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Macon residents, commissioner float withdrawing from Fontana Regional Library

A speaker holds up a book containing LGBTQ content during public comment at a March 14 Macon County Commission meeting. Bob Scott photo A speaker holds up a book containing LGBTQ content during public comment at a March 14 Macon County Commission meeting. Bob Scott photo

What started as a group of citizens concerned about certain LGBTQ books in the Macon County Library has turned into an effort to pull the library from the Fontana Regional Library system, a move that could get very complicated and very expensive, very quickly.

During a Feb. 7 library board meeting, a group of Macon citizens spoke out about their concerns that the library was promoting a sexual agenda to minors, as well as the library’s affiliation with the American Library Association and the Fontana Regional Library system.

At this meeting, most speakers said they were not in favor of banning books or removing them from the library; however, almost all of them advocated for sequestering books containing LGBTQ content or themes in one way or another. Some residents suggested putting a label on all such books; others likened them to pornographic material and suggested they be in a restricted area separate from the rest of the library collection. 

The library uses viewpoint-neutral genre labeling for mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, inspirational fiction and paperback romance. However, public libraries do not use labeling that can be used for attempts to prejudice, discourage or encourage users or restrict access to library resources. These types of prejudicial labels are avoided because using such labels assumes that libraries have the institutional wisdom to determine what is appropriate or inappropriate for its users to access.

“It’s against the First Amendment to block access to under 18-year-olds, because they have First Amendment rights as well,” said Tracy Fitzmaurice, Jackson County librarian and Fontana Regional Library director.

The Library Bill of Rights states that libraries do not advocate ideas found in their collections or in resources accessible through the library. The presence of books and other resources in a library does not indicate endorsement of their contents by the library. 

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Macon County Commissioner Danny Antoine spoke at the February library meeting and has since been vocal in his opposition to some LGBTQ literature that he considers age inappropriate and sexually explicit. Antoine serves as a liaison to the library board and has regularly brought up one book, “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” a graphic novel by Maia Kobabe. 

“There are books that we have in our library system that are just absolutely unacceptable and beyond reprehensible to even speak of what’s inside of these books,” Antoine said. “This is pornographic material. A child cannot walk into an adult X-rated store and just go get whatever they want. However, the library seems to be one place in America where any child can check out these books without parental consent.”

During that February meeting Antoine read from statutes regarding third-degree sexual exploitation of minors. Because the book “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” involves sex, Antoine seemed to allege the material rose to the level of the statute he cited.

“A person commits the offense of third-degree sexual exploitation of a minor if, knowing the character and content of the material, he possesses material that contains a visual representation of a minor engaging in sexual activity,” said Antoine. 

Current library rules allow children over the age of eight to check out books from the library if they have their own card, which requires parental consent to obtain. Children eight years old and younger must have a parent or guardian present to be at the library and to check out books. 

Some residents also advocated for Macon County to separate itself from FRL as well as the American Library Association, the national accreditation association for all librarians in state aid libraries. Residents are urging for the separation from FRL largely because they feel the FRL Board of Trustees has not been receptive to their complaints. 

Commissioner Antoine has taken up that mantle. During a March 14 commissioner meeting Antoine said he was working on pulling Macon County out of the system. 

“For those of you who have stated about pulling out of the Fontana Regional System, believe me, I’m completely on board with that,” Antoine said. “It’s not a simple process. It is a hard process that we’re definitely working super hard on, trying to figure out how to do this the best way because you can’t just pull out of that system and leave the library hanging by itself. We have to have a system in place to be able to make sure that the library is functioning correctly.”

Antoine railed against the Fontana Regional Library board for not listening to the concerns of Macon residents. 

“This is completely disgraceful that you would have pornographic books with kids and you would have people defending a position to say that that’s OK for a child to read,” he said.

Antoine asserted that the rest of his commissioners were on board with his goals. However, when reached for comment, Commissioner John Shearl said he was awaiting a solution on the issue from library liaisons (Commissioners Antoine and Paul Higdon) and was “not prepared to give a conclusive answer on the issue at this time.”

Commissioner Gary Shields said he trusts the leadership of Bill Dyer, chairman of the Macon County Library Board. 

“As a director, I follow the laws, I follow the statutes, I follow the First Amendment,” Fitzmaurice told The Smoky Mountain News. “We follow a policy because it is the best for our communities, because it gives access to everyone. It doesn’t favor one group of people over another.”

According to Fitzmaurice, the library has not received any requests for reconsideration for any of the books that people have held up in public meetings to complain about. The request for reconsideration is laid out in library policy and is the method by which residents can request that the library look at particular books and determine whether or not they should be on the shelves. 

“They are not following the procedures to even get those books looked at,” said Fitzmaurice. “Since June of last year Macon County has received a total of seven requests for reconsideration and not a single one of them are from any of the books being held up at the meeting.” 

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Commissioner Danny Antoine is leading the charge to withdraw Macon County from the Fontana Regional Library system. Bob Scott photo

Fontana Regional Library formed in 1944 when the Tennessee Valley Authority sponsored a regional bookmobile to visit the most remote areas of Jackson, Macon and Swain counties.

Today the system helps offer full library services to rural counties that might not otherwise be able to fund them. By combining cataloging, human resources, finance departments and information technology services for libraries among the three counties, it is cheaper for each county than if they were to provide for each of those departments individually. The regional agreement between the three counties is renewed every 10 years and can be dissolved or withdrawn from at any time.

There are three libraries in Macon County that are part of FRL — the Macon County Public Library, Nantahala Community Library and Hudson Library. However, unlike Macon and Nantahala, Hudson Library in Highlands is owned by Hudson Library Inc. rather than Macon County. 

The FRL Board of Trustees has the power to adopt policies for the administration and operation of the library; select, appoint, remove and determine terms of employment of a regional director; adopt an annual budget; appoint a regional finance officer; ensure compliance with state and federal law; and make recommendations to county boards. 

At a recent library board meeting, one public speaker asserted that Macon County citizens were probably paying for the Swain County building projects. However, each county has its own funding stream so that taxpayer money from Macon County, for instance, is never used for the libraries in Swain County. 

“It’s totally separate, even a separate bank account, because we don’t borrow between counties,” said Fitzmaurice. “It’s very clear that my Jackson County commissioners don’t want Macon County using their money. That is something that doesn’t happen.”

According to Fitzmaurice, 92.3% of the money Macon County puts into the library annually goes to pay library employees in Macon County. The rest of the 7.7% goes toward funding split positions and services for all libraries in the FRL system. 

In order to remove itself from FRL, Macon County Commissioners would have to vote to remove Macon County from the Fontana Regional Library System by July 1 — because libraries run on the July 1-June 30 fiscal year  — and would need to notify Jackson and Swain County commissioners as well as the Fontana Regional Library Board and the State Library of North Carolina.

The regional agreement was most recently renewed for another 10 years on Jan. 10 but can be broken at any time. If Macon County decided to withdraw and notified the right parties, this would start what is called a year of demonstration. That is a year during which Macon County would have to prove that it can afford to run the library, that it can complete all the necessary paperwork it takes to become a state library and that it could get the equipment and everything needed to run the library. 

“All of the equipment and books and everything belongs to Fontana Regional Library,” said Fitzmaurice. “So, they would either have to strike a deal with Fontana Regional and purchase those things or they would have to buy everything new. And there’s about 90,000 books in there.”

While FRL owns the contents of the libraries, each county owns the property, buildings, grounds and other facilities. Fitzmaruice says she doesn’t have an estimate as to how much the library catalogue plus technology equipment is worth because some of the books are irreplaceable and out of print. 

“It’s not just the books; it’s everything in there,” she said. “And I know when the furniture and fixtures were bought back in 2007, it cost around $700,000 to put the shelving and the tables and everything in. All that belongs to the Fontana Regional Library.”  

If Macon decides to move forward with pulling out of the FRL system, Fitzmaurice said it would be unwise to not purchase the libraries’ contents. 

“Obviously they wouldn’t want all the books because they don’t like some of the books, but that would be a decision they would have to make and then the remaining two counties, the director and the librarians would decide on what to take or what to donate,” she said.  

If Macon County were to remove itself from FRL, all library employees would become employees of Macon County, and the positions that are currently shared across the FRL system would need to be replaced by Macon County employees. Administrative, financial, purchasing, human resources and IT responsibilities currently handled by FRL would need to be shifted to Macon County departments. 

Additionally, FRL libraries are part of the NC Cardinal Consortium, which is contracted through FRL. Macon County would need to contract for its own system with NC Cardinal or another system. Macon County would need to pay for the conversion costs to port their collection and patron databases into their own system and would need to develop a new collection of materials or work with FRL to acquire the collections currently held by Hudson Library, Macon County Public Library and Nantahala Community Library. There are currently over 120,000 books and other materials in the Macon County libraries. 

North Carolina provides a State Aid block grant annually to each eligible county based on population and economic status. If Macon County were not part of FRL, it would need to apply for this grant annually on its own. Based on recent years, Macon County would be eligible to receive around $90,000. 

“You can’t just have a state aid library with only the books you want,” said Fitzmaurice. 

Macon County is not alone in seeking withdrawal from a regional institution, in 2019 Carteret County withdrew from the Craven-Pamlico Regional Library system. In 2021, Wilkes County residents floated the idea of pulling out of the Appalachian Regional Library system which also includes Watagua and Ashe counties but decided to forgo a move it determined would be fiscally irresponsible. 

There would be countless considerations for Macon County libraries were the county to pull out of FRL — from contracting for broadband to applying for grants, to transitioning all financial services and contracts. What’s more, all FRL libraries share resources, services and expertise that cannot be easily quantified. Macon County’s library patrons and staff would no longer have access to those resources unless a reciprocal agreement were put in place. 

“We’re like a well-oiled unit. It would feel like a missing limb to not have those libraries,” said Fitzmaurice. “It’ll be 31 years in April that I’ve worked for Fontana Regional Library. I’ve worked in Jackson, Macon, Bryson City; it would break my heart to see the regional library system dissolve or lose part of itself. We are a close-knit family and we all rely on each other heavily for our professional input.” 

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