By: Valerie Nye
I recently interviewed Kristin Pekoll, the assistant director for the Office of Intellectual Freedom at ALA. Before she worked for ALA, Kristin experienced a very public and personal challenge to books when she was the young adult librarian at the West Bend Community Memorial Library. In her current position, Kristin has the opportunity to use this very difficult experience from her past to help librarians who are facing challenges today. Here is Kristin’s story.
Valerie Nye: You experienced a challenge eight years ago, to a large number of books when you were working at the public library. Can you describe the challenge?
Kristin Pekoll: It was a six-month challenge that shoved me hard into the spotlight. The parent wanted over 80 LGBT books removed from the library. Her requests changed often and included relocating the books, labeling them sexually explicit, and adding ex-gay books. Our library and town received national attention by bloggers, social media and the press. It was very divisive for our community. We received letters of support and hate mail. One councilman was quoted in the local paper calling the library a “porn shop.”
VN: This was a very public challenge with at least one national organization that encourages people to protest material held by libraries. Can you describe the impact of this national organization (and others if there were others) that wants material banned from libraries?
KP: Organizations like this use superiority and self-righteousness to knock others down. Their goal is to convince librarians and teachers and parents and readers that there is something shameful in reading and learning about ideas that they consider wrong. If they can get their opponents to doubt themselves and back down, they win. That’s why it’s so important to stand up for all ideas and stories and perspectives. Standing up and shining a light on censorship and demanding to think for ourselves, is the only way to protect our values.
VN: Some of the large organizations that became involved offered support for the library. Can you talk about the role the large organizations played in providing support?
KP: A book challenge is incredibly isolating. You feel as though everyone is staring and judging. You feel as though every professional skill you learned is being questioned. You have very little control or influence on the outcome of the challenge and even your job. Organizations can provide experience — someone who has been there and gone through what you’ve gone through. Organizations can provide expertise — smart people who spend many hours and days reading and writing and talking about these issues. Organizations often have more time and resources to gather your defenses. When a challenge lands on your desk, it doesn’t mean your other responsibilities stop. You still have to plan story times, teach classes, review budgets and serve the public. Organizations can write emails to ask other allies for support. Organizations can write letters to urge decision makers to support the institution, the educator, the readers and most of all the principle of intellectual freedom.
VN: What lessons did you and/or the library learn through the process?
KP: I learned a lot about the structure of local government and politics. We had an incredibly supportive and knowledgeable director and library board. But the city council and mayor didn’t understand the principles we valued or the sound reasoning behind the procedures we followed. Every board and every state is organized differently in terms of elections, appointments, approvals, governing roles and advisory capacity.
I learned the essential truth that nothing is private when it’s captured electronically. My emails were FOIAed. My social media activity was captured by a screenshot and displayed on blogs. Even our library board’s private emails were subject to FOIA because they didn’t have separate board emails. My colleague, Deborah Caldwell Stone, has a great quote in her office that I have great fondness for: “Dance like no one is watching. Email like it may one day be read aloud in a deposition.”
Policies aren’t sexy. But they are essential to protect your institution from censorship. Our book challenge happened in 2009 but our policy hadn’t been revised since 1985. Following the challenge, the board spent a significant amount of time updating the policy. But even so, it hasn’t been updated since 2009. Policies should be reevaluated more frequently then every decade.
VN: Can you describe the outcome of the challenge?
KP: The board voted unanimously to retain all the books. No books were labeled, relocated or removed. The library did purchase a couple ex-gay titles. (I’m not sure if they’re still in the collection.) The board meeting with the decision was June 2, 2009. The Citizens for West Bend Safe Libraries entered a float in the 4th of July parade with a washing machine on a truck bed, handing out bookmarks that said, “Your library is unclean.”
VN: At the time, how did the challenge impact you personally?
KP: I was pregnant for the first time during this challenge. My status as “not a mother” was called out to disqualify me for ordering children’s books. Stress and hormones meant I spent a lot of time crying in my car in the parking lot. It was stressful to my loved ones who wanted to defend me publicly and were angry on my behalf. I had to muzzle them and myself in order to maintain my professional reputation and not escalate the situation.
Through this challenge, I met some of the most wonderful people I know and am honored to still call them friends today.
VN: How has the challenge impacted your career?
KP: I knew that I wasn’t going to stay at the West Bend Library long after this challenge happened. Part of me felt that leaving would mean I was abandoning the teens that I had worked closely with but I knew that they would understand. I was shocked and exhilarated when the opportunity to apply for ALA presented itself. This challenge and my experience as a librarian were key factors in getting the job. I’m so lucky and honored to be helping librarians the same way that others helped me.
VN: Does your experience in West Bend influence how you work with librarians in your role at ALA?
KP: 100%. Going through a book challenge can feel like it’s taking over your whole life. I was working with a librarian in Texas who was feeling particularly overwhelmed and attacked. I told her to walk out to the children’s area where the library was busy with summer reading craziness. And sit. Sit and watch the little ones playing with the library puppets. They don’t care about this challenge. They just love the puppets, and the stories, and the puzzles. They just know that the library is a wonderful place. Focus on that little face and those smiles long enough for you to remember why you became a librarian. Remember the big picture. Today, this book challenge is your whole life. But next year, it won’t be. And you’ll get through this and still love being a librarian. And who knows, someday you can help someone else get through situations like this.
VN: What advice do you have for librarians who experience a very public challenge to materials in their library?
KP: Hold your head up with pride for being one of the most trusted professionals in our country and around the world. Record everything and conduct yourself as though everything is recorded. Find support — emotional, professional, literary support.
VN: Thank you for taking the time to share your story, and thank you for the work you do to support librarians every day.
Valerie 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. firstname.lastname@example.org