Banned books came up early last month even before the usual reminders of the annual weekly commemoration, thanks to the Republican vice presidential nominee. Now, for all of Sarah Palin’s faults, it’s worth mentioning one more time that the lists of books she has supposedly banned that are circulating — I’m aware of two — are fake. The first one, making the rounds of the blogs, is a joke; just read the titles. The second one, addressed by the Huffington Post and Snopes among others, has been lifted wholesale from the Adler & Robins “public service report”, as anyone who has checked banned book lists this week knows. Both lists have continued to circulate in all seriousness, which I find rather distressing, from the standpoints of both humor and truth, both of which seem to be lacking.
However, Gov. Palin’s early history as Mayor of Wasilla does seem to have something to do with the rumors’ lingering lives. Back in 1996, when Palin first became mayor, she asked city librarian Mary Ellen Emmons if Ms. Emmons would “be all right with censoring library books should she be asked to do so”, as reported by by Rindi White in last month’s Anchorage Daily News [I’ve added the various links, and the emphasis]:
According to news coverage at the time, the librarian said she would definitely not be all right with it. A few months later, the librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, got a letter from Palin telling her she was going to be fired. The censorship issue was not mentioned as a reason for the firing. The letter just said the new mayor felt Emmons didn’t fully support her and had to go.
Emmons had been city librarian for seven years and was well liked. After a wave of public support for her, Palin relented and let Emmons keep her job.
It all happened 12 years ago and the controversy long ago disappeared into musty files. Until this week. Under intense national scrutiny, the issue has returned to dog her. It has been mentioned in news stories in Time Magazine and The New York Times and is spreading like a virus through the blogosphere.
The stories are all suggestive, but facts are hard to come by. Did Palin actually ban books at the Wasilla Public Library?
In December 1996, Emmons told her hometown newspaper, The Frontiersman, that Palin three times asked her — starting before she was sworn in — about possibly removing objectionable books from the library if the need arose.
Emmons told The Frontiersman she flatly refused to consider any kind of censorship. Emmons, now Mary Ellen Baker, is on vacation from her current job in Fairbanks and did not return e-mail or telephone messages left for her Wednesday.
When the matter came up for the second time in October 1996, during a City Council meeting, Anne Kilkenny, a Wasilla housewife who often attends council meetings, was there. …
“Sarah said to Mary Ellen, ‘What would your response be if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?” Kilkenny said.
“I was shocked. Mary Ellen sat up straight and said something along the line of, ‘The books in the Wasilla Library collection were selected on the basis of national selection criteria for libraries of this size, and I would absolutely resist all efforts to ban books.'”
Palin didn’t mention specific books at that meeting, Kilkenny said.
Palin herself, questioned at the time, called her inquiries rhetorical* and simply part of a policy discussion with a department head “about understanding and following administration agendas,” according to The Frontiersman article.
Were any books censored or banned? June Pinell-Stephens, chairwoman of the Alaska Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee since 1984, checked her files Wednesday and came up empty-handed. Pinell-Stephens also had no record of any phone conversations with Emmons about the issue back then. Emmons was president of the Alaska Library Association at the time. Books may not have been pulled from library shelves, but there were other repercussions for Emmons. [According to a School Library Journal article, Pinnell-Stephens, also noted as a friend of Emmons’, said that “[Palin] essentially forced Mary Ellen out … She all but fired her.”]
Four days before the exchange at the City Council, Emmons got a letter from Palin asking for her resignation. Similar letters went to police chief Irl Stambaugh, public works director Jack Felton and finance director Duane Dvorak. John Cooper, a fifth director, resigned after Palin eliminated his job overseeing the city museum.
Palin told The Daily News back then the letters were just a test of loyalty as she took on the mayor’s job, which she’d won from three-term mayor John Stein in a hard-fought election. Stein had hired many of the department heads. Both Emmons and Stambaugh had publicly supported him against Palin.
Emmons survived the loyalty test and a second one a few months later. She resigned in August 1999, two months before Palin was voted in for a second mayoral term. …
From The Frontiersman article from December 1996 mentioned above:
In the wake of strong reactions from the city’s library director to inquiries about censorship, Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin on Monday was taking pains to explain her questions about censoring library material were “rhetorical.”
Library Director Mary Ellen Emmons last week said Palin broached the subject with her on two occasions in October – once Palin was elected mayor Oct. 1 but before she took office on Oct. 14, and again in more detail on Monday, Oct. 28. Besides heading the Wasilla City Library, Emmons is also president of the Alaska Library Association.
The issue became public last Wednesday, when Palin brought it up during an interview about the now-defunct Liquor task Force. Palin used the library topic as an example of discussions with her department heads about understanding and following administration agendas. Palin said she asked Emmons how she would respond to censorship.
Emmons drew a clear distinction Saturday between the nature of Palin’s inquiries and an established book-challenge policy in place in Wasilla, and in most public libraries.
“I’m not trying to suppress anyone’s views,” Emmons said. “But I told her (Palin) clearly, I will fight anyone who tries to dictate what books can go on the library shelves.”
Palin said Monday she had no particular books or other material in mind when she posed the questions to Emmons.
Emmons said in the first conversation, before being sworn in as mayor, Palin briefly touched on the subject of censorship.
But on Monday, Oct. 28, Emmons said Palin asked her outright if she could live with censorship of library books. This was during a weak [sic] when Palin was requesting resignations from all� [?] the city’s department heads as a way of expressing loyalty.
“This is different than a normal book-selection procedure or a book-challenge policy,” Emmons stressed Saturday. “She was asking me how I would deal with her saying a book can’t be in the library.”
Monday Palin said in a written statement she was only trying to get aquatinted [sic] with her staff at the time. “Many issues were discussed, both rhetorical and realistic in nature,” Palin added.
Emmons recalled that the Oct. 28 conversation she pulled no punches with her response to the mayor.
“She asked me if I would object to censorship, and I replied ‘Yup’,” Emmons recounted Saturday. “And I told her it would not be just me. This was a constitutional question, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) would get involved, too.”
Emmons said Palin asked her on Oct. 28 if she would object to censorship, even if people were circling the library in protest about a book. “I told her it would definitely be a problem the ACLU would take on then,” Emmons said
Asked who she thought might picket the library, Palin said Monday, “Had no one in mind … again, the issue was discussed in the context of a professional question being asked in regards to library policy.
“All questions posed to Wasilla’s library director were asked in the context of professionalism regarding the library policy that is in place in our city. Obviously the issue of censorship is a library question… you ask a library director that type of question,” Palin said
“Palin also said Monday censorship issues would not involve any departments other than the library.
Palin called Emmons into her office Monday to discuss the censorship questions again.
Palin also attended Friday’s staff meeting at the library, but without mentioning censorship, Emmons said.
“I’m hoping it was just a trial balloon,” Emmons said, “because the free exchange of information is my main job, and I’ll fight anyone who tries to interfere with that.”
The timing of the issue comes at a time when Emmons is trying to get the book-challenge policies of the Wasilla Library and of the Palmer City Library in line with the Mat-Su Borough policy, revised in December of last year.
Emmons described the new borough policy as “a very good one.”
It is a step-by-step blueprint of procedures for anyone wanting to challenge the selection and availability of library material, Emmons explained. “it is a good process, and almost all public libraries have one.”
The borough’s policy was revised mainly to replace the borough manager as the final decision maker with a formal Reconsideration Committee. Mat-Su Borough Manager Don Moore said Saturday that changes were made, with the blessings, after a dispute that was resolved about two years ago involving a challenged book at the Big Lake Library.
Emmons said the current Wasilla policy, which she described as written in more general terms than the borough’s, also worked procedurally in a book-challenge case last year. Emmons said then-council-woman Palin was distressed about the issue when it came up, indicating she was aware of the city’s book-challenge policy.
Emmons said in the conversations with now-Mayor Palin in October, she reminded her again that the city has a policy in place. “But it seamed [sic] clear to me that wasn’t really what she was talking about anyhow,” Emmons added. “I just hope it doesn’t come up again.”
Meanwhile, Emmons said she is working with borough libraries boss Bruce Urban and Palmer Library Director Janice Sanford, in the hope of getting the cities to adopt a book-challenge policy identical to the borough’s.
The Washington Monthly had a few more interesting items on September 13 [links provided in original]:
ABC News added a report this week, explaining that Palin took office thanks in large part to the strong backing of her church, the Wasilla Assembly of God, which, right around the time Palin took office, “began to focus on certain books” the church wanted to see removed from shelves.
as well as this bit in an AP article,
The Rev. Howard Bess, a liberal Christian preacher in the nearby town of Palmer, said the church Palin and her family attended until 2002, the Wasilla Assembly of God, was pushing to remove his book from local bookstores.
Emmons told him that year that several copies of Pastor I Am Gay had disappeared from the library shelves, Bess said
There’s a good wrap-up here at the ALA’s American Libraries. And according to a Sept. 10 USAToday article [links added],
The statement notes that the library has a policy to handle requests to remove books. During a period of more than two decades four books have been challenged by library patrons, including a book in 2005 by television comedian Jon Stewart, America (The Book), according to the city.
Another book challenged there, in 1997, was Heather Has Two Mommies; the book remained on the shelf. The city’s statement is a good reminder, as well as a primer for any newly elected officials hoping to, learn to understand and follow administration agendas (ahem):
In accordance with the Wasilla Public Library Collection Development Policy, “All viewpoints and opinions on controversial subjects will be represented whenever possible… Wasilla Public Library recognizes the right of every citizen to read and gather information, and his or her right to freedom from censorship by other persons. Many books are controversial and any given item may offend some persons. … This library holds censorship to be a purely individual matter and declares that –- while anyone is free to reject for himself books and other materials of which he does not approve – he cannot exercise this right of censorship to restrict the freedom of others.”
And so Banned Book Week comes to an end here at Farm School for this year. If you’ve been reading along, thanks for indulging me and for reading all those much-too-long quotes I enjoy larding my posts with. Read a book, open a mind (or two), and learn something. Oh — and don’t forget to vote.
The week’s posts:
* While one of the definitions of “rhetorical” is, rather aptly, “emphasizing style, often at the expense of thought”, I believe the word the Mayor was hunting for is “hypothetical”.