The book battle
A dispute over books in the library is the latest manifestation of the culture war in Marathon County
A woman approached me after Monday’s library board meeting. She’d been the person to ask for a book in the children’s section to have some kind of label because of its graphic nature.
I can’t recall the exact quote, and we didn’t exchange names, but she looked a bit exasperated when she said she wished there were some way we could all come together and figure this out.
A reasonable statement. But based on the entrenched positions people elucidated on Monday, I replied that it didn’t look like that was going to happen any time soon.
Roughly 100 people packed into the library’s glass-encased meeting room Monday at noon, with 28 speakers registered. Captain Todd Baeten of the Wausau Police Department was present, in plain clothes.
About half the people present wore stickers handed out at the door along with pamphlets detailing what was in the latest book that sparked the idea of the library adopting some kind of rating system. It’s the latest in what began as a series of books being challenged in the library’s circulation starting last year.
Speakers spent nearly an hour giving their opinion on the topic, somewhat evenly split between those in favor of the rating system and clearly appalled by what is included in some of those books, which include some pretty graphic illustrations, and those who spoke out in defense of leaving things alone and allowing parents to make decisions for their children on what books to read.
The rating system would seem to be something of a compromise between the two positions — people could still make the choice to read a book, or to allow their children to read a book, regardless of the rating system.
But while a rating system itself would seem legal, the implementation of such a rating system is where things get tricky, the county’s attorney explained. Basically, as we’ll see later, it’s in a lot of ways uncharted territory.
But there is a bigger issue than the rating system. It’s only the latest example of culture war battles that have become more frequent in America, and Wausau has been no exception to hosting these battles. Some examples include the A Community For All resolution, which provided a battleground for liberals and conservatives to fight in a public forum. The COVID-19 pandemic brought plenty of those battles. Before that, it was the school bathroom debate.
The culture wars have an interesting history, as detailed two excellent podcast series: How Things Fell Apart, by Jon Ronson, and The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling, produced by Bari Weiss’ Honestly podcast.
CORRECTION: The above paragraph corrects Jon Ronson’s name (a flip I make in writing and speech many times).
Both illustrate the point, but The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling are particularly interesting. Rowling went from being a target of the religious right, who claimed her books were satanist, to a target of a left as they called her a transphobe.
Locally, the culture war around books last year led to conservative members of the county board calling for defunding the library. Lance Leonhard had already cut $350,000 from the library’s budget, but conservative members called for another $369,000. But conservative member Craig McEwen called for that to be amended to only $69,000, which is what ultimately passed.
In Marathon County, the library battle began with one book, Gender Queer. Someone submitted a removal request for the book, which went through a review committee. The committee ultimately elected to keep the book, but it ended up being taken out of the children’s section and placed into the adult section. Since then, several books have been challenged.
The latest book to receive a review was Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships and Being a Human. As the person who wrote the request told me, it was a call for some kind of sticker warning about the content therein. 1
That led to the evaluation of a rating system for the library, which brings with it all kinds of questions such as cost, how it will be done and by who, and who will determine the rating system. And the legal questions, answered yesterday by Corporation Counsel Mike Puerner.
The idea was rejected last month by the county’s Library Board, and this month it was brought up for discussion, both in general and on the legal question.
Is it legal?
Before we get into yesterday’s meeting, Puerner talked about whether the library implementing a rating system is legal.