Just the Facts

Background checks proposed by new member of library board

Avatar photo

Deena Bouknight

At the most recent meeting of the Macon County Public Library (MCPL) Trustees on Oct. 3, updates about recent library activity were presented as well as information about what is upcoming at three libraries: Franklin, Highlands, and Nantahala. Afterwards, new business discussion ensued, primarily when one of the newly elected library trustees, Leah Gaston, asked the question: “Do people who work with children in the library have to undergo a background check?”

Regional Director Tracy Fitzmaurice, of the Fontana Regional Library System [under which MCPL falls], joining the meeting remotely from Raleigh, answered Gaston in the negative and said, “We have never had a problem. They are asked to write down any violations or offenses, but no background checks are required.”

In attendance at the October meeting, besides Gaston, were other newly appointed trustees Diann Catlin and Justin Bohner, as well as established trustees Bill Dyar, Wood Lovell, Debbie Tallent, and Ed Trask. Also present were County Librarian Abby Hardison and technical services supervisor and office manager Sandy McMahan.

After Gaston posed the background check question, the group offered input, with Gaston reminding Fitzmaurice: “You talked about on Sept. 12 [at the Fontana Regional Library (FRL) board meeting] that FRL wants to avoid liability.” Added Catlin, “It’s dangerous for people who work in a library with children to not have undergone a background check.”

Commented Bohner, “While nothing has happened in the past, if it did happen and lawyers looked into the fact that background checks have not been required, that could be a problem.”

Echoed Lovell, “Background checks would make us all feel better.” “Schools and churches do require them, so it’s a good idea,” noted Dyer, who asked Gaston to write a formal proposal about background checks that can be presented to the FRL board at its next meeting,

Catlin suggested that a background check requirement include existing library workers and volunteers involved with children. Gaston also asked Fitzmaurice about whether or not the public would have access in the future to streamed or filmed library meetings and she said, “This opportunity will be available soon.”

Prior to the new business discussion on background checks, Abby Hardison gave a full report that included a look at the Digital Inclusion service, which drew 81 people in August and September who needed free tech assistance. While the grant for free tech services ended, Hardison is investigating ways to extend services since the need is evident.

Macon County Librarian Abby Hardison gave a full report at the October 3
meeting that included recent and future activities and programs offered to the public.

Health and wellness are an emphasis at the library, and MCPL is rolling out a program in February focused on heart health-related services. During September’s blood drive, 41 units of blood were donated by participants. Regarding education opportunities, 55 children and parents attended a special NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) program presented in August by Nick Skytland, a NASA chief technologist. “Kids learned how astronauts eat, sleep, and even play in microgravity,” reported Hardison, adding that the volunteer also told attendees about NASA’s plans to return to the moon.

Another educational offering for primarily homeschooled children focuses on local history and heritage. She expects this educational series to possibly last into spring 2024. Hardison added that many homeschooling families and individuals use MCPL’s nine private study rooms on a regular basis. She offered the latest numbers: “160 people used our private study rooms 87 times for school in August, and in September, 223 patrons used the rooms 97 times.” Hudson Library in Highlands currently has one study room but will be adding another.

Lovell provided a short report on Hudson Library, offering that a recently received grant will cover an audio-visual upgrade, and progress is being made on the future renovation of the library building. The Nantahala Community Library, also under the MCPL Trustee’s guidance, is under renovation and may be completed by the end of the year. Trask, who shared a report on the Nantahala Community Library, noted, “There’s a lot of activity, but we are still a ways off from being ready for the public.”

Before the meeting ended, attendee Jim Gaston shared with members that Democrat N.C. Governor Roy Cooper signed the previous day, Oct. 2, Senate Bill 579, named “Prevent Harm to Children,” which is an act intended: “to increase the punishment for disseminating obscenity, to clarify restitution for sexual exploitation of a minor, and to modify certain offenses related to public morality and decency.”

Concerning an ongoing controversy involving libraries in the FRL system promoting books in children’s sections that concerned citizens have deemed sexually explicit and harmful, Gaston informed trustees: “With this bill signed into law, it should be obvious that anything sexual, occult related, or otherwise potentially damaging to minors should be avoided at all costs in the promotions, displays, and celebrations at tax-funded entities that are required to remain neutral and unbiased.”

The next FRL board meeting will be Nov. 14 at 4 p.m. at the Marianna Black Library in Bryson City. The Macon County Library Trustees will meet Dec. 5 at the Macon County Library in Franklin. The public is welcome.