Tuesday, October 20, 2009

But... Monkey in Cheshire, CT; Selection Policy Needs Amendment; Library Director Ramona Harten Says Her Own Authority Trumps All

There's a "But... Monkey" in the Cheshire Public Library in Cheshire, CT, and she has declared that her own authority trumps residents, the library board, even the town government itself: "Library Director Ramona Harten said Monday she will listen to what the residents have to say. But, ultimately, neither the library board nor anyone else in town government has the authority to overturn the director’s decision, she said."

Source: "Residents to Have Say on Petit Book," by Luther Turmelle, New Haven Register, 20 October 20 2009, emphasis mine. It should have been called "Residents to Have NO Say on Petit Book."

Thank you, radio host Laura Ingraham, for the fair use of the But... Monkey concept and image. Ms. Ingraham's concept of a But... Monkey is someone who says something good initially, then there's a "but," then the person says and means nearly the exact opposite. In Cheshire, CT, the library director says she will listen to residents, and that is good, then there's a "but," then she says she will not listen to them, the library board, or even the town government. That is bad. The truth is the exact opposite.

Who is the real power in the town? The residents are the real power. At some time in the past, they organized a public library. That organization was likely recorded in some legal document such as a statute, an ordinance, a charter, what have you. That library was most likely established for a certain purpose, and the purpose was to be carried out by a certain means that likely has nothing to do with a single library director overruling an entire town and its government.

Look at the history of the library: "Community support for the Cheshire Public Library began in 1888 when a group of concerned citizens gathered together to form the Village Improvement Society." "The assets of the Library Association were turned over to the town and a citizens’ advisory Library Board was appointed by the Board of Selectmen." There's nothing there about the library director outranking those citizens or those boards.

"In 1978, the Library went 'on-line' with four other towns, forming the first automated Library consortium in the state of Connecticut." That implies Ramona Harten can control several communities all at once.

Consider this:

“This is not about my personal judgment about whether I like this book or not,” Harten said. “This is about me doing the job that I’m paid to do, and the final decision lies with the library director. There are probably a lot of books in our collection that some people may find offensive, but we leave it up to our patrons to decide whether they want to read them or not.”

If the statement in bold sounds like hubris, it is not. Factually, the library director is correct. The official book selection policies and practices say, "Although the staff participates in the selection process, the Library Director is ultimately responsible for the selection of materials." Despite the history of the library, despite founding documents, despite common sense, the current library director is, by policy, the sole arbiter of what goes. Does anybody see anything wrong here? Might there be a need to amend the policy?

One policy consideration is a selection criterion called, "evident popularity." The book is about the brutal murder of the entire family of a man who lives in the town. Hundreds of people are asking that the library in this particular town not stock this particular book while the victim is still living in the town. I would call that "evident UNpopularity."

"In the event of an objection to any material, ... [t]he Director will apply the selection criteria to the material in question," says the policy, but it appears that may not be happening. Noncompliance may be another reason to amend the library's policy.

What does the American Library Association [ALA] say about selection policy? Certainly ALA guidance is important because the library holds ALA policy to be paramount (Section III). In the ALA's "Workbook for Selection Policy Writing," apparently written for public school libraries, more than a single person is involved in selection policy decisions, and the final decision maker has authority delegated to her—she is not the ultimate authority:

In most states, the locally elected or appointed school board, by law, has broad powers and responsibilities in the selection of instructional materials. This authority should be delegated by policy to appropriate professionals for day-to-day exercise.

While selection of materials involves many people, including administrators, supervisors, teachers, library media specialists, students, and even community residents, the responsibility for coordinating and recommending the selection and purchase of library media materials should rest with the certificated library media personnel. Responsibility for coordinating the selection and purchase of textbooks and other classroom materials may rest with appropriate department chairpersons or with textbook or media evaluation committees.

Ramona Harten did say, "This is about me doing the job that I’m paid to do." That indicates she is answerable to someone or some entity. Perhaps that person or entity would like to consider what the ALA has said about selection policy decisions and rewrite the Cheshire Public Library policy to be in line with the ALA policy held so high in Section III. Compliance with reasonable ALA policy may be a third reason to change the library's existing policy.

In order to stock that first library, Mary Baldwin and her friend Mary Dickerman spent many hours collecting books. In 1892, a Library Association formed, with Mary Baldwin volunteering to serve as Librarian, a post she would hold for the next 29 years. .... Two years later the Library moved to a house owned by Mary Baldwin’s father, presently known as the Belknap House. .... In late summer 1996, the new Library opened. .... A larger programming room (named for Mary Baldwin) and sophisticated telecommunications links were among the improvements. Source: "A History of the Cheshire Public Library."

Compare Mary Baldwin to library director Ramona Harten: "This is about me doing the job that I’m paid to do, and the final decision lies with the library director."

First Library Director Mary Baldwin. Present Library Director Ramona Harten. What a difference.

The residents, library board, and town government of Cheshire, CT, ought to ensure the library policy is amended to be more compliant with existing ALA guidelines, local control, and common sense. Several justifications have been provided for amendment. Certainly there are more.

"Cheshire Public Library has not lost sight of its mission...." Time will tell if that is true.



  1. Talk about a tempest in a teapot!

    I can understand, even sympathize, that some residents of a town that has experienced a criminal trauma might not want to be reminded of the source of that trauma. But we’re talking here about a book on a library shelf – nobody has to read it.

    People in the town were affected differently by the crime, and in general different people manage trauma differently. It is reasonable to assume, then, that some residents will want to read this book about that crime, while others won’t. Don’t both groups have a right to make that choice for themselves? Can’t both groups do that if the book is in the library? How is a book on a shelf a problem for anybody?

    The history of the town and its library is all very moving, but the fact is that the library was turned over to the town. It is now a PUBLIC library. As such it is a government entity, and LOCAL government (not the state, not the federal government, and not the ALA) has given the library director the authority to choose this and other books for the library.

    Even **IF** we assume that the people of the town have a legal right to tell the library not to acquire this book, how will that be determined? Three hundred signatures on a petition is not a significant percentage of the 29,000 residents of the town. Will there be an election to determine the majority view? If a minority can make this decision for the Public Library, how large must the minority be? How will the “will of the people” be measured?

    As you’ve written it here, you would permit a minority of citizens to determine what the majority can read in their library.

    Towns appoint directors of libraries and other departments and agencies because running each requires specialized experience and/or expertise, and because neither the general governmental apparatus nor the public at large want to be bothered with the day-to-day details. The citizens’ right you are asserting here, then, is not one to run the library in general, but merely to have a veto over it’s holdings. How can you construe that as anything other than censorship?

  2. Do you want each book in the library to be voted on by the entire population?

  3. This blog and this blog post has received press coverage:

    Dan Kleinman, a New Jersey resident who operates a blog and Web site that focuses on national library association policies that he says put questionable material in the hands of young people, said Cheshire residents seeking to ban the book would be better served working toward changing the library’s policies, which Harten said don’t permit the Library Board or any of the town’s elected leaders to overrule her decision.

    “These people don’t have to be in the situation they’re in,” Kleinman said. “Maybe the policy should be changed. Even the ALA’s guidelines don’t recommend giving a library director that much power.”

    Source: "Librarians' Code Does Not Allow Censorship," by Luther Turmelle, New Haven Register, 22 October 2009.

    Yes, I'm quoted accurately, but YEOWW--I do not support book "banning" or "censorship" as the article implies!!

    And the false slippery slope argument appears unchallenged.

    The reporter's emphasis on "banned" books and "censorship" shows that I need to call him to advise him no books have been banned in the USA for about half a century. I see he knows the difference--he just can't bring himself to stop misleading the public with false claims of "banning":

    "Petit’s friends and neighbors want the book banned — or at least kept out of the library...."

    That's right, keeping the book out of the library may be due to the legal application of current or future library policy, not book "banning." The reporter obviously sees the difference, but the article drips with false claims of book "bannings."


    And Martin Marguiles, a law professor at Quinnipiac University? What he said, at least as reported, it could be misleading according to what happened to me, what he said is false and misleading. I hereby challenge the professor to a public debate.

    Thanks to Non-Censor for adding an excellent comment. Just keep in mind I take no position on what should be done with the book. I only speak approving of the ALA and show how its materials selection guidelines differ significantly from the town's own policy implementation, so citizens may wish to seek the modification of their own policy accordingly. As the article says, “Maybe the policy should be changed. Even the ALA’s guidelines don’t recommend giving a library director that much power.”

  4. The definitions of "banning" and "censorship" that you're trying to use here are NOT those used by the courts:

    The issue in Right to Read Defense Committee of Chelsea v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea was the removal of a single title, Male and Female Under 18, from one school library. The US District Court in Massachusetts repeatedly referred to this as a "ban," including this example:

    "The most effective antidote to the poison of mindless orthodoxy is ready access to a broad sweep of ideas and philosophies. There is no danger in such exposure. The danger is in mind control. The Committee's ban of the anthology Male & Female is enjoined." [Emphasis added.]

    In Sund v. City of Wichita Falls, Texas, Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate weren't even removed from the library, but just re-shelved out of the children's section into the adult section. The US District Court for the Northern District of Texas referred to this a "censorship" over and over, including this:

    ". . .the Library Administrator of the excellent Library in Wichita Falls. . . . is the real heroine of this unfortunate story of the censorship of two children's Books-and the unconstitutional interference with her ability to perform her duties in running the Library as a trained, skilled, and very competent professional." [Emphasis added.]

  5. And of course, as the story unfolds on the New Haven Register, it becomes clear that the community is quite divided, rather than unanimous, in opposition to the book. See Cheshire Divided on Book Banning, 23 Oct 2009.

    Oh, and it turns out that the library already has two copies of another book about the same crime, acquired before some low-level politician decided to make a public stink about things. It was acquired without fanfare or resistance, and both copies are currently checked out, indicating community interest in the topic.

  6. Dan,

    I think I can save us all some time. Can you write up a list that you, Dan Kleinman, think that we, America, should be allowed to read?

    Then you and ALA and the nations library could post them all over the country.

    I am thinking that this will cut down on the number of books out there that are not endorsed by you, Dan Kleinman.

    Thank you.


  7. "Cheshire Library to Keep Book on Petit Murders," by AndyW, LISNews, 17 November 2009.

    "Cheshire Library to Keep Book on Petit Murders; Library Board Rules Director Followed Policy by Ordering Controversial Book," by Lauresha Xhihani, Republican-American, 17 November 2009.

    "Bartoli's vote [against shelving the book about the brutal murders of a local family] was followed by a long applause by dozens opposed to having the book in the library.

    "After Library Board Chairwoman Carol DePietro announced the vote results, an equal number of people in favor clapped in a long applause."

  8. This blog has been linked (incorrectly as wanting the book banned) from "Tricky Trial Timing," by Andrew Pergam, This Blog is Censored, 20 September 2010.


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