DEWITT – A book stolen from kiosks in Westbrook Park has garnered attention in DeWitt, and DeWitt Community Library Director Janette McMahon is hoping to turn the incident into an advantageous opportunity – one that will possibly educate community members on library policies.
Immediately after McMahon learned the children’s book at the library’s Story Walk at Westbrook Park had been removed last week without permission, her first reaction was one of concern.
The Story Walk is a series of kiosks along the Paul Skeffington Memorial Trail in which the library displays the pages of a book. As people walk, they can take in a story, cover-to-cover, one page at a time.
McMahon was worried the wooden / plexiglass units in which pages of the books are displayed were damaged as a result. However, once she knew the kiosks were left perfectly intact, McMahon said she just felt sad.
“I knew it was deliberate,” she related. “I don’t think any one person should determine what the city of DeWitt reads.”
The book, “It’s Okay to Be a Unicorn!” by Jason Tharp, is literature intended for young children and features a unicorn – Cornelius J. Sparklesteed – pretending to be a horse, as he has heard horses in his hometown of Hoofington pass on mean rumors about unicorns.
However, Cornelius eventually learns to fit in and embrace his true self.
Information about the book being removed received a great deal of attention on social media, particularly Facebook.
McMahon said public discussion helped narrow the timeframe during which the book was removed.
It was determined the book was still at the Story Walk as of 6 am June 13. However, by the following morning, when library staff members were at the park to host a summer program, it was gone.
McMahon said because the incident happened at a city park, she reported it to DeWitt Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Lake, who then notified the DeWitt Police Department.
Lake said police classified the event as the “unauthorized removal of library material.”
DeWitt Police Chief Dave Porter said the crime was a “simple theft charge,” and if caught, the thief would be required to reimburse the library for the value of the book.
Choosing a book
McMahon said based on her experience, lots of kids love unicorns and rainbows. But, given the book’s colorful front cover and illustrations, people may have assumed the book was written specifically for children who may be uncertain about their sexuality and possibly led to the book being taken.
However, McMahon said when it comes to selecting books for the Story Walk and the library itself, staff members follow specific policies and consider certain criteria.
Those include conducting a great deal of research and reading reviews about the books themselves, as well as the authors.
According to various interviews McMahon saw with Tharp, “It’s Okay to Be a Unicorn!” simply was written for any child who struggles with being different for any reason, McMahon noted.
“It’s for the kid in the wheelchair, the kid with glasses, the heavy kid in class,” she explained. “(Tharp) didn’t write it as part of any ‘gay agenda.’ But, he has also said if kids who are struggling with their sexual identity can relate to the book, that’s great. He’s all for it. ”
When considering which books to display along the Story Walk, staff members take into consideration how long a book is (lengthy books likely won’t hold the attention of young readers), if it has a positive message and if the illustrations are colorful enough to be engaging and catch a little person’s eye.
McMahon and her staff believed “It’s okay to be a unicorn!” encompassed all of those things.
Books at the park are changed out once a month. Tharp’s book was scheduled to be up another week and a half when it was removed.
Individuals on social media have asked if a new copy of the book will be put back up at the Story Walk. McMahon said it will be re-installed soon.
“We are not out to make anyone in the community uncomfortable or angry,” she related. “But the library is here to serve an entire community, not just a portion. We feel very strongly about trying to be inclusive, and we will always strive to serve everyone in our community. Not everyone will always be happy. ”
Filing a complaint
In instances when library patrons are not happy with available materials, the library has a “reconsideration of library resources” policy.
Procedures are in place for community members to utilize, should they wish to challenge a book (or any other library material) instead of removing it illegally themselves.
A form is available to be filled out with the complainant’s information, such as name, address and if he or she is filing a personal complaint or on behalf of an organization.
Complainants also must indicate which resource they are challenging, and why.
In case a resident would prefer not to return to the library in person with the completed form, McMahon said she will include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
In time McMahon has been director of the library, which has been about a year, she has not had any patrons officially challenge any of the library’s selections. Should the issue ever arise, it ultimately will be brought before the library board at a public meeting, which has the final say as to whether a resource will or will not be pulled from the shelves.
“We don’t just choose books randomly,” McMahon said. “All of the staff contributes to that process. None of us all read entirely the same kinds of materials. If we do not provide a diverse collection, we’re doing a disservice to the entire community. Our goal is to stock our collections with at least 50% of items our patrons request. If there is something they really need or want, we strive to be able to provide that. ”
She also noted the library does not respond to any anonymous challenges.
“We can’t have a discussion with no one on the other side,” McMahon pointed out.
After she learned the book had been removed from the park, McMahon said she received a phone call at the library from a citizen (who did not provide their full name), who said the unicorn book was “pushing the limits” and was “inappropriate” for the Story Walk. ”
McMahon would like to stress to everyone the book has nothing to do with politics. However, she said she always welcomes the opportunity to discuss a person’s difference of opinion when it comes to what the library has to offer.
Keeping those lines of open communication is essential to creating a safe, comfortable environment.
“We picked a quality book, with quality reviews,” McMahon related. “I feel it’s my job – my duty – to stand up for the entire community. Even if someone does not agree with something we offer, I do appreciate those phone calls and conversations. Even if we have to agree to disagree… it’s about the process. We at the library our confident in our process. It is a democracy at work… we all have rights. ”
Kate Howes writes for the DeWitt Observer.