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Klamath commissioners order library to stop book group over worries of political endorsements

The facade of a two-story brick building. Etched into a concrete retainer wall in front of the building reads "Klamath County Library"
Klamath County Library Service District
The Klamath Falls main library

Klamath County Commissioners have canceled a library-sponsored book group over what some are calling censorship. That decision could have ramifications across the library district’s programming.

In a meeting last week, the commissioners said they made the decision because of complaints about the social justice book group hosted by the library. In April, they planned to discuss a book on police abolition called "No More Police" by Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie.

In response, commissioners ordered the library to shut down any programming that could be perceived as political.

During a county counsel meeting last week, Klamath County Commissioner Dave Henslee said it’s not the government’s role to have a political position.

“It’s to provide the safety for people to have political positions,” said Henslee. “But we can’t endorse, sponsor or have the perception that we do. And this just screams that we sponsor the opportunity for people to have that expression, and we shouldn’t.”

Library Director Nathalie Johnston says shutting down the group amounts to censorship, and that the library isn’t endorsing the books, but promoting a free and open discussion.

“The staff does not interject any personal views about the book,” she said. “They are just here to moderate the discussion.”

In 2017, Johnston said the library specifically chose to ban unsupervised groups from meeting at the library to avoid having to decide who was and was not allowed at the library. She said library staff are there to ensure group members are following the rules and to moderate discussions.

Johnston said library staff are unsure how this will affect other programs they host.

“Because not everybody has the same sensitivity about issues,” she said. “So that’s why I kept asking for directions. What do you want us to ban?”

She’s worried about the implications of this decision, because people have different opinions about what could be political.

Johnston says the changes could mean canceling a popular foreign policy discussion program called Great Decisions they’ve hosted for 20 years.

There is a way for residents to formally complain about programming and library materials. The library’s request for reconsideration form includes space to talk about why a specific library program should be shut down. Those requests are considered by the Library Advisory Board.

Johnston said the library will be reworking the form to emphasize it’s also meant for requests about library programming.

Henslee said library programming is different from what’s in circulation. Because a patron is free to check out whatever book they’d like, but the programs put on by the library are focused on specific books.

Johnston said the goal of providing programs like book groups is to allow everyone to benefit from the library.

“Some people learn differently,” she said. “And sometimes we need to have a program so that people can be informed. That was my view, and I don’t know if everyone agrees with that.”

The Library Advisory Board held an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss the decision. They listened to a packed room of residents frustrated with the decision by county commissioners.

Commissioners Kelley Minty and Henslee attended the meeting. Henslee remained committed to his viewpoint on keeping politics out of libraries.

Minty, who acts as the liaison for the library, said one compromise the advisory board could consider is having volunteers moderate the discussions in book groups, instead of staff.

The advisory board will meet again on May 17 to discuss recommendations to commissioners.

Roman Battaglia is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the JPR newsroom.