In rural Yancey County, North Carolina, a heated public debate about withdrawing from the regional library system reveals how political divisions can threaten public services in rural communities that need them the most.
The high elevation usually keeps things cool here in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, but temperatures were sweltering by mountain standards on July 10, when hundreds of people gathered in a hot courtroom to show support for their regional library system.
“I am a white, Christian, heterosexual, American war veteran. I peace-kept in Kosovo in 2002. I fought in Iraq in 2004 and 2005,” Franklin Oldham said during the public comment portion of the July 10 Yancey County Commissioners meeting. “And I am a proud ally of the LGBTQ community.”
A round of applause followed Oldham’s statement, despite requests from the commissioners to hold it until the end for the sake of time. Fifteen other residents shared their thoughts during the comment period, and all except four echoed Oldham’s sentiment about supporting their queer neighbors and the regional system.
After Debate, Yancey County Will Stay with Regional Library System
One of the agenda items for the July 10 commissioners meeting was to hold a public forum to discuss withdrawing the Yancey County Public Library from the AMY (Avery, Mitchell, Yancey) Regional Library System, a tri-county organization with four locations in rural Western North Carolina. Board of Commissioners Chairman Jeff Whitson passed a motion to research withdrawing from the AMY regional system at the last meeting in June, but local backlash ensued.
Patrons suspected that the motion to consider withdrawal came because someone complained about a Pride Month book display in the library in Burnsville, the seat of Yancey County. Pulling out of the regional system would not only result in decreased access to funds, it would put county commissioners temporarily in control of the library until the commissioners appointed a new library board.
“The library is a public space,” one woman said during the public comments period. “There are things [the library] can’t say, like displays on political issues. But displays about Pride Month are not political. It’s a national month of recognition for a group of our fellow citizens, like Black History Month, Women’s History Month. It shows that the library is a welcoming place for everyone.”
Disagreement during the public comment section revolved around whether LGBTQ displays are political agendas or statements of welcome.
“A library should be a neutral place without any agendas being promoted,” a local pastor said. “It should not be a platform for any issue that’s controversial. It’s not a political platform, and I think it needs to stay that way.”
Discussions continued the following evening on July 11 in the Yancey County Public Library in Burnsville. After sitting in a sweltering room full of antsy library goers listening to Briggs, commissioners, and county manager Lynn Austin debate policies and procedures, chairman Jeff Whitson finally announced that they would not be pulling out of the regional system.
“We have since found out that [withdrawing] is impossible for us to do,” Whitson said. “And we’re fine with that.”
Applause flooded the packed room on the top floor of the library. Seven patrons voiced their opinions again during another public comment period. The majority showed support for the regional system and its decision to create a book display that welcomed LGBTQ people.
Yancey County is not alone in its interest to withdraw from a regional system. Carteret County, North Carolina withdrew from the Craven Pamlico Regional Library System in 2019, and both Wilkes and Macon counties also entertained the idea, but ultimately decided against it.
Libraries nationwide are also facing pressure to remove LGBTQ book selections and displays. Local libraries faced 1,269 demands to ban books last year, according to the American Library Association. That’s more than any other year since they began tracking censorship attempts over 20 years ago.
Libraries Aren’t Just About Books
Libraries are essential public spaces in rural communities where people are more likely to have limited access to high speed internet, an inadequate number of healthcare providers and other kinds of gaps in infrastructure.
“To me, [libraries are] pivotal for our community to open eyes and expand views and to help people, especially in rural communities with limited resources,” said Yancey County native Cathy Henson in an interview with the Daily Yonder.
An American Association of Libraries (ALA) survey showed that 40% of rural libraries provide subscriptions to health databases that do things like help patrons sign up for health insurance or learn about what benefits they are eligible for. Libraries also serve as safe havens during natural disasters like hurricanes or heat waves.
Branch manager Wayne Edwards and his colleagues at the Yancey County Library wear multiple hats in a single day. Edwards delivered a report at the July 11 meeting that detailed what the local library does to support Yancey County residents.
The local branch regularly helps patrons apply for jobs, sign up for disability benefits, access health insurance information, find legal help, and file their taxes. Although this list is extensive, Edwards emphasized that it is not exhaustive.
“Being a believer in spiritual things but not an adherent to a religion, to me, a library is as important as a church,” Ronni Lundy said in a Daily Yonder interview. Lundy is a James Beard Award winning food writer and owner of Plott Hound Books in downtown Burnsville. “Anything that provides us with story is important.”
Regional Library Systems Provide What Local Governments Can’t
As a part of a regional library system, the Yancey County Library has access to extra grants and state aid resources that libraries run by local governments do not.
“State aid exists to fund regional library systems,” regional director Amber Westall Briggs said in an interview with the Yonder. “And that is so [state aid] could serve socioeconomic areas that needed more assistance, so they could equalize service to the people across the state.”
Briggs is working hard to secure even more funding for rural libraries, which made the commissioners’ consideration of withdrawal from the regional system particularly devastating for her to hear. It would mean being cut off from extra grants and resources Briggs has been working to obtain through state aid.
State aid resources include things like access to the NC Live, a database of articles and resources available only to the largest state and academic libraries, a full-time financial manager, general technology support, an integrated system that allows patrons to borrow books from libraries across the state, a children’s librarian, an outreach librarian, and summer reading programming, among other things.
“That [statement by the commissioners] was very defeating to me because I work so hard to explain at the state level how valuable regional libraries are to their communities,” Briggs said. “They don’t have that ability to have equalized service on their own just because they don’t have enough money. I really believe in regional library systems.”
Without the regional library system, the county would have to pay for these resources on its own, and that would not be financially feasible.
“Without state aid, the technology we have would not exist,” Briggs said.
In addition to the state block grant based on population and income of the service area, regional libraries are also eligible for an additional block grant just for being a part of a regional system.
“I am working at the state level to try to get those block grants to give more funding,” Briggs said. “But currently right now they’re just under $36,000 a piece.”
LGBTQ Book Displays Advance the Library Mission Statement
Briggs said it was suspicious that the motion to consider withdrawing from the regional system arose during Pride Month after a complaint about an LGBTQ book display. Briggs sees book displays as an example of how the library advances their mission because it shows patrons what resources might be available that they would otherwise not know about.
In her plea to the county commissioners, Briggs referred to the ALA Library Bill of Rights, which states “books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people the community library serves.”
Book displays that reflect the diversity of interests of the patrons in the community abide by the library’s mission to reflect the community’s needs.
“Socially excluded, marginalized and underrepresented people, not just the majority, should be able to see themselves reflected in the resources, programs, and displays the library offers. We have to reflect the diversity of everyone in our community,” Briggs said. “We do not discriminate.”
These principles also apply to book selections. The library’s collection development policy states that they must provide books that are “imperative for our community,” according to Briggs.
“If we have a collection of books and we haven’t represented a group of people well, we have to order those books,” Briggs said. “That’s called ‘balancing the collection’ in library speak. We do have an obligation to do these things to be a good dependable library.”
Briggs said she’d be willing to negotiate with the county commissioners to decide what book displays they’d like to see, but that completely withdrawing from the regional system would be an irrational and irresponsible move.