One of the fastest growing townships in western Michigan has decided that it would rather not have a local library if it means stocking children’s books about LGBTQ+ people.
In a ballot measure that came to a vote this week, residents of Jamestown Township voted to defund the Patmos Library by a 25-point margin, after a local conservative group led a campaign against the inclusion of LGBTQ+ books and accused library staff of “trying to groom our children” by simply putting them on bookshelves.
The Board of Trustees anticipates that the Patmos Library, which serves an estimated population of 10,000, will run out of money sometime next year.
Many are attributing the ballot measure’s failure to a local Christian nationalist group called the Jamestown Conservatives. The group purports to be promoting awareness of “the pushed agenda of explicit sexual content that is being infiltrated into our local libraries aiming toward our children.”
“We stand to keep our children safe, and protect their purity, as well as to keep the nuclear family intact as God designed,” the group’s description on Facebook reads.
The group also formed in part to rally behind a parent who found the young adult graphic novel Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe in the adult section of the library. Kobabe’s memoir explores eir nonbinary and asexual identities, and was the most challenged book in 2021 according to the American Library Associaiton (ALA). Larry Walton, who chairs the Patmos Library’s board of trustees, says the book was pulled from library shelves in November 2021 and remains behind the counter of the library’s circulation desk. Walton says the trustees follow the Michigan Library Association’s code of conduct.
“In the document it states that trustees need to put their own personal bias aside and be representative of the whole community, not just the loudest speaking group, but of everyone and we are doing that,” Walton told Motherboard. “LGBTQ books are protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, and the library board is trying to be fair and neutral. We don’t favor one group or the other—we represent all aspects of diversity and unfortunately, can’t bend to the loudest yelling and be neutral and keep everybody happy.”
But Patmos Library’s neutral outlook seems more to benefit Jamestown Conservatives. Bridge Michigan quoted Jamestown Conservatives organizer Amanda Ensing accusing library officials of “trying to groom our children to believe that it’s OK to have these sinful desires,” saying that “it’s not a political issue. It’s a Biblical issue.”
Despite residents’ accusations, the Patmos Library’s programming has been decidedly bland. The library’s Facebook page shows that over the last few months it has been promoting radical events such as a “Family Movie Night” featuring screenings of the movies like Finding Dory and Jaws, “Teen Summer Laser Tag,” a teen board game night, a puppet show about fish, a Father’s Day arts and crafts event, a family concert, and a blood donation drive in partnership with a local medical facility.
Jamestown Township isn’t the first library to have its operations disrupted in this way. Libraries across the country have recently become a culture war battleground, facing an unprecedented number of book challenges and bans from conservative and far-right extremist groups opposed to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ authors, staff, and events. Last month, a public library in Iowa was forced to close temporarily after all full-time employees quit. The exodus came after months of complaints from conservative residents, who criticized the display of LGBTQ+ books and complained of gender non-conforming library workers “cross-dressing.”
Amber McLain says she resigned from her position as director of the Patmos Library this spring after she was harassed in-person and online by members of Johnston Conservatives.
“With the current climate, I knew the millage was a crapshoot,” McLain told Motherboard, referring to a measure that would have funded the library by increasing property taxes. “I had hope, but unfortunately, things went the other way.”
If passed, the millage would have increased property taxes for the average home with a market value of $250,000 by about $24. McLain says she finds it unfortunate that a small but loud group managed to influence enough voters to reject the millage renewal by a 25-point margin, noting that many people still see libraries as places that only carry books.
“There seems to be a misunderstanding of how much things come out to, in the end, a fundamental lack of understanding about tax millages in general,” she added. “Add on top of that, there is the current movement of attacks on libraries, and the library had already been made a target of those attacks.”
Mill levies through property taxes are becoming more favorable among libraries because they help libraries work independent of local government influence and not have to worry about municipal budget cuts or reallocations for other civil services such as fire departments, law enforcement, or emergency climate disaster relief. Public libraries also have been shown to increase property values in towns and cities. According to the ALA, homes within a quarter mile of a library are worth almost $10,000 more on average than homes located further away.
“That was the goal, that’s always been the goal between the library board and the township that we would be independent,” said Walton. “We would be able to operate on funding that we receive and would not require additional funding from our township and not have to worry about additional money.”
John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary Institute, says that the political influence locals have had over the Patmos Library is a leading political indicator for other library-related ballot measure outcomes in 2022.
“It has me concerned that this religiously-powered anti-access anti-person campaign has succeeded in a small town in America already,” Chrastka told Motherboard. “The idea that there is a breakdown in the respect that we used to have in America for the separation of church and state and a rise of a political perspective that wants to essentially break government, defund education, approach issues around the rights of individual humans as if it was a criminalization campaign… this is a troubling moment and a signal for the rest of America to wake up.”
Walton says the trustees will meet next week to determine what the last amount of tax dollars coming in would be, and look at the expenditures to determine how long the Patmos Library can afford to stay open.
“Obviously without a millage being that it was voted down, we will not have that revenue coming in and there will be a definitive point in time that the library will be potentially closed down due to this,” Walton said.
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