Wake County Public Libraries drew scrutiny in December when administrators took Gender Queer off shelves—but the institution’s missteps go beyond the temporary removal of a controversial book, according to insiders.

A recent INDY Week investigation reveals the library’s collection department has had problems for years, with librarians and senior staff saying they’re excluded from decisions about book removal and maintenance.

Librarians also spoke of a stifling work culture, where anyone who questions the decisions of administrators is reprimanded and shut out of future decisions. Employees are still strongly discouraged from talking to the media, with many hesitant to speak on the record.

Who decides to remove books?

Before 2005, the responsibility for responding to book challenges rested with library managers, who worked with their supervisors and the library’s director to reply to attempts to ban books. The process involved seeking input from librarians on staff as well as administrators, which many libraries prioritize when it comes to addressing book challenges.

That changed, however, when Wake County Public Libraries shifted the responsibility for selecting and removing books from individual library managers to a central department. As the library system grew, maintaining separate collections of books for each branch became “inefficient and expensive,” says county spokeswoman Stacy Beard. The library system moved to a floating collection, where books could be shared among all branches.

That’s not unusual, but the change resulted in unforeseen consequences. Since library managers were no longer buying books, they were no longer leading the response to book challenges. Instead, the collection services department, which oversaw all 23 libraries in Wake County, began handling book challenges directly, often without the input of local librarians.

Since then, the senior collections manager has typically reviewed book challenges. Theresa Lynch—who worked in technology administration roles managing Wake County’s online library system, e-books collection, and online programs administration—took over the role of senior collections manager in 2012.

Lynch wrote in a September 7 email obtained by the INDY that reviewing book challenges usually involves only herself, the patron, and the manager of the library where the challenge is received. The decision to remove Gender Queer was based primarily on Lynch’s evaluation, without input from public-facing library staff.

This process is unusual compared to that of libraries across the country, where reconsideration committees are often formed to respond to book challenges. In Durham County, for example, challenges to books are reviewed by a group that includes the deputy director, finance officer, and other library staff, in addition to the collections manager and library manager. Decisions can then be appealed to the library’s Board of Trustees.

Antiracist Baby and Our Skin

Gender Queer wasn’t the only book that the library’s informal book reconsideration policies affected. Last year, two children’s books about race were set to be removed from a section of the library on Lynch’s say-so.

Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi was removed from the library’s board book section, a collection of picture books printed on durable paperboard for babies and other very young readers. Administrators also planned to remove Our Skin by Jessica Ralli and Megan Madison, but copies of the book were still checked out.

The books remained available in other parts of the library—Our Skin, a picture book designed for readers ages two to five, was housed in the children’s nonfiction section, alongside chapter books on subjects like U.S. history and countries of the world and some classic children’s tales such as Aesop’s fables. Antiracist Baby, also designed for young readers up to three years old, was moved to the picture book section.

Moving Our Skin and Antiracist Baby out of the board book section was a matter of finding the best place to shelve them, says Michael Wasilick, Wake County’s library director. Despite the fact that publishers have now started printing traditional picture books in board book format, there are differences in how children and parents use board books versus picture books, he says.

The content and format of certain books may make them more suited to the board book collection, while others may need to go to the picture book collection, Wasilick says.

“It’s about, how do we make books more accessible for our parents and caregivers?” he says. “And [help them] use them the way they’d like to use them, whether it’s to flip through a book with the child or if it’s for the child to use themselves.”

But emails between Lynch and Wake County’s deputy library director Ann Burlingame, who oversees six senior managers in the county’s library system, suggest the decision about these two books was based on the fact that they addressed race rather than on how advanced the content was.

In an email to Lynch, Burlingame writes that “it’s too bad” Our Skin has to be taken out of the board book collection “because the beginning … is very good, but where you flagged the book makes it feel [like it has]much more of an agenda and I am not sure it is historically accurate.”

The new collection development policy

Following the decision to remove Gender Queer from the library entirely in December, administrators faced backlash from librarians, patrons, and the media. The response prompted them to review the library system’s book removal and book challenge process.

Beard admits the current process of responding to book challenges is flawed, saying that under the post-2005 system “there weren’t really clear guidelines” for who should be involved in the decision to take a book off the shelves.

Following the Gender Queer controversy, a committee, led by selection manager Dan Brooks and comprising collection department staff, library managers, librarians, and one library assistant, convened to review the library system’s book removal policies.

The committee will present a final draft of the new policy to the Wake County Board of Commissioners for review on February 28, Beard says. In the meantime, Gender Queer and the board book versions of Our Skin and Antiracist Baby are all back on shelves, awaiting re-evaluation under the new policy.

Following the challenges to Our Skin and Antiracist Baby, Lynch and Burlingame also began developing a new “collection purpose policy” that outlines what kinds of books should be housed in each section of the library. The policy will also be subject to review by the Board of Commissioners.

If approved, the new policy will be used for the “selection of materials, request to purchase, and requests for reconsideration,” according to an email from Burlingame. That doesn’t mean just that some books may be moved from one section to another but also that various children’s books are at risk of being removed entirely or simply never purchased in the first place.

Brooks, the selection manager, other librarians on his selection team, and senior library managers reviewed the policy that Lynch and Burlingame devised, Burlingame said. In an early and partial draft of the new collection policy acquired by the INDY, Burlingame outlines standards for the board book, picture book, and children’s nonfiction collections (see below).

Librarians, however, have concerns about the new policy.

“In my professional opinion, and others agree, these definitions are dated,” one library manager told the INDY on the condition of anonymity. “If it were 1995, I would tend to agree with some of what [Burlingame] is saying. [But] for years, publishers have been publishing board books that were originally published as picture books. The purpose for board books goes beyond what she has described.”

The current board book collection, according to the Wake County library catalog, includes titles like I Am Human: A Book of Empathy, and When God Made You. Board books cover some complex topics like family, love, and religion, as well as things children might see out in the world, like gardens or ambulances.

Why is this important?

It may seem inconsequential to nonlibrarians, but Wake County’s lack of a formal policy has seemingly made it easier to remove and relocate books without explanation. Removing a book without following an official process “sends the message that the policy does not matter and it is easy to remove resources from a library,” according to the American Library Association website

In an effort to preserve intellectual freedom, many libraries comparable in size to Wake’s have posted policies online about their criteria for book selection, removal, and challenges. Montgomery County Public Libraries, located in Maryland between Washington, DC, and Baltimore, states it “does not remove, restrict or withdraw materials because they are regarded as discriminatory or inflammatory by an individual or group.”

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library collects books “that represent a diversity of views” and “include[s] items which reflect controversial, unorthodox or even unpopular ideas,” its policy states. “The Library … will not, either directly or indirectly, ban or censor any material.”

Wake County Public Libraries, on the other hand, does not seem to have made its collection policies publicly available. Although the library has procedures and guidelines for selecting books and reviewing book challenges, there was no collection development policy on its website as of early December, but the library system shared the policy with the INDY upon request (embedded below).

The goal of the library is to create a more transparent policy that allows more input from librarians and patrons, says Wasilick. He and other administrators plan to look at what collection policies libraries of similar size use, such as those in the Seattle, Fairfax, and Austin metro areas, to help develop Wake’s collections policy before it goes before the Board of Commissioners for approval. Administrators will also consider best practices from the American Library Association, Wasilick says.

“Part of this is trying to get the people that use this collection more engaged with selection as we go forward,” says Wasilick. “The people who are actually working with the customers, how do we engage those librarians with the [book] selectors? Then we can talk about what to buy and where to put it so it’s best used. That’s the change we’re looking for.”

A hostile work environment

At Wake County libraries, questioning the decisions of senior administrators is unacceptable, according to three librarians who spoke to the INDY on the condition of anonymity because they were afraid of facing retaliation.

Employees are publicly demeaned or bullied in meetings if they question Burlingame, according to one library branch manager. Employees have learned to avoid asking questions or raising concerns about library policy, “because you never know what is going to set her off,” the library manager says.

“If you go against them, you are committing career suicide with Wake County,” the library branch manager adds. “You will not be promoted.”

Burlingame refuted these claims in a statement, writing that retaliating against employees is inconsistent with her and Lynch’s management style.

“My weekly meetings with the six Senior Library Managers include spirited debates and straight-forward discussions with a design toward collaborative and constructive outcomes,” Burlingame wrote. “My priority is to continue to improve WCPL’s management style and help library managers at all levels grow their performance as leaders.”

Burlingame added that decisions about promotion and advancement are based on the input of many employees at different levels, and that the library has safeguards in place to ensure no one person can “impair advancement in the library.”

Next steps

Some steps have been taken to address the concerns librarians have, according to Wasilick. After the coronavirus pandemic hit, many of the traditional ways staff communicated got shut down, he says.

This summer, Wasilick plans to visit each of the county’s 23 library branches and continue visiting on a more regular basis, he says. He also plans to keep in touch with staff with weekly emails and regular “Open Mike” meetings with a rotating group of librarians and library assistants.

“We’re trying to just create some structures that will make communication easier and more natural,” Wasilick says. “It’s just a challenge looking at how you do that in such a large system.”

Burlingame added in her statement that “we are committed to expanding communication across the entire library system and ensuring that everyone understands policy/procedures with the opportunity to express their thoughts.” 

Selection Criteria Information by Jane Porter on Scribd

Collection Maintenance Guidelines by Jane Porter on Scribd

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Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to jgallup@indyweek.com.