenged book at the Big Lake Library.

Emmons said the current Wasilla policy, which she described as written in more general terms than the borough’s, also worked procedurally in a book-challenge case last year. Emmons said then-council-woman Palin was distressed about the issue when it came up, indicating she was aware of the city’s book-challenge policy.

Emmons said in the conversations with now-Mayor Palin in October, she reminded her again that the city has a policy in place. “But it seamed clear to me that wasn’t really what she was talking about anyhow,” Emmons added. “I just hope it doesn’t come up again.”

We now move again into murky waters. Emmons in noting that there’s a way to address concerns about what a library holds emphasizes that there is a way for public inquiries — and if necessary, protests — to be filed over content. Learning more about these policies might be handy and I may yet do a little scrounging on my own [EDIT -- Alfie, a fellow WP Political Alliance blogger, has kindly provided a link below to official documentation on this policy], but I’ve no reason to doubt the basic claim that Emmons makes regarding this being a standard approach — and it makes sense to have this: a public institution can and should be responsive to public concerns. If a question arises, have it discussed and addressed.

But there’s no further detail about this earlier book protest when Palin served on the town council, what this book was, what exercised her concern so much about either the book in question or the book-challenge policy, and why. We may wish to assume the worst — and to repeat what I’ve said before, my bias is clear — but we need more detail, if and where available. Was it part of a formal council discussion? An off-the-record inquiry? Was the question less one about the policy than how it was handled?

In sum, we need to know more. And hopefully, we will.

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2 Responses to “Palin, libraries, false lists, real questions”

  1. Alfie Says:

    If you or your readers would be interested this link sends you to the City of Wasilla where there is a pdf download available stressing No books banned and some bits etc.

  2. Ned Raggett Says:

    Thanks very much, Alfie, good catch — the link is not under the library section, but via the ‘City Documents – Recently Requested – Former Mayor Palin’ section, perhaps inevitably. It is the third from final report at the bottom, ‘Reconsideration Requests of Library’, and I will quote it here in full. The document is undated.

    In accordance with the Wasilla Public Library Collection Development Policy, the library, “…strives to achieve a balanced collection of materials in the major information categories, as well as a fiction collection calculated to satisfy the widest possible variety of tastes. All viewpoints and opinions on controversial subjects will be represented whenever possible… Wasilla Public Library recognizes the right of every citizen to read and gather information, and his or her right to freedom from censorship by other persons. Many books are controversial and any given item may offend some persons. However, selections for this library will not be made on the basis of anticipated approval or disapproval, but solely on the merits of the material in relation to the building of the collection and to serving the interests of all readers. This library holds censorship to be a purely individual matter and declares that – while anyone is free to reject for himself books and other materials of which he does not approve – he cannot exercise this right of censorship to restrict the freedom of others.”

    Should a Matanuska-Susitna Library Network card holder request the reconsideration of an item in the library’s collection, there is a step-by-step process which is followed. The first step in the process is the patron speaking with the library director, who listens to the patron concerns and explains how materials are selected for the library’s collection. It is the policy of Wasilla Public Library that all challenged materials remain in circulation until a final decision is reached and a challenged item may go through the reconsideration process only once within a twelve month period.


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