It’s been more than 10 months since Anchorage’s last Assembly-confirmed library director retired, and the Anchorage Public Library still does not have a replacement.
Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration said a search for a new director is ongoing and that a “handful” of interviews have taken place.
The person now at the library’s helm is Deputy Director Judy Eledge, who stepped down from her appointment as library director last November after facing scrutiny from the Assembly over her qualifications. At the time, the administration said it would conduct a “world-wide search” to find a new director.
The city’s last library director, Mary Jo Torgeson, said she is concerned about the lack of a professional librarian overseeing the city’s library, which she said is a critical hub for information and the community. Torgeson headed the library for nine years before retiring last spring.
Public libraries are a forum that provide access to information and expression, rights protected under the First Amendment, she said, and not having a professional librarian in charge is an issue because “they don’t understand full depth of knowledge and the power of the public library and what that can be for our community.”
With no one in the director position, Eledge is still technically in charge of library operations, and filling duties such as giving director’s reports to the Library Advisory Board and the Anchorage Library Foundation.
Eledge is a longtime Alaska educator and president of the Anchorage Republican Women’s Club, and is active in conservative politics. In the city election last year, she drew controversy over her social media posts — including inflammatory posts about race and LGBTQ issues — when she ran for a seat on the school board and lost. (Eledge said at the time that the posts were taken out of context or altered, but declined to provide details.)
Meanwhile, concerns about possible policy changes at the Anchorage library flared up in recent weeks following a presentation given to the library board by its teen member related to segregating certain books containing passages about sex, sexuality and gender identity. Comments about possibly auctioning library property also sparked apprehension from some in the community. Some Assembly members are asking questions about whether the administration is following city code by keeping Eledge, not confirmed by the Assembly, in charge of library operations for as long as she has been.
Nationwide, efforts to ban books in school libraries are increasingly common, and the challenged books largely focus on sexuality and race. The Anchorage School District superintendent recently pulled a book from district libraries that has also been banned from several school districts around the country after outcry from conservative leaders and parents.
The Bronson administration declined multiple requests for an interview with Eledge, and answered questions for this story only via email. In those emailed responses, the administration said there is no plan to segregate LGBTQ and sexuality-themed literature at the library, to remove books from the library or to sell any of the library’s rare books and paintings. It also contends that Eledge is not acting as a director and that it is compliant with city code.
“Mayor Bronson believes in the importance of the library and believes it is an asset for the city,” Corey Allen Young, a spokesman for the mayor, said in an email.
“Not one material related to any subject has been removed or moved,” he said.
The Anchorage Assembly refused to confirm Bronson’s initial appointee for head librarian, Sami Graham, over similar concerns with her qualifications: Both Graham and Eledge do not have a degree in library sciences, which was previously listed as a requirement of the position. The Bronson administration has since changed the position’s required qualifications in its job posting.
The mayor has accused the Assembly of unfairly disparaging his nominees. Young said the Assembly refused to confirm Graham for “partisan reasons.”
Library board discusses ‘inappropriate literature’
Some of the concerns about potential changes at the library were sparked by a December presentation to the Library Advisory Board from its youth representative, Denali Tshibaka, who suggested that some materials should be moved from library sections that serve youths. (Tshibaka is the daughter of Kelly Tshibaka, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, and Niki Tshibaka, the city’s human resources director.)
At the meeting, Eledge indicated that she believes there are “objectionable things” in the library’s youth sections and that she had received several calls from people concerned about materials.
During the presentation, Tshibaka told the board and Eledge that she had found what she called “inappropriate literature” in the youth and teen sections, and said she was appalled by some of the examples she found and the graphic nature of some of the books.
She gave the board several suggestions, including moving LGBTQ-themed books into a separate section in Youth Services, moving some books from teen sections to adult sections, and splitting the teen section into a preteen section and older teen section, among other suggestions. Tshibaka said she is against censorship and in favor of reorganizing material.
In response, Eledge told Tshibaka, “If we know about this, and we are proactive, instead of reacting when a group comes ready to blow the library up — and there are parents who are getting to that point — and so I just thank you so much for doing such a great presentation and then coming up with solutions that to me make a lot of sense.”
Eledge said that it is “an issue that we’re going to address if not in the really near future, pretty soon out.”
One advisory board member, Travis Gularte, said at the meeting he is worried that separating LGBTQ literature could have a harmful impact on youths questioning their sexuality, and compared the idea to racial segregation.
“What happens when you have a 14-, 15-year-old person questioning their sexuality, wanting to get some literature, and they go to the ‘gay only’ reading section? Everybody in the entire library is going to look at this person — ‘this person here’s gay,’ ” he said.
Eledge also said at the meeting that she had pulled some books to review after hearing specific concerns but found that the books were not part of the youth-focused sections of the library, so she returned them to the shelves. She did not specify which books.
Torgeson cautioned against an approach that would categorize books — and therefore their readers — by subject matter. She said a library should be a haven and it’s not the library’s job to restrict children from finding information — that is a decision that’s up to parents.
“It’s not about whether you’re right or left, it’s about providing information to the public in an unbiased way,” Torgeson said.
“We have something that can offend everyone,” she said.
After Tshibaka gave the same presentation to the city’s Youth Advisory Commission, commission member Lily Spiroski resigned. Spiroski, who is nonbinary, emailed Assembly members a resignation letter citing a “hostile” environment on the commission and included concerns about the project, which Spiroski said would censor LGBTQ authors and limit young people’s access to the books.
“Making LGBT-specific sections alienates LGBT folks. Because their stories are our stories. It’s a part of our history. It’s a part of learning,” Spiroski said in an interview.
The mayor’s office said there is no project between the Youth Advisory Commission and the Library Advisory Board related to materials in the library.
The mayor’s office also said that since Bronson took office, no one appointed to the positions of library director, acting director or deputy director has removed any material from the library’s shelves.
During a visit to the library last week, several books mentioned in Tshibaka’s presentation as “inappropriate” were still on the shelves.
“Anyone who has objections on materials are being asked to go to the Library website where they will find a form they can fill out,” Young said by email. “Deputy Director Eledge believes in diversity of all thoughts. Her goal is to ensure that diversity of all thoughts are balanced in the Library.”
Compliance with city code
At the same advisory board meeting in December, Eledge told the board that she’d hired an appraiser because the library needs to insure its valuable items and appraise items like paintings, photos, maps and rare books.
“We just need to kind of know what we have, because we can’t keep everything,” Eledge said. “We’re going to have to start — have auctions — do something else with what we’ve got. But before we do that, I think we need to know what it is we have.”
Young said that the library’s Alaska Collection, which includes 17 paintings worth $450,000, is not for sale.
Assembly leaders say members of the public are contacting them with concerns about the lack of leadership at the library.
“We have been hearing loud and clear from the community that they’re not happy with the leadership situation at the library,” Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said.
Some constituents are now emailing and calling to ask whether Eledge continuing to run the library as a deputy director, without Assembly confirmation, is a violation of city code, LaFrance said.
A city law passed by the Assembly last year requires that an acting director can only serve for 60 days, a time period that has long passed. There are two exemptions to the time limit, but those may not apply and it’s not clear how the administration is interpreting the code, LaFrance said.
The Assembly changed code requirements around its confirmation of mayoral executive appointments following several tussles with Bronson over his appointees, including Graham, marking an escalating power struggle between the branches of city government. (Bronson vetoed the ordinance after it passed, and the Assembly overrode that veto.)
The Bronson administration contends that it is not violating the city code.
“Judy Eledge is not the acting Library Director. There is no director,” Young said by email.
“We’re considering next steps for responding to these community concerns and ensuring compliance with the code,” LaFrance said.
She declined to say what the Assembly’s next steps might be.
“I think it’s important to hear from the administration to explain how they are complying with code in that way because we are getting a lot of questions,” she said.