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Library panel implementing parental controls – The Dickinson Press

DICKINSON — The Board of Directors of the Dickinson Public Library held a special meeting on Tuesday, November 22, to address ongoing public discourse over the presence of content on library shelves that some Dickinson residents have described as overtly sexualized and quasi-pornographic denote content.

An October Dickinson Press article highlighted the concerns raised with a book, “Let’s Talk It Over: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being Human.”

The book has drawn backlash and support from libraries across the country, including two libraries in North Dakota.

Tuesday’s meeting provided no opportunity for public comment as library board members and library director Rita Ennen presented an action plan aimed at addressing the concerns.

The six-member board responsible for making library decisions includes John Odermann, Troy Kuntz, Paula Martin, Johnna Douthit, April Frank and Brian Kopp.

Frank said she previously asked Ennen to come up with a plan to offer “parental guardrails” for patrons who wished to do so. Ennen suggested using software called ODIN (Online Dakota Information Network), which is available to K-12 schools and public libraries across the state.

The software would allow parents and guardians to place restrictions on their children’s library cards that would require parental consent for a child to check out any materials in the library.

Board Member and City Commissioner John Odermann offered an emotional response to vitriol he has experienced over the weeks from residents of all political backgrounds due to his position on the matter. Odermann emphasized that he believes that everyone in the room, regardless of their disagreements, is present at meetings on the subject because they care deeply about the well-being of the children.

“When I first got the call from The Dickinson Press a month and a half ago, I thought I had defended the library and its staff very, very strongly and wholeheartedly. And I was attacked, I had people doing my job. I’ve been told I’m not allowed to work with children, that I should step down as head football coach at Trinity,” Odermann said. “Talk about the sleep loss. When your character is questioned just trying to do the right thing.”

Johann Odermann
John Odermann speaks during a library committee meeting November 22nd.

Jason O’Day / The Dickinson Press

He added that he was proud of the parishioners at the Nov. 8 meeting who presented their arguments in a civil manner. He also posited the creation of a task force with people from both sides to review the library’s contents, noting that 106 other books were questioned.

“The reason I’m proposing the task force is because I don’t have time to attend 107 public hearings,” Odermann said.

Kopp defended the book, claiming that it provided readers with crucial information.

“I have learned through personal interviews, written and oral testimonies before the board, my own reading, including the book in question, that the damage comes from not knowing one’s body, life situation, available help and social support to understand. The vitriol displayed by some people at the last board meeting to (other) people in the room is a contributing factor to the deterioration in mental states, self-esteem, body image and suicide rate that people refer to in their testimonies relate. ‘ said Cop. “To do anything that would reduce the resources available to prevent unnecessary suffering and tragedy in our community would itself be a tragedy.”

Later during the meeting, Martin asked that the book be placed in the adult non-fiction section. Frank offered an amendment stating that this should be postponed until ODIN’s parental restrictions were made available.

Frank then suggested barring minors from accessing inappropriate materials by placing certain books in locked display cases, sealed plastic sleeves, or individually clear plastic containers that can be seen by all but opened only by library staff.

“It’s still on the shelf, but it would prevent someone from just taking the book off the shelf and flipping through it without their parents being there,” Frank said.

This earned applause from opponents of the material, many of whom expressed concerns that despite the book’s split-up, children could still access it without having to review it.

Kuntz and Kopp both spoke out strongly against sealed covers of the book. Kopp questioned the legality of such restrictions, claiming that they would unduly limit opportunities for people who he believed could benefit from such books.

Library board members include John Odermann (left), Troy Kuntz, Secretary Paula Martin, President Johnna Douthit, Vice President April Frank and Brian Kopp.

Jason O’Day / The Dickinson Press

“You don’t need a library card to go to the library and read a book. That’s how effectively it restricts the community’s access to the book,” Kopp said.

Finally, in a unanimous decision, the board passed a motion: “Move the book (let’s talk about this) to adult nonfiction. Wait for ODIN to enable parental controls. If it takes longer than 30 days, we will check again.”

Speaking to The Press on Wednesday, Ennen said she hopes to have the ODIN control system up and running within a week, explaining that parents who want to limit their child’s library card will need to come to the library when the program is implemented and choose her.

Ennen said this could also be done over the phone, with appropriate verification of the adult customer’s identity. She pointed out that the restrictions would also apply to online library materials such as e-books.

Ennen confirmed that the library had locked cabinets when it first took over as director in 2014, but that they contained books that were repeatedly stolen, such as My Compf, Wiccan-related titles, and certain anatomy books.

Use of these cabinets ended in 2016, and Ennen couldn’t remember how the decision was made.

After the meeting, County Commissioner Carla Arthaud argued that the measure passed was insufficient and did not address the issue of children’s physical access to sexual content on library shelves. She questioned the effectiveness of the limited checks performed by the board, noting that they did not prevent children from reviewing the materials without reviewing them.

Arthaud said she has questioned Kopp’s statements, saying that proponents of such books used vicious faith arguments to accuse conservatives of homophobia, transphobia and sexism, rather than addressing the pornography they make available free to minors.

“A kid can still go in, look at the book, take screenshots with their phone, do whatever they want, put it back on the shelf and walk away,” Arthaud said. “It’s 100% about caring for these kids and people put blinders on… It’s not about phobias. It’s not about everyone ism that’s out there. That’s not what it is about. It’s about protecting our innocent children.”