Thursday, September 04, 2008

But Now It's Personal

I don't usually delve into the political world over here, but since Sarah Palin apparently thinks it's okay for politicians to interfere with libraries, I figure the librarians deserve a chance to bite back. Only fair, right?

Both Time and the New York Times have run articles which mention that, as the newly-elected mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Palin "approached the town librarian about the possibility of banning some books."

Here's how Time tells it, quoting Palin's mayoral predecessor, John Stein. "Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. 'She asked the library how she could go about banning books,' he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. 'The librarian was aghast.' That woman, Mary Ellen Emmons (now Baker), couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving 'full support' to the mayor."

The NYTimes version is similar. "Ann Kilkenny, a Democrat who said she attended every City Council meeting in Ms. Palin’s first year in office, said Ms. Palin brought up the idea of banning some books at one meeting. 'They were somehow morally or socially objectionable to her,' Ms. Kilkenny said. The librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, pledged to 'resist all efforts at censorship,' Ms. Kilkenny recalled. Ms. Palin fired Ms. Emmons shortly after taking office but changed course after residents made a strong show of support. Ms. Emmons, who left her job and Wasilla a couple of years later [in 1999], declined to comment for this [NYTimes] article. In 1996, Ms. Palin suggested to the local paper, The Frontiersman, that the conversations about banning books were 'rhetorical.'"

Rhetorical or not, the idea is repulsive.

Today's Anchorage Daily News includes a full feature article on this story, which notes "The stories are all suggestive, but facts are hard to come by. Did Palin actually ban books at the Wasilla Public Library?" They report that in December of 1996, the town librarian told a reporter for the Wasilla Frontiersman "that Palin three times asked her - starting before she was sworn in - about possibly removing objectionable books from the library if the need arose."

The ADN piece has more from Kilkenny, who says that at a city council meeting in the fall of 1996, Palin asked the librarian "
What would your response be if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?" Kilkenny recalls Baker's response: "Mary Ellen sat up straight and said something along the line of, 'The books in the Wasilla Library collection were selected on the basis of national selection criteria for libraries of this size, and I would absolutely resist all efforts to ban books.'" Asked about these stories, Palin told the Frontiersman that her inquiries were "rhetorical and simply part of a policy discussion with a department head 'about understanding and following administration agendas.'"

So, she argued, she just wanted to find out if she could get people to follow orders based on her "agenda." Wow.

The ADN found no evidence to suggest that books were ever actually removed from the library shelves, which is a good thing. And there is nothing to suggest that Palin had a specific "list" of books she wanted banned (that given here is demonstrably false, as other commenters note). But the facts remain. Baker is said to be on vacation currently (which I'm sure she's more than a little glad of), and I would certainly like to hear her side of the story at some point. It will be interesting as well to see if the McCain campaign ever lets Palin take questions from the media: if that happens I'd certainly be interested to hear what she has to say about all this too.

The major issue at stake here is not really whether Palin "banned books," since it seems like that step wasn't ever taken (although, as I said above, the idea of it is plenty repulsive, and it's fairly obvious that if the librarian hadn't stood up, the situation may have turned into something very different). More deeply, the question goes to her management style and to her apparent view that others should just blindly hew to her "agendas" (her word, not mine). And, frankly, that's not a management style I'm comfortable with.