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Commissioners debate LGBTQ+ library material, funding
Live Oak Public Libraries is headquartered in Savannah, but covers Liberty County's public libraries.

By:  Barbara Augsdorfer/Editor Effingham Herald

The Effingham County Commissioners met in a special called workshop Monday, Dec. 4, primarily to discuss concerns regarding the libraries’ stocking of LGBTQ-themed materials, and renewing of the county’s funding for the library. All the commissioners except Reggie Loper were present, along with a number of local city officials, county staff, administration and board members from the library system.

As a workshop, the public was welcome to attend, but no public comment is taken during the two-hour meeting.

The sticking point – at least for Commissioner Roger Burdette – is the library system’s inclusion of materials by LGBTQ authors.

The workshop was scheduled to allow the commissioners to discuss the item further after it was tabled at the Nov. 21 regular meeting.

One of the books Burdette found objectionable is I Kissed Shara Wheeler, a 2022 novel by Casey McQuiston.

Commission Chairperson Wesley Corbitt assured the public that the commission is not looking to defund the library nor ban books; but rather looking for ways to protect the county’s children.

According to the recently adopted 2024 budget, the county has allocated just over $753,800 for the library system. The county’s funding of the library has steadily increased from $660,000 in 2021.

Burdette shared from his research regarding LGBTQ-themed materials available at the library for readers as young as three years old.

Attempting to bolster his argument regarding having such reading material available for young readers, Burdette cited research claiming a connection among gender dysphoria and a myriad of mental health issues in teens, ranging from autism, to eating disorders and the onset of schizophrenia.

Several minutes of back-and-forth discussion ensued. Commissioner Forrest Floyd said, “I will say that I thought there would be posters pushing (an agenda); but the professional staff were very confident and pretty much felt the same way we did. We all just want to protect our kids.

“I felt very comfortable once I got there and met with them,” Floyd added.

The discussion addressed some misinformation that had been circulating on social media; and also touched on the “slippery slope” of what group of individuals – Hispanics, African-Americans, poverty and homelessness – may be excluded next.

“I cannot tell you the amount of phone calls and emails that I got from very concerned parents,” said Rincon City Councilmember Patrick Kirkland. “I got them past the part they're not going to defund the library, and then it got to ‘Okay, well what about my child that might be in this community? What about the African-American child who needs to find books?’” Kirkland added.

“You kind of boxed (them) up into that corner and I don't think it was done on purpose. But you still need to address it. If you're going to start here, then what's next?,” Kirkland asked. “Now you're going to start talking about something else that you don't like in the library. The library is a resource that people use for all different types of things.”

Noting that the library system is for all people and that patrons want to find materials they can identify with, Lola Shelton-Council, the Live Oaks Public Library executive director told the commissioners how the library is actively diversifying its collection.

“In 2020 the library completed a diversity audit and found that we were lacking in LGBTQ material and also other historically underrepresented voices. Those include people experiencing poverty and homelessness, women, Hispanic voices, African-Americans,” Shelton-Council explained. “So the library since 2020 has been adding these materials because people in our community are looking to be reflected in our collection. And so we're working every day to make sure that our collection represents the community.”

She added that LGBTQ material has been checked out more than 1,500 times in the past three years. “So there are people looking and we get complaints about why there isn’t more diversity in our collection,” Shelton-Council said.

In additional defense of the library’s collection, Shelton-Council assured the commissioners there are several filters or conditions in place to protect children from accessing any material their parents or guardians might find questionable.

·                    Children under nine years old must be accompanied by someone older than 13 while in the stacks.

·                    Parents/guardians may download an app on their phone that shows them what materials their children have checked out.

·                    Parents/guardians ultimately have the responsibility to guide their children to materials what they deem appropriate.

·                    The library as a public library must stock materials for the general community

·                    Regarding the computers, the library must adhere to the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which was passed by Congress in 2000, and updated in 2023 regarding use of social media.

No vote or decision was made at Monday’s meeting, and the commission will take the issue up again at a future regular meeting.

Guyton Mayor Russ Deen summed up the concerns of the library regarding the materials it carries.

“It’s the quality of that resource that we're asking about. The fact that we put books up that you demonize a certain group of people. That's the question,” Deen said. “Books are a way that we find empathy. Books are a way that we see life through another person’s eyes -- life that we don't understand necessarily as white men.

“If we demonize all these books and we put them into a small corner and hide them away, what does it say about the book and the people these books represent?” Deen concluded.

The commissioners canceled the next regularly scheduled meeting for Dec. 19; so the soonest this issue can be addressed will be in January 2024.