SNOW HILL – Discussion of a library program and its possible link to a political movement dominated a meeting of the Worcester County Commissioners this week.
The commissioners on Tuesday met with Worcester County Library Director Jennifer Ranck to discuss “Read Woke,” a teen reading program the library is offering. Despite concerns from some commissioners, Ranck said the program was not tied to Black Lives Matter and was just meant to promote diverse literature.
“The library is not a partisan organization,” Ranck said.
Ranck was asked to attend Tuesday’s meeting to talk about Read Woke after Commissioner Chip Bertino voiced concerns with the program last month. He said a constituent had brought the program to his attention after seeing it promoted at various branches. Bertino’s concern was that the program was funded by one of Beanstack’s Black Voices Microgrants, which according to Beanstack’s website are “in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.”
He asked Ranck how the library typically went about applying for grants.
“It’s sort of left up to my discretion,” Ranck said, adding that this was a $1,000 grant that the library had been able to apply for virtually, which had been helpful during the pandemic. The grant is allowing the library to offer two $500 prizes to teens who participate in the “Read Woke From Home” challenge. Ranck said there were currently between six and eight teens participating in the program.
When Bertino referenced Beanstack’s support of Black Lives Matter, Ranck said she’d reached out to the company and been assured they were not officially connected to any political movement.
“I have to take them at their word for that,” she said. She said that the Worcester County Library was one of 39 libraries across the country that had received one of these grants.
Bertino said he thought there was too much subjectivity in the library’s grant application process.
“I don’t think politics should be part of anything our library does,” he said.
Commissioner Josh Nordstrom said he agreed with that but that the library hadn’t done anything wrong in this case. He pointed out that the library served everyone and was bound to encounter different opinions along the way.
“We all know sitting up here you’re not going to be able to make everyone happy every single time,” he said.
Commissioner Ted Elder asked about the book list associated with the reading program. Ranck explained there was a different theme each month but that all of the books were geared toward young adults and dealt with social issues. Categories on the reading list include African American Voices, Asian American Voices, Diverse Abilities, Immigration Voices, Hispanic American Voices, Female Voices and LGBTQ+ Voices, among others.
Elder, like Bertino, referenced the statement of support for Black Lives Matter on the Beanstack website.
“To me, it’s just a way of separating everyone by groups rather than individuality,” he said. “I strongly believe in individuality and content of character. I believe more so in that. It seems like all across the country we’re getting separated more and more.”
Ranck responded by recounting a television interview she’d seen with Pocomoke City native Bryan Collier, an award-winning children’s book illustrator. He’d said he didn’t see a lot of books with kids of color in them when he was growing up.
“That was the motivation for him to become a children’s illustrator…,” Ranck said. “When you’re a librarian and you’re in the business of promoting reading, building a collection, planning community programs, you hold onto something like that. You remember that. You want your collection and your programs to reflect a diverse thought and a diverse collection. It’s not meant to be divisive it’s actually meant to be inclusive.”
Commissioner Diana Purnell said she applauded Ranck and the program. She said the different voices children encountered in books would give them a better understanding of what people had been through throughout the nation’s history and that was critical when they didn’t find enough of those books in schools.
“Superintendent Lou Taylor will tell you before God and everybody that we’ve got the best schools going,” she said. “But there are cracks in that.”
Bertino said he supported the library’s efforts.
“The library does have a responsibility to ensure that those voices are available to be heard in our library and I think we do that,” he said. “But I have a really difficult time when the library’s advancing a political agenda.”
He brought up the Beanstack website and its statements in support of Black Lives Matter. He asked if the library would have applied for the grant if those statements were in support of some other organization, such as QAnon.
“Our purpose for this grant was to highlight underserved voices,” Ranck said.
“But if grant was promoted by or endorsed by another organization that you do not agree with, or I do not agree with, would you have given them the same opportunity to provide a grant?” Bertino responded.
Ranck said she took her opinion out of library decisions.
“We would vet the grant in the same way I believe,” she said.
Bertino said he still thought the library was advancing a political agenda.
“It’s a volunteer reading program,” Ranck said.
“Advocated, advertised by and promoted by our libraries,” Bertino replied.
Ranck said the library was in the business of promoting reading.
Nordstrom asked if an agenda was being pushed with the books included in this program.
“These books are about social issues,” Ranck said. “When you read the description of the program, that’s what they’re trying to get across. It’s not a science fiction reading club. It’s about social issues.”
Purnell again spoke up in support of the program and Ranck.
“I am not happy about putting you on the stand today about Black Lives Matter,” she said. “That’s not, I didn’t get elected to come down here and do that. That’s not what I’m here for. We need to leave Black Lives Matter out of the library, out of the schools…”
She said everyone had a right to their opinion and that the library provided access to those opinions.
“As a taxpayer I’ve always supported the library,” she said. “When we get to the point we’ve got to go in and tell you what you can and cannot do, and you’ve got to justify what you put in that library, then we’ve got a problem in the county. Period.”
Bertino said he wasn’t disputing the importance of the library or its ability to bring the community together. He’s worried about the library becoming a political entity.
“I feel like in this particular case it has,” he said. “I think it’s wrong…This particular grant that advocates for a political agenda, I think that’s wrong. I think it would be wrong if it was a political organization I agreed with. It has no place in our libraries.”
Commissioner Jim Bunting praised Ranck but said he also took issue with the grant.
“I think we erred in accepting this grant,” he said.
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic asked if the library board had approved the grant.
“I can’t point to the minutes where they approved this but they gave me permission to apply for grants,” Ranck said.
Mitrecic pointed out that there hadn’t been community uproar related to the program.
“I think that anything that gets our teenagers reading and sitting at a table discussing something and not playing with their phones is a positive,” he said. “They’re not texting back and forth, they actually have to converse. I think that’s more important than anything else on this table right now. Although certainly I have my issues I think it’s a good thing for the community.”