‘A very slippery slope that we need to be careful of’

Approval of library grant postponed after Kenai council requests to preview book purchases

The Kenai City Council will hold off on allowing the Kenai Community Library to accept a $1,500 grant that would be used to purchase books about health and wellness after members of the community raised concerns about what books would be purchased with the money.

During a Wednesday city council meeting, one resident questioned whether the money would be used to purchase any books about COVID-19, while others said they opposed the use of federal funds to pay for library materials. The grant described by the legislation was awarded by the Network of the National Library of Medicine, according to a city memo.

Kenai Community Library Director Katja Wolfe wrote in an Oct. 6 memo to the city council that the Collection Equity Award, awarded by the Network of the National Library of Medicine, would be used to “refresh and replenish” the library’s health section with new and updated titles.

“We aim to serve as a resource for reliable health information and to help reduce health disparities in our community by making health information freely available and accessible,” Wolfe wrote in a memo to the city council. “Health literacy is a 21st century skill that is crucial to understanding health information and making knowledgeable health-related decisions.”

Among the topics the books purchased with the grant would address, Wolfe said during the council meeting, are mental health, suicide prevention, self-care, healthy habits and reference books about Medicare and Medicaid, among other things.

“Are there any COVID titles?” asked Sharon Efta, of Kenai, during the city council meeting.

Wolfe said she didn’t have a complete list of titles yet, but that the list she does have doesn’t have any COVID titles.

“I think it’s irresponsible to just blanket rubber stamp something that you don’t know anything about,” Efta then told city council members.

Dave Peck, of Kenai, testified during the city council meeting he takes particular issue with the term “equity,” used in the name of the award and asked if the grant would be “enhancing some sort of a federal agenda … which would not necessarily represent the views of the people of Kenai.”

“I think equity can create division,” Peck said.

Council member Teea Winger said she was also “concerned” about funding for the grant, which is available through the Network of the National Library of Medicine.

Council member Jim Glendenning asked Wolfe whether the legislation allowing the library to accept the grant could be postponed so that the council could see an inventory of proposed purchases before they vote. Wolfe said that the final grant report is due in May 2022 but that the library is hoping to purchase the books by the end of November.

Multiple people voiced concerns about the council waiting to vote on the acceptance of the grant until a list of titles was available.

Council member Henry Knackstedt called the move a “slippery slope” and said what titles would be purchased was not pertinent to him.

“I would be cautious about anybody finding a title that they question and kind of reject because of a perception,” Knackstedt said.

Council member Glenese Pettey similarly said that it’s important to her that resources available in the library are not censored.

“Making sure that we have books that represent different points of view in our library and not censoring information and protecting our freedom of speech and freedom of access is highly important,” Pettey said. “I wanted that to be set as a reminder for everyone present, as they’re scrutinizing and possibly checking off, ‘No, I don’t like that book,’ or ‘Yeah, that book is approved,’ and how that could certainly jeopardize our opportunity for freedom of speech and freedom of access and being censored.”

Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander pointed out that the Kenai Community Library received $59,000 last year to purchase at its discretion and that Wolfe is “consistently” looking for ways to make more books available for residents.

“I wanted you to know that there’s already every year over $60,000 worth of books that she purchases,” Ostrander said. “And I do think that looking at each one of those title by title and determining which are not appropriate is a very slippery slope that we need to be careful of.”

The council ultimately voted to postpone the legislation with the understanding that Wolfe will provide a more detailed list of materials to be purchased.

Kenai Deputy Clerk Meghan Thibodeau confirmed Friday that the legislation was postponed until the list of titles could be compiled, but that it was not yet known when the list would be complete. Because new city council members elected during the Oct. 5 election will take their seats starting at the council’s Nov. 3 meeting, Thibodeau said the legislation will need to be reintroduced before it can be put up for another public hearing and final vote by the council.

Wolfe declined to comment on the decision to postpone the legislation on Friday.

Kenai Community Library’s regulations and policies, including “book selection,” are outlined in the City of Kenai’s municipal code. That section says that library materials will be selected based on their “value of interest, information, and enlightenment of all the people of the community.”

“This Commission believes that censorship is a purely individual matter and declares that while anyone is free to reject for himself books of which he does not approve, he cannot exercise this right of censorship to restrict the freedom to read to others,” the code says.

“Commission” refers to a now-inactive Library Commission. The code goes on to say that the library commission will adhere to and support both the Library Bill of Rights and the Freedom to Read Statement as adopted by the American Library Association. Ostrander confirmed Friday that Kenai Municipal Code gives Wolfe the authority to select library materials.

The Library Bill of Rights, originally adopted by the American Library Association Council in 1939, says, among other things, that books and other library resources should be provided for the interest and information of a library’s community, that libraries should provide information presenting all points of view, that libraries should challenge censorship and that libraries should cooperate with people concerned with “resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.”

The Freedom to Read Statement was originally issued in 1953 by the American Library Association Council and the Association of American Publishers and declares that the freedom to read is essential to democracy and that attempts to suppress the freedom to read go against the “fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad.”

“The written word is the natural medium for the new idea and the untried voice from which come the original contributions to social growth,” the Freedom to Read Statement says. “It is essential to the extended discussion that serious thought requires, and to the accumulation of knowledge and ideas into organized collections.”

Wednesday’s full city council meeting can be viewed on the City of Kenai’s YouTube channel.

This story has been updated to state that the grant was received by Region 5 of the Network of the National Library of Medicine, part of the National Library of Medicine, which is operated by the federal government.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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