Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library Lease Renewed Despite City Commission’s Censorship Threat

Rebuffing a move to ban so-called “socially divisive” material from its collection, the Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library in eastern Kansas got a new lease for its main branch last month. But its longtime director says it was alarming to see the usually routine lease renewal process used as leverage in a months-long battle over censorship.

Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library logoRebuffing a move to ban so-called “socially divisive” material from its collection, a small regional library in eastern Kansas got a new lease for its main branch last month. But its longtime director says it was alarming to see the usually routine lease renewal process used as leverage in a months-long battle over censorship.

The St. Marys City Commission voted 4–0 on December 6, 2022 to grant the Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library (PWRL) a one-year lease without restrictions, effective January 1. Judith Cremer, finishing her 20th year as PWRL’s director, admitted breathing a sigh of relief that night. But in a recent interview with LJ, she expressed residual anger over accusations that the library was not protective of community standards.

“We would never put anybody in danger,” Cremer said. “But we serve everybody. And the door is open to everybody. That’s what we’re charged to do.… That’s what my board directs us to do. That’s who are we. To insinuate that we would do different is harmful and hurtful. It’s hurt my staff. Hurt me.”

PWRL annually rents its St. Marys facility from the city. But this summer, City Commissioner Matthew Childs inserted a clause into the 2023 lease demanding that PWRL not “supply, distribute, loan, encourage, or coerce acceptance of or approval of explicit sexual or racially or socially divisive material, or events (such as ‘drag queen story hours’) that support the LBGTQ[IA]+ or critical theory ideology or practice.”

Library patrons, siding with Cremer, turned out in large numbers at two City Commission meetings. Days before the final vote, the ACLU of Kansas sent a letter warning the city “to abandon its extreme attempt to censor the library’s materials.”

A spokesman for the American Library Association (ALA) in Chicago told LJ that officials there had been closely monitoring events in St. Marys.

An online petition at change.org got almost 2,400 signatures—a good showing, considering that the total population for the two counties PWRL serves is roughly 32,700 people as of 2021, according to USAFacts.org.

Childs, who declined to comment for this article, told a Kansas media outlet after the vote: “The question is, how do we assure the safety of the community and that the community is getting what they want in the library? And that’s kind of up to the community.”

“If you do a search of the Pottawatomie library and look for actual books on their shelves,” City Commissioner Gerard Kleinsmith said at the December 6 meeting, “there are six books authored by Secretary (Hillary) Clinton…there are none authored by President Trump.”

The controversy was triggered by a single patron’s complaint last July over the book Melissa, a children’s novel about a young transgender girl written by Alex Gino. Soon afterward, members of the City Commission complained about so-called “woke” material available for loan at PWRL, according to statements made to the Topeka Capital-Journal.

As the controversy continued to make headlines in local media outlets, Cremer said, she worked diligently to generate public support for the library. But when the final vote took place last month, she admitted to being nervous about the result.

“The picture that was in the paper looks like I’m saying my prayers,” Cremer said of the meeting, “and I was think I probably was. The fact that we even had the problem was disturbing.”

PWRL operates four branches and four “mini-libraries” in eight separate towns across Pottawatomie and Wabaunsee counties. The city of St. Marys offers no financial or administrative support for library services. A county tax funds all operating expenses. But without a lease, Cremer said its main facility would be forced to shut.

“When we aren’t sure if we’re going to have a home,” Cremer said, “we have a problem.”

“We were certainly glad to see that the library will remain a resource for the local communities it serves,” Sharon Brett, the ACLU of Kansas’s legal director, said in a statement to LJ. “We remain hopeful that the city will continue to develop its understanding of the First Amendment, especially the implications of any city policies that seek to suppress or censor materials that an individual official may have personal misgivings with.”

The patron who checked out Melissa from the main branch and complained about its content never returned the book. He showed up one day, Cremer said, and paid its value, along with a processing fee. Melissa is no longer available to borrow at the St. Marys library.

“It seems like there’s fires like this all over this year,” Cremer said of similar fights over LGBTQIA+ material at libraries. “It isn’t going to go away if we don’t somehow figure out how to talk to each other and make them understand that we are on the same team. We’re all trying to serve the community.”

Cremer said PWRL added Melissa to its collection in 2018 after it was included on the 2017–18 William Allen White Master List for Grades 3–5. The book was not borrowed often. The patron who did so in 2022 expressed his displeasure with the material, and Cremer said the library began a standard review process to determine if Melissa would remain part of its collection. A determination was later made to retain it.

“If you look at it from a big-picture perspective,” Cremer said, “there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that book and it’s actually an excellent example of how somebody who is different can learn to live in the world successfully. That’s what the book is about.”

Cremer acknowledges that residents in the two counties lean toward political conservatism, but that library administrators are “conscious of what the pace and the needs and the preferences of the community are.”

Cremer says she was also confused over the reference to drag queen story hours in the revised lease agreement. Nationally, the issue has been a flashpoint for several libraries, but PWRL’s director said the topic had never been broached.

“I have said to them repeatedly that this is not an issue that we had ever considered…or ever had a request for, or any thought about,” Cremer said of drag queen story times. “I don’t know why…it’s a fear that they have.”

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