Central Arkansas Library System executive director blasts bill that would give elected officials oversight on library materials

Oversight provisions raise ire

Nate Coulter (left), the executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System, and Arkansas state Sen. Dan Sullivan (left), R-Jonesboro, are shown in these file photos. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Nate Coulter, the executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System, on Thursday criticized a bill that is under consideration at the Arkansas Legislature related to content held in public libraries, calling the measure "ineffectual" and "mean-spirited."

Senate Bill 81 would amend state law to strip language that shields from prosecution employees of a public library or school who distribute obscene material. If enacted, staff who "knowingly" loan out obscene material from a library could be charged with a Class D felony.

The legislation would create a new Class A misdemeanor offense of furnishing a harmful item to a minor.

SB81 would also set parameters allowing citizens to appeal a challenge of an item held in a public library or school library to local elected officials.

For county or municipal libraries, a formal challenge regarding the appropriateness of material held in the collection could be appealed to the city or county's local governing body -- i.e., a city council or quorum court -- in the event that a library committee decides to not remove the challenged material.

Additionally, SB81 would let libraries disclose confidential library records to a parent or legal guardian of patrons younger than 18.

The Arkansas Senate voted 27-6 to approve SB81 on Wednesday, sending the proposed legislation to the House. The bill's lead sponsor is Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro.

"This bill, at its core, is about censorship by using local elected bodies as tribunals for banning books from the library that some people find inappropriate and do not want anyone to read," Coulter wrote in a report prepared for a library system board meeting Thursday.

At the moment, a patron living within the library system's service area can request reconsideration of material in the collection, according to Coulter.

"The decision under our process rests with the library board upon review of the administration's response to the request for removal," Coulter wrote. "Turning that process over to the local officials clearly politicizes questions of what books are appropriate for the library's collection."

Parents already have access to a list of books their children under 18 have checked out if the child is using a family card, Coulter wrote.

In his comments to board members during the meeting, Coulter suggested that "the legislative die has been cast. The bill is gonna get enacted and then the question is what do libraries and their patrons and people do in the wake of that."

He argued that letting city councils and quorum courts decide which books can be found within the stacks of a library was misguided.

And Coulter questioned whether those upset about the contents of library shelves bar their children from the internet, social media or electronic devices.

"I hate to tell them, but if you're disturbed -- as I oftentimes am -- about the coarsening of language and the culture, your kids are not getting it from me or the library. Unfortunately, they don't come here enough," Coulter said. "They're getting it from their computers at home or their devices."

Coulter said it was "mean-spirited" to direct the measure at librarians and teachers, whom he described as "one of your biggest allies at helping you raise your children. We want your children to read, we want you to be involved in helping them decide what they want to read."

Nothing goes in the library without being vetted by staff or promoted by responsible trade magazines and industry publications, Coulter said.

Coulter's predecessor as executive director, Bobby Roberts, attended Thursday's board meeting to speak about a new memorial library officials want to install to commemorate Black soldiers who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, but Roberts ended up commenting on the proposed legislation, too.

Roberts said SB81 was "probably either unconstitutional or unenforceable."

He predicted that under the legislation, requests to remove material from libraries would revolve around patrons' objections to a book's content, such as subject matter relating to gay marriage, as opposed to any obscene material.

Roberts argued that "obscenities" were not protected anyway. Once identified, an obscene book would have to be removed from a library branch without question, he said.