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Watch now: Bloomington Public Library under fire by some parents for choice of books

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BLOOMINGTON — The director of the Bloomington Public Library said they’ll be using more scrutiny when selecting books to be highlighted in a monthly display in the building.

The showcase is on the second floor of the library between the children’s and adult areas and features a different theme each month. In September, the theme was graphic novels.

Jesse Simmons, of Bloomington, said she raised concerns after her husband took her 7-year-old son to the children’s section near the display and he said “something wasn’t right.”

Simmons said some of the selections featured sexually explicit content and drug use.

"I went over a couple of days later ... I personally sat down at that display case and thumbed through books for an hour," Simmons said. "You've got promotion of extreme drug use, extreme profanity through all this stuff... blasphemy against God ... I could go on and on. It is vile."

Simmons said she took her concerns to library staff but wasn't satisfied with the response or the fact that the books remained on display for the last few days of September.

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"They leave the responsibility to the parents," she said. "They took away my parental authority to say yes or no before my child picks it up."

Library Director Jeanne Hamilton said the complaint was received by the library.

"The theme, overall, was graphic novels and there were some titles that landed on there that weren't family-friendly," she said.

Hamilton said she checked each title individually through a worldwide catalogue and noted more than 100 libraries in the U.S. had the same books on shelves.

Asked why the Normal Public Library did not have the same books, Hamilton said Normal has "approximately 151,500 books in their collection while Bloomington Public Library has approximately 228,500 books in our collection."

"With that difference, I am sure there are a lot of titles in a variety of subject areas that Bloomington carries that Normal does not," she said.

Simmons on Tuesday confronted the library board during its regular meeting, asking for a “public resolution” on the matter. What that looks like wasn't clear: Simmons said she didn't want the library to ban books; one person called on trustees to search security camera footage and fire librarians who compiled the display.

Mostly, those who spoke during public comment did so in support of library staff.

The books in question are categorized as for adults in the library’s catalogue system and explore topics of race, sexuality and the marginalization of certain groups within society. Having those perspectives available to the public is necessary, some commenters said.

"It is important to me that every child who grows up here has access to representation — whether that is LGBTQ, racial diversity, cultural diversity, different religions," commenter Sarah Adelman said. "It’s important for everyone to understand how unique they are in the world."

"This is really important to me because I grew up closeted and if I had seen more representation for my sexuality, I might have felt less afraid to be who I was my entire life."

Bloomington-Normal Democratic Socialists of America spokeswoman Krystle Able told The Pantagraph she believes the controversy was blown out of proportion.

"They want to prevent people from realizing the truth and being able to reflect and look within themselves to dismantle systems of oppression and racism," she said. "They want to keep people from growing and realizing that we can ... actually achieve equality and inclusion for all."

Normal resident Jason Halmy said the books explored ideas and, like movies, contain adult themes and language that aren't part of the overall message but part of the story-telling experience. He said the issue Tuesday felt more politically charged than morally motivated.

"This feels like a public attack on our institution," he said. "This is my first time coming to anything like this — I'm tired of it. Public servants that are serving us should be treated as such."

Simmons encouraged others to attend the Tuesday meeting, which was interrupted by cheers, music, clapping and protests.

Hamilton said they’ve reviewed policies.

"We've looked back and going forward, we are going to focus on putting more family-friendly books in that area," she said.

The display currently showcases books on former Secretary of State Colin Powell and cookbooks on another shelve. 

Similar concerns have been raised before. In Cheyenne, Wyoming, residents complained to police that library books on sex and LGBT issues are obscene and that library staff should be arrested.

In 2008, the Bloomington library removed a DVD of the film “Shortbus” from shelves after a resident said it was inappropriate.

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