10 Years After a Challenge: An Interview with Jerilynn Williams

Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship, Policies

By: Valerie Nye

Some of the most difficult challenges to library material that librarians have to deal with happen when one censorship issue snowballs and encourages multiple groups of people to challenge multiple books over several years. Jerilynn Williams is the library director of Montgomery County (Texas) Memorial Library System.  She encountered a series of challenges by groups opposed to material in the library, beginning in 2002. I interviewed Jerilynn Williams about her experiences, and the lessons she learned that she would like to share with all librarians.

VN: I understand from a 2004 article that the library in Montgomery County Memorial Library System had been going through three years of challenges by 2004.  Can you describe the challenges?

Book cover of It’s Perfectly NormalJW: On August 26, 2002, a dozen residents came to a meeting of the Montgomery County Commissioners’ Court, which is the governing body for the library system, and protested Robie Harris’ award-winning, sex education and health publication, It’s Perfectly Normal. They claimed that the work was obscene, pornographic, and promoted homosexuality. Four copies of the work had been part of the collection since 1996 and had circulated regularly. The county judge, after viewing two photocopied pages but without reading the entire work and disregarding the established Collection Development/Selection Policy (approved under his administration in 1994), vowed to do everything in his power to get the book removed from the library collection. Over the following months, factions against and for the book and the companion volume, It’s So Amazing, dominated court sessions.

At the conclusion of one contentious period, I received an escort to my car by a sheriff’s deputy in order to ensure my safety. I received numerous inquiries at my work and suspicious phone calls at my home. The varying opinions regarding the work were covered by local, regional, and national media and became flashpoints in efforts to pass a $10 million bond proposal for library system improvements. When we were not being interviewed by the media, the Library Board chairperson and I were conducting informational presentations for civic and social organizations about the need for the bond issue.

Ultimately, the county judge agreed that the process for reconsidering materials should be followed, with the modification of adding citizen representation to the advisory review committee. Members of the committee met in early November, examined the works in light of the established policy to determine whether to a) retain the work in its current classification, b) reclassify the item from one area to another, such as juvenile to Young Adult or YA to adult, etc., or c) to remove the book from the collection. The consensus was to recommend that the titles be retained in the collection. It is always my intention to support the recommendation of the committee and I have done so consistently, even though it is my decision that determines the outcome of the item. Otherwise, reconsideration sessions would come under the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) and participants’ viewpoints might be less candid during the discussions. Members of the court were notified; the press was also informed; and the books were returned to the shelves. Shortly thereafter, voting occurred on the bond issue and it passed.

The initial protest spawned some additional challenges to intellectual freedom. Access to information in Montgomery County was truly under assault. A group calling itself Library Patrons of Texas declared there were “at least 200 books” that needed to be removed from the library system materials collection. Over the next two years, formal challenges were submitted for 65 items, including two titles that were submitted twice. [Reconsideration guidelines limit a title to being challenged only once in a 12-month period but a second review can be requested after a year.] As a result, 60 items were retained in their same classification, (44 in YA, 8 in Adult, and 8 in juvenile); 5 titles were reclassified; 3 titles were removed.

There was also a movement promoting further revision of the Collection Development/Selection Policy. Several individuals deeply involved in the initial protest approached the county judge to collaborate on a re-write of the policy, proposing that every purchase order for new materials be examined/approved by a citizen committee prior to ordering the items. The judge agreed to accept their draft then approached another member of the court requesting support for making the changes. This was revealed by the commissioner during the official court session where a vote was to be taken on revising the policy.  The commissioner apologized to the judge, indicated that he just “couldn’t do business that way,” and voted NO — defeating the motion. These statements were captured in video coverage of the proceedings. Subsequently, the county judge was charged with violating Texas Open Meetings Act and assessed a fine and given probation.

VN: These were all very public challenges with activist group support. Can you describe what it was like to work with activist groups?

JW: First and foremost, it is important to realize that each person is entitled to their own opinion. I believe my 30-second sound-bite, which was developed during the initial protests and shared in almost every media session, reflects it best: “Not every book is appropriate for every person, but every person should have their book.” An appreciation for each individual’s point of view was a critical factor for me, an essential part of maintaining my personal integrity in support of equal access. As noted, there were organized efforts on both sides of the issue and I worked diligently to address the inquiries and concerns expressed by everyone, no matter what their stance. My efforts were focused upon open and honest communication with each individual or group, whether I personally agreed with their perspective.

VN: What advice do you have for librarians who may find themselves in a similar situation?

JW: My initial advice for librarians is to determine your personal commitment to intellectual freedom and universal access.  You have to believe in it to defend it.

Equally important is to have a Collection Development Policy that covers the selection, weeding, and reconsideration of materials, and that the policy is approved by your governing body. With that document in place, library staff should know it and use it, consistently and faithfully.

These are the first two elements of my “Ten Things to Know when Dealing with Materials Challenges,” a handout that was prepared for workshops that I conducted after the initial controversy.  [The “Ten Things to Know…” list can be found at the end of this post]

VN: Had you experienced other challenges prior to this incident?

JW: My professional career began as a school librarian and, during that time, I experienced two memorable challenges to materials in the library collections.

Are you there god its me margaret by judy blumeOne was Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, which had been purchased for a junior high school collection serving 7th through 9th grade students in New York state. Due to overcrowding at a nearby elementary school, several 5th and 6th grade classes were reassigned to the junior high building. The father of a 5th grade student protested his daughter having checked out the work. Following discussion with the parent and the principal, the book was retained in the school collection and teachers of the elementary-level classes were admonished to be more engaged in the library experiences of their students.

Another challenge involved John Irving’s work, The World According to Garp, which was purchased for a high school in north Texas after the work won the National Book Award. A father objected to the content of the book when he discovered that his son was reading it. A committee composed of teachers and chaired by the assistant principal read and reviewed the book. They recommended removing the work from the high school collection giving it to the local public library.

VN: Have you had any significant challenges since this time?

JW: Although there have been additional challenges to materials in the Montgomery County Memorial Library System collection since 2004, none have had the impact nor were as emotionally charged as the controversy in late 2002. On average, five or six formal requests for reconsideration are received annually. Each request is handled in accordance with the process outlined in our Collection Development Policy. In addition, some individuals just want to discuss an item and share their perspective on the material’s location or age level or appropriateness for the collection.

VN: Thinking about these challenges, how have they impacted your career?

JW:  I am a librarian, have been for 50-plus years, and love the business of connecting people with the information they need. My stance on access flows from that desire to ensure that “every person has their book,” in whatever format is most appropriate. If anything, the challenges have helped create a forum for my sharing that belief, coupled with the desire that others understand the crucial impact of failing to defend an individual’s right to universal access. The proverbial slippery slope is hard to climb, once you start a descent. I do warn our selectors to guard against becoming self-censors, just because a title might be challenged. If it meets the guidelines set forth in the library’s selection policy, buy it and be prepared to defend it – if that becomes necessary.

VN: Are you involved in any intellectual freedom initiatives at a local or national level.

Robie Harris and Jerilynn Williams
Robie Harris and Jerilynn Williams National Coalition Against Censorship

JW: Previously, I served on ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee for two terms and also was a member and twice the chair of the IFC for the Texas Library Association. Challenges to access are ongoing and I am frequently asked to consult with others regarding their specific situation, whether occurring locally, regionally, or nationally. I am always willing to offer encouragement and whatever guidance may be requested. My contact information is readily available for those who want or need assistance or just a friendly voice with reassurances.

VN: Is there anything else you would like to say about your career and/or the challenge incident you faced?

JW: Former ALA President Ann Symons said it well in explaining that a materials challenge is a trip to hell, something that you wouldn’t want to wish on your worst enemy. However, I believe that facing the experience with honest communication and an understanding of the right of each person to their particular viewpoint are the keys to navigating the journey successfully. My parents taught me to stand up for I believed in and supporting intellectual freedom and universal access are, for me, core beliefs.

VN: Thank you for sharing your story.

Ten Things to Know When Dealing with Materials Challenges

  1. Determine your personal commitment to intellectual freedom and universal access.
  2. Have a Collection Development Policy in place that includes selection, weeding, and reconsideration of materials; KNOW and USE it consistently and faithfully.
  3. Prepare to defend the materials selected under it.
  4. Be honest and objective with the challengers and with the media or those who report the activity; Remain professional, calm and objective in your interactions.
  5. Maintain confidentiality of library records.
  6. Remain available to address concerns, discuss the selection policy and reconsideration process.; Supply copies of the policy and forms as needed.
  7. Express appreciation for the interest that parents, students, administrators, co-workers, and other concerned individuals show —whether in support of the materials or to challenge them. LISTEN!!
  8. Stay informed of trends, concerns, issues that may impact your ability to secure and provide information services.
  9. Keep a record and report challenges to appropriate entities locally, at the state level.
  10. Seek assistance, as appropriate, AND receive it graciously, even if you don’t think it is necessary.

 

Valerie NyeValerie Nye is the library director at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She has been active in local and national library organizations, recently serving on ALA Council, the New Mexico Library Association, and the New Mexico Consortium of Academic Libraries. Val has cowritten or coedited four books including: True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries published by ALA Editions in 2012. True Stories is a compilation of essays written by librarians who have experienced challenges to remove material held in their libraries’ collections. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In her time away from the library she enjoys road trips in convertibles and kayaking on lakes. valnye@gmail.com

 

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