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A Pa. library posted a children’s drag queen book on Facebook. Then the calls and threats came

By Megan Tomasic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Published: March 13, 2023, 6:00am
5 Photos
A Moon Township librarian pulls the book ???A Girls Bill of Rights,???  on Weds. Feb. 8, 2023, at Moon Township Library in Coraopolis.
A Moon Township librarian pulls the book ???A Girls Bill of Rights,??? on Weds. Feb. 8, 2023, at Moon Township Library in Coraopolis. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS) Photo Gallery

PITTSBURGH — The Moon Township librarians rushed around the normally quiet library one December day locking the doors hours before closing. The phones relentlessly rang off the hook as callers on the other end threatened violence and called the librarians groomers and pedophiles. Eventually, the phones were disconnected.

It was less than 24 hours after the children’s book “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish,” a play on the nursery rhyme “The Wheels on the Bus,” had been posted on the children’s department Facebook page.

The calls started coming in soon after the post. Besides the disturbing comments, some named the librarians’ children. Others said they were sending Kyle Rittenhouse to the library. He was acquitted of all charges after he fatally shot two people during a 2020 protest in Wisconsin.

The barrage led librarians to call Moon police, who documented the incident in the event the situation escalated. Officers returned the next day to supervise an already scheduled library fundraising event in case picketers showed up.

“It did not stop,” library board President Kathleen Madonna Emmerling said. Many of the phone calls appeared to be from outside Pennsylvania. “The librarians were being doxxed on their personal accounts with their addresses, with the names of their children and they were very unsettled. … They were really scared.”

That December 2021 social media post, which has since been removed, has caused repercussions for most of the past year — and not just from irate callers and emailers. Township supervisors have been regularly questioning the content of materials at the library.

Several township supervisors did not respond to requests seeking comment for this story.

But Emmerling believes the political ramifications have led to static township funding despite pleas from library staff for more money, along with signals from the elected officials that there will be little to no movement on finding a new building “until what they perceived to be the culture of the library and board are reflected to be the values of our township.”

Challenges to books aren’t new, but over the past few years the number of objections being brought against public libraries has surged across the country, throwing libraries such as Moon into the political spotlight as parents and community members hone in intensely on books that include mentions of sexual orientation, gender identity and race.

While Moon has been “one of the more extreme situations,” there were at least five challenges at public libraries across Allegheny County last year, Amy Anderson, CEO of the Allegheny County Library Association, said. “Others have just been smaller complaints or smaller issues brought before the library,” she said. “It’s varying in levels but it’s definitely out there.” No challenges have been reported to the organization so far this year.

These local challenges largely mirror national trends. Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2022, more than 1,650 individual books were challenged, the American Library Association found. That’s a spike from 2021 when almost 1,560 books were challenged the entire year.

“It’s a hot-button issue right now,” Moon library board member Sam McCrimmon said. “I think what’s playing out in Moon is a microcosm of what’s playing out around the country.”

Book bans

Book bans and challenges nationally have largely taken place in school libraries, a trend that gained attention a year ago when a Tennessee school board voted to ban “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust, for what they said was inappropriate content for students.

Since then, state lawmakers around the country, including some in Pennsylvania, have increasingly looked into legislation that would determine which books are appropriate for school libraries, with a focus on content that they believe is “sexually explicit.”

Pennsylvania school districts have also fielded complaints. In Hempfield Area in Westmoreland County, parents questioned two books, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson and “The Black Friend: On Being A Better White Person” by Frederick Joseph.

Norwin School directors next month will consider replacing the resource material “Al Capone Does My Shirts” by Gennifer Choldenko, which is read by fifth graders. Some board members were concerned over what they deemed sexual innuendos, references to rapists who are in the prison and the use of an outdated word when describing a person with special needs.

Central Bucks over the summer approved a policy targeting “sexualized content” in school libraries. The policy was deemed by library experts as one of the most restrictive in the state, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

But increasingly, bills from places such as North Dakota are targeting public libraries. Local decisions are also leading to fallout at individual libraries including one in Michigan that could close after voters rejected its funding when library staff refused to remove LGBTQ books.

Gayle Rogers, chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s English department, said challenges largely stem from people thinking libraries are overstepping with provided materials. He suggested that public libraries have not only recently bolstered their children’s sections, but also made efforts in the past few years to increase the diversity of materials in those departments. That has, in turn, led to deepening criticism of public libraries, he said.

“I think that’s also just intensified the focus on what their holdings are and – for the same reasons that school libraries get that focus on them – whether the materials they’re holding meet community standards for what should be in a public libraries kid’s section,” Rogers said.

Moon challenges

The Moon Township Public Library was founded in 1981 after an almost two-year push from community members for improved library services. The library today sits on the other side of the Parkway from the bustling Pittsburgh International Airport. It serves the suburban community that is home to Robert Morris University and sprawling neighborhoods where nearly 25% of the township’s almost 27,000 residents are between the ages of 20 and 40.

The library, which last year lent more than 99,500 materials, is filled with thousands of novels. Its robust children’s section brims with brightly colored decorations and stuffed animals like the pigeon from the book “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.”

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More than 5,700 children’s books are available to borrowers at the library. Of those, 33 feature LGBTQ characters.

The goal, Emmerling said, is to have a selection that represents everybody in the community.

The pushback to “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish” by Lil Miss Hot Mess – who serves on the board of the national nonprofit Drag Queen Story Hour – led to several tense discussions between library board members and township supervisors. While the library is not a township department, supervisors provide about one-third of the facility’s funding and are charged with making final appointments to the library board. This year, projected revenues from the township total $212,800, budget documents show.

So far, those conversations have focused on whether the book was displayed in the library; but Emmerling noted that the book, which is still available, never was “because it is always on hold and checked out.” The post on social media was part of the library’s Picture Book of the Day series, which features every picture book that comes through the facility.

During a November meeting, supervisors continued questioning library materials. While the drag queen book did not come up, supervisors asked about a Disability Pride Month display in July. Because the display had the word “pride” in it, some people thought it was tied to the LGBTQ-focused Pride Month, which is celebrated in June. Supervisors challenged a second drag queen book, “If You’re a Drag Queen and You Know It,” also by Lil Miss Hot Mess. The book is a play on the song “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

At that meeting, Supervisor Allan Bross said the board does not want to ban books, but said he feels the library board is not applying “common sense” to the community, according to meeting minutes.

Library Director Heather Panella responded that she follows ethical standards laid out by the American Library Association and the Pennsylvania Library Association. Panella, who declined to comment for this story, said during the meeting that she is required not to discriminate against a specific set of materials.

“Treating them different is censorship and we cannot do it,” Emmerling said.

Anderson, with the Allegheny County Library Association, said books are chosen based on a library’s collection development policy, meaning “it’s not just blindly buying whatever the librarian wants.”

According to Moon library’s bill of rights, books and library resources should be provided for the interest, information and enlightenment of all people in the community. Materials should not be excluded because of background or views. Additionally, libraries should provide materials presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Libraries should also challenge censorship.

It’s a set of guidelines that was written by the American Library Association and is used by other area libraries, including the Mt. Lebanon Public Library.

To meet those standards, the Mt. Lebanon library states they will “intentionally develop collections that recognize, reflect, and value the diverse experiences and multiple identities within our community,” according to their collection development policy.

Oversight and funding

In Moon, librarians and the director are charged with upholding those principles.

The library director – who is hired by the board – also chooses which books are included in the facility’s collection. The library board is not involved in that process.

Still, supervisors have made several changes to the library board’s membership over the past few years.

In all, four people appointed to the seven-person board have not been endorsed by library board members but were chosen by supervisors. Typically, library board members will interview candidates and send their recommendations to supervisors. The supervisors hold a final vote on appointees.

“I just think that [the supervisors] felt they wanted to have a little bit more inside control of the board itself,” said Ted Dengel, a former board member who was not reappointed last January, a month after the drag queen book was posted on Facebook.

It was not clear if the appointments were connected to the controversy over the book.

McCrimmon said he believes that supervisors have “been involved to the degree they want to” in the selection of library board members.

“Are they perhaps concerned with what happens if the board of trustees and the library keeps pushing for the inclusion of books that are in the ALA recommendations? Yeah, that may be but that’s an individual supervisor point,” McCrimmon said. “I wouldn’t collectively attribute that to all the supervisors.”

Additionally, library officials are seeking a 20% increase in township funding to help them stay afloat, Emmerling said. Without it, officials have said during public meetings, they will need to reallocate funds used for various things like book collections, programming and staff.

They also need additional funding to help find a new location for the library. The facility is currently in a building owned by the Moon Township Municipal Authority. The building is also home to the Moon tax office and other government entities. As things currently stand, the library has a 10 year lease with the authority. They are about halfway through the rental agreement.

Library officials have considered renewing their lease, buying a new facility to house the library or building new. Additional space is needed as the library continues to grow – with more than 50,000 visits to the facility last year – and upgrades to furniture and bookshelves are necessary. Officials are also hopeful the library could be used for community events.

With the library growing, Moon library staff have considered renewing their lease at the municipal building, buying a new facility or building a new library.

For Emmerling the question remains: How does the library board have a functional work relationship that grasps the mandates of a public library while satisfying the township supervisors who control important purse strings?

“What is the future, what kind of town do we want to have?” Emmerling said. “Do we want to have a welcoming town with a vibrant public space or do we want to say that we want to be enforcing a town culture? This seems to be an impasse.”