Crowd debates after commissioner proposes rating system for Timberland Library


A packed crowd of residents at the Lewis County Courthouse Tuesday debated what constitutes age-appropriate materials in a public library, made accusations of predatory and grooming behavior, and voiced concerns of censorship and book bans, while a county commissioner cited serial killer Ted Bundy in a broad argument against viewing pornography.

The meeting included an amended book rating suggestion by Commissioner Sean Swope that was much shorter and less complex than a previous version that had circulated online. It appeared to catch fellow Commissioner Lindsey Pollock off guard.

“You slapped this on our desks this morning when we came in,” Pollock said to Swope. “We haven’t had any time.”

For nearly an hour and a half Tuesday morning, residents alternated between deriding material they deemed inappropriate and arguing for the accessibility of books in the Timberland Regional Library system.

“Books don’t groom, they inform. I could go on, there’s lots to say,” said former Centralia City Councilor Rebecca Staebler, who spoke against Swope’s proposal. “But I need to get back to work, and so do the commissioners. Please do the job you were elected to do, and let our library professionals do theirs.”

Timberland Regional Library, an independent public agency that operates 27 community libraries in five counties, is governed by a board of trustees and receives funding through property and timber taxes.

Lewis County commissioners and the county have limited oversight of the system, and county money isn’t used to fund operations. Commissioners appoint members to the library board, with Hal Blanton, of Packwood, and Brian Mittge, of Chehalis, currently serving as representatives.

Tuesday’s meeting did not include a vote on implementing a rating system because the Lewis County commissioners lack the authority to do so. Still, there was plenty of discussion of the content available in the library.

“We’re a nation of laws. We have laws that are created that provide moral guidelines and parameters for all of us to live by,” Commissioner Scott Brummer said. “I believe the public library system does not have adequate controls to protect our minor children and I echo Commissioner Swope’s sentiment that we’re asking the Timberland Board of Trustees to move forward with creating a commonsense rating system that empowers children, provides them with the tools they need, to protect the innocence of our children and to stop the over-sexualization of the children at this young age.”

Citing the power to appoint members to the Timberland Board of Trustees, Swope has called for increased scrutiny of books available at the library. In attendance was Julie Balmelli-Powe, a candidate for the Chehalis School Board, who supported Swope’s proposal.

“I strongly believe there are forces in our society that are trying to attack our children’s innocence,” Balmelli-Powe said. “And I think we’ve been passive long enough. And it’s time to stand up, and to fight for our children, and to keep our children’s physical and mental health safe.”

On Tuesday, Swope spoke of library materials he believes to be harmful and said they could cause damage. A silent video Swope posted this weekend on Facebook shows him walking into a library branch and picking up a copy of “It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health,” which CBS News described as among the 50 most commonly banned books in the country. First published in 1994, the book has sold more than 1.5 million copies and was translated into 27 languages.

Marilynn Chintella, president of the Friends of the Chehalis Library, said the book doesn’t constitute pornography.

“I challenge each of you who use the word pornography to go to your Oxford English Dictionary or Webster or wherever you go, and actually look up the word ‘pornography,’” Chintella said. 

While at the podium, Bethel Church Pastor Kyle Rasmussen read a definition of the word and said he often counsels men whose marriages struggle due to exposure to pornography.

“I myself picked up a book, a Playboy when I was 12 years old because a friend gave it to me. And it put images in my mind that changed my perspective, my view of the opposite sex,” Rasmussen said. “And I dealt with that for a long time.”

Swope also broadly discussed the negative effects of pornography during the Tuesday meeting.

“I listened to an interview last night from Ted Bundy, and he attributed it to finding pornography at a young age, where it got him in a vicious battle that led him down the road,” Swope said. Bundy, executed in 1989, committed at least 20 murders in several states. “I’m not saying everyone’s going to be a Ted Bundy, but for someone at the very last day of his life to be able to look back and say, ‘It was those things right there that set me on a course I didn’t want to go on.’”

Elizabeth Rohr, a Toledo resident, brought her copy of the graphic novel “Gender Queer” and questioned its appropriateness to minors while voicing distrust of the American Library Association. According to the ALA, the book was the most challenged book of 2022 for “LGBTQIA+ content” and “sexually explicit” content.

“Their leadership has stated that (they) are wanting to use our libraries for social change, and we can see that happening right here,” Rohr said. “So I don’t think the American Library Association right now is the qualified people to make those determinations. It should be parents, and the community, and Commissioner Swope.”

Initially, Swope suggested a system with in-depth definitions of terms, a complex rating system, principles, guidance for the board of trustees. He also called for an appeal process for book ratings and to task library staff with establishing and implementing the system.

“Timberland Regional Library will regularly educate staff, patron, and the community about the purpose and guidelines of the book rating system,” the initial proposal read.

The Chehalis Timberland Library Facebook page shared a list of resources already in place that can help patrons “find a perfect pick for you or your family” on Saturday, listing library staff, filters for the online book catalog, catalog professional reviews, the “Common Sense Media” website that shares age-based reviews for parents and educators, and the accelerated reader (often called AR) bookfinder.

On Tuesday, Swope offered a pared-back version of the plan, which he said stems from existing policy.

“After doing some research on the rating system, I understand how difficult that would be. And then reading the standards with the American Library Association, and what that would take, would be difficult,” Swope said of the initial policy proposal. “Hopefully, we can have a discussion about policy creation.”

The half-page document says “access to materials and internet content that contain adult themes … or are considered harmful to minors is restricted while assuring that educational and health-related materials and websites remain accessible.”

The printout says minors 17 years old and younger could only access materials that are “age-appropriate,” though parents could sign a waiver for children ages 13-17 if they assume “responsibility for guiding and monitoring their access.”

According to Swope, the policy would add the same restrictions to printed material as to web content. He questioned whether Pollock favored eliminating the existing restrictions on web access for minors, which Pollock said she hasn’t heard consideration of.

“I’m not suggesting that and also, I didn’t find Hustler in the children’s section,” Pollock said.

“It’s not a comical time,” Swope responded.

Pollock said the policy appeared “redundant” and wondered about “any functional changes” between the current policy and what Swope proposed.

“We’ve gone through quite the gyration here of introducing the rating policy and then, just this morning, provided with a different policy, significantly walked back from the rating policy. But we are still looking for restrictions,” Pollock said. “The place for restrictions is at the parental level. The place for the library is to be a resource for the parents to find out everything they need to know about the materials that are available there, and to educate all folks.”

Still, others voiced different concerns about the material. Traci Dutton of Toledo said she attended the meeting to “voice my concern with the Timberland public library focusing their materials and showcasing propaganda to oversexualize children.”

“I homeschooled my children last year, and when I went to the Timberland Library as (a) teaching aid, what I found was book after book of propaganda against conservative government,” Dutton said, adding she hasn’t returned to the library in more than a year. “It openly promotes the hating of our 45th president, Donald Trump, and was, time and time again, less about the facts and more about opinions.”