Child protection or censorship? Library employees lose jobs over book


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

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, Ky.

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

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

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

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
PowerPoint 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

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

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 8{-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

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

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.

The book was off the shelf for months while the committee
reviewed it.

Cook says she found the book back on the shelves before she
received a letter denying her request to have the book removed. She says she
again told management she would check out the book indefinitely. She says she
was not warned that this was a firing offense.

Then came Sept. 21.

Cook says that she never wanted the book taken off the
shelves so adults couldn’t see it.

“I’m an adult. I do not want you telling me what I can
read,” she says adamantly when you ask.

She just didn’t want this book in the Graphic Novel section,
which is located next to Young Adult Fiction. She didn’t want it adjacent to
what she calls “exaggerated comic books,” like the X-Men series, and
real comic books, like Spider-Man, which are so enticing to children.

In Scott and Woodford counties and in Lexington and
Louisville, parents and legal guardians must sign for a child to obtain a
library card. As such, in each of these libraries, as in the case of the Lexington
Public Library, parents assume the “sole responsibility for their child’s
reading, viewing and listening of library materials. Neither the library nor
library staff shall act in loco parentis. Selection and/or shelving of
materials will not be influenced by the possibility that materials might
inadvertently come into the possession of minors.”

Earlene Arnett, director of the Scott County Public Library,
explains that “libraries take censorship very seriously. We also take the
parent’s role very seriously. I’m sure they don’t want me to make their
decisions for them.”

Arnett says that the Scott County library places graphic
novels in the teen collection. “They are selected with the teen in
mind,” she says.

Martha White, acting director of the Lexington Public
Library, says that some of the library’s graphic novels are in juvenile
literature and some are in adult fiction or adult non-fiction, depending on the
content, the publisher and the review.

Neither the Scott or Lexington libraries had the book in question.
The Louisville Free Public Library did, and it is placed in the adult section.

Both Cook and Boisvert applied for unemployment benefits in
October. When the state inquired, the library denied their claims. Both
appealed. Boisvert won because her basis for dismissal was too slight to merit
a loss of benefit. Cook continues to appeal.

Both women say they remain baffled as to the reasoning
behind their dismissal.

Critchfield would not comment on the terminations because
they are personnel matters. According to the Employee Manual, grounds for
dismissal can include insubordination, theft or misuse of the Jessamine
library’s property, breach of confidentiality information and any other
violation of library policy.

At this point, Cook and Boisvert have not hired an attorney.
They are not sure if they want their jobs back. They do, however, want their
reputations back. Both say they have never been fired before.

On Nov. 4, a special meeting of the Jessamine library board
was called to set procedures for taking public comment. On Nov. 18, the
community will have its opportunity to speak.

Cook says the library, which she dearly loves, has a chance
“to be champions here.”

Judging from some comments on various Internet sites, it
either already is or it will never be.

Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.