Chattanooga Public Library Employee Fired for Improperly Removing Books Seen Burned on His Instagram

A former Chattanooga Public Library employee, Cameron “C-Grimey” Williams, was fired after removing weeded library books by conservative authors in early December 2020. A video of the books being burned was posted on Williams’s Instagram account, though the post has since been taken down. Williams stated that his supervisor told him that he could take the books in question, and that he was never informed of library policy to the contrary. However, a hearing on February 5 determined that Williams “violated City and Library policies by improperly removing items from the Library’s collections.”

head shot of Cameron C-Grimey Williams
Cameron "C-Grimey" Williams

A former Chattanooga Public Library (CPL) employee, Cameron “C-Grimey” Williams, was fired after removing weeded library books by conservative authors in early December 2020. A video of the books being burned was posted on Williams’s Instagram account shortly after they were removed from the library, though the post has since been taken down. Williams stated that his supervisor told him that he could take the books in question, and that he was never informed of library policy to the contrary. However, a hearing on February 5 determined that Williams “violated City and Library policies by improperly removing items from the Library’s collections.”

Williams, a community activist who worked as a part-time library specialist at the fourth floor tech lab in CPL’s main branch, was helping out with weeding in late November and early December 2020 in preparation for an influx of 90,000 new books. He went through a brief training several months beforehand and was asked to work in the 300s—social sciences—because of his activism background. Williams was asked to select titles that contained misinformation or outdated attitudes, or were more than 10 years old, to be discarded.

Williams was told by his supervisor, he told LJ, that once a book has been marked as deleted from the collection, “If you think it's a book that is bound to be recycled that you want to have, you can take it with you. That's what I was told by my direct supervisor explicitly.”

However, Williams’s supervisor Jaclyn Anderson stated that she did not say so during the February hearing, Williams told LJ.

On December 1, 2020, Williams took two books from the library, How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must) by conservative commentator Ann Coulter and Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again by former President Donald Trump. He had considered using them for an art project, he said—“anything we could do with these books besides just throw them away.”

Williams conceded that books were burnt on his social media feed but did not acknowledge whether he did so himself. “Allegedly somebody saw books that were burned on my social media, the social media that my entertainment company controls for me,” he said. “It was done, regardless of if it was me or somebody else.”

After library management became aware of the video, Executive Director Corinne Hill and a human resources representative met with Williams over Zoom, and he was placed on administrative leave. (Hill declined to comment for this article.)

The hearing February focused on what the library termed “wrongful removal” of the books. According to CPL’s Materials Selection and Production Policy, “Withdrawn material is transferred to the Friends of the Chattanooga Public Library in accordance with the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Friends of the Chattanooga Public Library (Friends) and the Library Board. As outlined in the ‘De-accessing (Weeding) Library Materials Chattanooga Public Library Guidelines and Procedures,’ the Friends identify items that can be sold at their book sales, as well as their online sales program through Amazon and Alibris. Items not wanted by the Friends are given to a vendor (Better World Books) for sale online from which the Friends receive a percentage of the sale. Items that are unable to be sold are recycled.”

However the question was not only whether the books were disposed of correctly, but whether they should have been removed from the library at all. CPL Public Relations Coordinator Christine Sacco told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the books in question had not been flagged for removal from the library.

“The investigation determined that part-time Library Specialist Cameron Williams violated City and Library policies by improperly removing items from the Library’s collections,” the library wrote in a statement, and he was terminated on February 10.

 

ALLEGATIONS OF UNFAIR TREATMENT

Williams maintained that he was treated unfairly because of his activism and his race. He was one of the primary organizers and leaders of Chattanooga protests during the summer 2020 demonstrations, he said, and, along with several other activists, was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct for allegedly obstructing an intersection and blocking an emergency vehicle. “I truly believe that because I am a Black social activist [the incident] was politicized, and I was terminated because of the criticism I give people in power in my city and in my state,” he told LJ.

Until this happened, Williams felt that he had a positive relationship with his supervisors at CPL. A regular library user who was familiar with the fourth floor’s sound and recording equipment, he was hired two years ago to work there in part because of his community ties, he said. For close to a decade he has worked in various projects as a community organizer, helping out with different projects in Chattanooga’s underserved neighborhoods, including a group that held free art classes, pre-COVID, in city community centers and schools that had no arts programming. “My biggest thing was trying to help those who need resources, get them connected to different things, which is one of the main reasons why I was hired by the library,” he said. CPL “thought it would be a good idea if I could help continue to advertise the resources that could be used for people in need.”

Williams also noted that, while he was accused of removing two books, he had responsibility for thousands of dollars’ worth of electronic equipment as part of his work at the library. “They were basically calling me a thief,” he told LJ.

Why were the books burned? “The rhetoric of Donald Trump and his actions is what's crippling America. The racism and divisiveness of Ann Coulter is what's crippling America,” said Williams. “So, if I were the one burning the books, which I'm not saying that I was, that would be the message…. Everybody needs to be speaking out against racism and fascism.”

In his conversation with LJ, Williams claimed that other library workers who had been accused of breaking the law while employed by CPL been treated more leniently and allowed to keep their jobs prior to serving jail time. “Forget about all of the training and all of the investment that they put into me over the last two years, all of the conferences I've been to,” he said, adding that he had a strong, documented rapport with the patrons who used the fourth floor studio. "They acted like I was an asset, but I feel like I was just another Black person that they could use for a token."

Williams and his attorney plan to appeal the library’s decision. If offered his job back, he said he would “definitely” take it. “I love my job. I get to help people, I really get to give people access to stuff that they otherwise wouldn't have,” he said. “I helped bring a culture shift where all people were made to feel comfortable.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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