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Virginia library faces potential shutdown over funding after children's books are challenged

Like many libraries across the country, the Samuels Public Library in Warren County has found itself?embroiled in conflict?over books with LGBTQ themes.
The library that traces its roots to the 18th century could soon be shuttered over a dispute about children’s books that expose readers to gay, lesbian and transgender characters.
The Samuels Free Library in Front Royal, Va., on Monday.Matthew Barakat / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

FRONT ROYAL, Va. — A Virginia library that traces its roots to the 18th century could soon be shuttered over a dispute about children’s books that expose readers to gay, lesbian and transgender characters.

Like many libraries across the country, the Samuels Public Library in Warren County has found itself?embroiled in conflict?over books with LGBTQ themes.

What sets the Samuels library apart is the very real threat that it will have to close down entirely because of the dispute. The county’s Board of Supervisors voted in June to withhold 75% of its appropriation to the library unless the library board revises its bylaws to give the county more of a say in its governance.

The library, which is structured as a nonprofit organization that receives the bulk of its funding from the county, has said it will run out of operating funds by the end of the month.

Melody Hotek, president of the library’s board of trustees, and Eileen Grady, the library’s interim director, say the county’s action is the direct result of a small group of activists who deride any children’s book with gay, lesbian or transgender characters as “pornography.”

“This whole fight started over LGBTQ in the library,” Grady said.

Emails to the five-member Board of Supervisors went largely unanswered, save one supervisor, Walter Mabe, who said, “Things like this take time to resolve and I feel they will get resolved with discussions and adjustments on both sides.”

Hotek said Tuesday members of the library board and the Board of Supervisors are meeting this week and next week, as they have continued to exchange various proposals that would alter the library board’s governance. Hotek said she is “cautiously optimistic” a deal can be reached.

Both sides “are recognizing that we’re running out of time and running out of money,” she said.

A community group called “Clean Up Samuels” has led the charge for change at the library. One of its members, Thomas Hinnant, said the fight is about more than the books themselves. He said the larger issue is that the library board should be accountable to the taxpayers who provide the bulk of the funding.

“It’s about self rule,” Hinnant said in a phone interview. “The books are just what allowed people to realize how out of touch the library’s curation policies are.”

Hundreds of complaints about specific books have now been filed, driven in part by a “Beer, Babysitting, and Cleaning Up the Samuels Library” party hosted by Clean Up Samuels in which attendees were encouraged to submit challenges.

The complaints range from titles including?“Gender Queer,” a graphic novel?that contains explicit illustrations of oral sex and masturbation, to “Bathe the Cat,” a children’s book depicting a family with two dads getting mixed up as it conducts household chores.

Hinnant said the Clean Up Samuels group is focused on books for minors that have sexually explicit passages as well as books that introduce transgender topics to children, even if those books are not explicit.

A community group that sprung up in defense of the library, “Save Samuels,” says the majority of Warren County residents are opposed to censorship of books on LGBTQ topics.

“I really feel like they’re just using this kind of ‘taking care of children’ messaging to cover the fact that they they don’t want LGBTQ books in the library,” said Kelsey Lawrence, one of Save Samuels’ organizers.

Hotek and Grady said the library has done what it can to accommodate community concerns. Books that reference sexuality in any way have been moved to a separate section called “new adult.” And parents can place restrictions on their children’s library cards.

The library was founded in 1799 and counts itself as the second oldest in the state. It is separate from county government even though it relies on $1 million annually from Warren County to supply 75% of its budget.

More than a dozen libraries across the state have similar governance structures, Grady and Hotek said.

Lisa Varga, executive director of the Virginia Library Association, said the threat over the library’s funding is what makes the challenge at Warren County unique.

“Books are being challenged all over both in school and public libraries, but really nothing like the tactics that have been used in Warren County,” she said.

Varga said she’s been impressed by Save Samuels’ efforts to rally support for the library.

“People don’t want other people making decisions for them about the kind of books that are available in libraries,” Varga said. “But it isn’t until something hits a tipping point like in Front Royal that you see the outcry.”

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