KDL’s mission remains strong amongst book ban movements

Public libraries exist to serve their public the neighborhoods that make up their community. This includes a diverse group of people, including LGBTQ+, BIPOC, women and other often marginalized populations. Recently, the discussion of book bans and censorship has increased and put an added pressure on libraries all over the nation, with threats of defunding these library systems. Kent District Library (KDL) has seen an increase in concerned citizens regarding book bans, but KDL Executive Director Lance Werner says the Library stands firm in its mission, which is protected by the Constitution. A mission that remains the same, despite a censorship movement that recently picked up more steam. 

“We exist to further all people and transform lives through kindness, empathy and love,” Werner says. “That hasn’t changed. When we’re talking about the subject of book banning and the accusations that have been flying around, the great irony for me is that we haven’t changed. The political pressures of society seem to have changed. We’ve done the same thing we’ve always done. We’ve always existed to give people a leg up, engage people, no matter who they are or where they’re from, we love everybody equally. We haven’t made any big significant changes, but we find ourselves at the center of the storm with this cultural issue, which I think is sad.”

Lance Werner

While the discussion surrounding content or topics deemed controversial or inappropriate in literature is not a new one, Werner says KDL has seen the rate of requests for book bans increase, starting in summer 2021. 

“Our first real experience with this movement started with someone who doesn’t live in our jurisdictional area,” he says. “We have not changed what we have done for decades. We’re not going to cave to threats and we’re not banning books that are protected by the Constitution. As far as I know, we don’t have any books not protected by the Constitution at KDL.”

Werner attributes the recent controversies and movements to fear. “There are groups out there, making a lot of accusations, and I think it’s an effort to get people to get out there and vote for the midterms. I think it’s a voting issue. For whatever reason, we’ve gotten lumped into the conversation much like gun control or any other controversial topic. Suddenly, libraries are at the center of the storm. I think a lot of it is being done for political reasons.”

Most public libraries across the state are funded by a millage and KDL is no different. Werner has had citizens approach him following meetings, threatening to vote against approving their millage if certain books aren’t banned from the Library shelves. “I told him we are not going to violate people’s civil rights. We are not going to violate the Constitution. We respect the entire Constitution, not just the Second Amendment. We’re not going to ban any books that are Constitutionally protected.”

Threats of defunding libraries even hit close to home, with citizens rejecting the millage for Jamestown Township. Shirley A. Bruursema has spent more than three decades of her life on library boards, township boards, as a part of co-ops, co-founding organizations, and volunteering her services to help libraries. Bruursema is currently a Trustee on the Kent District Library board of directors. Her work specializes in helping libraries become district libraries, by creating and passing millages. 

Shirley A. Bruursema“I’ve always been very involved in the millage campaigns and the Library,” she says. “I do workshops for millages and I’m known as the ‘Millage Queen in Michigan’ — I’ve won 143 of them.”

Bruursema has been involved with all KDL millage campaigns, except for one, she says. “If it needed to be done, I was there to help do it. I enjoy teaching other groups on how to do things and when to do them, and I’ve been doing it way back, since 2000. I’m not a spring chicken, I’ve been around a long time and doing this a long time. I’m 86 years old.”

She’s currently working hard on the upcoming KDL millage campaign of 2024. Whether it’s helping libraries get their campaigns set up, going door-to-door or raising funds, Bruursema has done it. She’s received a number of awards, accolades, plaques and thank-you-notes for her volunteer service. 

Bruursema believes libraries are an extension of the education system, something important to the mother of six. “They’re the only entity that covers from cradle to grave, out of every social service or entity, libraries are the most inclusive of all of them,” she says. “It’s the heartbeat of the community. In some rural places, it is the only building in the community. We need to see that they’re financially funded. I think of all entities, our future lies in our libraries.

Debbie Mikula, executive director of Michigan Library Association (MLA), works with a coalition of close to 2000 library professionals and supporters all over the state. The organization works to ensure libraries are supported and advocated for, and protects the rights of children, students, teens and adults to exercise their right to read.
“Our belief is, as it has been for over 130 years, that it is the responsibility of our libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity. In today’s world, it does include items that some individuals in our society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable,” Mikula says.

“We’re champions of access and diverse book and material collections. We want to make sure that all of our libraries here in Michigan, including KDL, uphold those basic Constitutional rights that are guaranteed by our First Amendment,” she says.

Mikula agrees with Werner that while these book bans are not new, the volume of attempted censorship efforts, extremist rhetoric and vitriol they’re witnessing is unprecedented. She’s seen shock-value reading from out-of-context pages, name-calling, unfounded police reports filed, and spreading of misinformation. “It only serves to divide us, and censorship does that,” she says.

Fighting against book bans, and advocating for millages, is something Mikula says the MLA will continue doing so that what happened in Jamestown Twp. doesn’t happen elsewhere. “They held the Patmos Library ‘hostage’ because of the less than 0.1% of books that have an LGBTQ theme, and a ten-year millage was not passed; which is their operating budget. They say, ‘we would rather shutter the library than to allow those books to be in your library.’”

Access to diverse collections is at the heart of libraries’ missions, says Mikula. “It’s important that every member in our community see themselves in the books that are on our shelves and see the real world. Every community has LGBTQ individuals, racial diversity, and what we’re seeing being targeted are those books that are written by and about traditionally-marginalized people and experiences — like LGBTQ, BIPOC, women, books about racism, sexuality and history,” she says. “We don’t want to see any of that being erased just because some people aren’t comfortable talking about those things.”

A recent poll done by the EveryLibrary Institute showed that 75% of Americans oppose book-banning and are willing to consider the topic when going to the polls this November. “Those statistics really do indicate that the actions of a very small, vocal minority are giving the impression that our schools and libraries are full of offensive materials,” Mikula says. “While they’re willing to stand up, say that out loud and read passages out of context, it’s simply not the case that our libraries are full of this.”

Mikula says it’s important to know that the U.S. Supreme Court set precedent on this very topic back in 1982. “The Court determined that removing books from a school library because certain people simply disliked the ideas contained in those books, violated the First Amendment rights of students,” she says. 

Werner expects this issue to be an ongoing one. “This book ban issue will always be an issue, it’s just a matter of degree,” he Werner says. “The Kent District Library is committed to supporting the Constitution, and will always support the Constitution.”

Especially moving forward into the 2024 elections, however, he hopes that KDL can continue its mission. “My hope would be that we can get past this and get back to doing the good work that we’ve been known for, and received accolades for,” he says. “That we can continue to be effective in helping society, that we can reach people where they’re at, distribute food, help people find jobs and help people be more knowledgeable.”

Photos courtesy Bud Kibby with TINYuproar

Literacy Matters is a series focused on the importance of knowledge, community resources seeking to remove barriers to access, and the value of our library systems to society. Literacy Matters is supported by Kent District Library. 

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone — just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications and can be reached at [email protected].
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