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By Lacey Gardner

Column: Cuba Free Library holds robust public meeting over book “challenge”

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The meeting drew hundreds to the Palmer Opera House

By Janis Carson, special column to the Sun,

  The street and the parking lot at the Cuba Dollar Store were pack solid. The line into the Palmer Opera House stretched down 2 storefronts.

Some spectacular Holiday event? No- a meeting of the Cuba Circulating Library’s Board of Trustees, usually a ho hum event, I’m sure. This particular meeting invited the public to hear and to make comments on a recent book challenge involving a Statement of Concern about Library Resources. The book of concern is “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson.

It has been requested that this book be moved from the teen section to the adult section of the library, hence this hornets nest of discussion. Opinions ran very high in the Opera Houses large room, filled to and beyond capacity. Grandparents, preteens, local friends and neighbors, strangers and plenty of young adults all buzzing with anticipation. 

The Head of the Library Board started off by outlining the complaint and the library policy, and her personal feeling that kindness and a spirit of fair and respectful discussion among Cuba residents and neighbors should prevail throughout the discussion. And so it began.

Members of the audience, having been warned that outbursts and catcalls would not be tolerated held up signs, saying things like ” Banned books become book burnings” and “Say no to censorship and religious extremism in Cuba”. I heard fingers being snapped loudly at some high emotions. But overall the audience was wonderfully respectful and attentive. And the speakers all deserving of attention and consideration. I greatly admired the courage of all speaking on this difficult and controversial subject, sometimes sharing painful personal insights. Some spoke of thoughts of suicide over their feelings of shame and lack of acceptance. 

 One woman spoke of raising her family in a very restrictive home, believing that to be the right way, and now realizing that she had traumatized her children. A former library director spoke of her experience of 1950s sex education- whispered misconceptions and rumors- and how she felt it was so important for young people to be able to easily access factual information. It was said that this is a joyous book that answers serious questions for those who need information the most. It was said that sex education saves lives and that the suicide rate for LBGTQ teens is 4 times the rate of others. It was pointed out that virtually every teen and many younger children have cell phones with unrestricted access to social media.

The point was made that young people need reliable written material as a trusted source, not social media.

 Emotions ran very high. Voices in favor of moving or otherwise restricting the book rose in the crowded room. Passages were read aloud from the book in question, with the readers showing extreme discomfort in doing so. As there were children in the audience I questioned the appropriateness of this, although many spoke of only wishing to protect children. 

The word pornography was used several times and there was mention of obscene sex acts. I don’t know if any of these are applicable to this book, but it was reviewed and selected by library professionals who felt that it was important to be included in materials for young adults, aged 14-17.

Historian David Crowley rose to speak of the history of the library in Cuba. Organized in 1872, he stressed that it was a FREE library with the purpose of meeting the informational needs of the community. 

A longtime resident and military veteran spoke with pain on remembering racist remarks made to him at age 6 and pointed out that it was difficult growing up in Cuba and being different, as did a former resident in a letter read by another person.

 The range of speakers was remarkable. I could say so much more about the spirit and concern of all who spoke. They shared a common thread: all were extremely passionate in their feelings, and most were completely supportive and thankful for the library, the staff, and board members. 

 It should be mentioned that the Palmer Opera House does not take a position on this issue and that they are to be commended for the very professional way that they handled the large crowd.

 I was personally very moved by the simple feeling that we, as Americans are free to express our opinions and to agree or disagree in a public setting. Protecting our freedom of speech and our basic rights has never been more important than it is today. And it can be stated in a way that is respectful and meaningful. 

*Read our reporting from last week after a similar book challenge at the Almond NY Public Library:

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