For several months, a group of Botetourt County residents has been asking for certain books with LGBTQ+ themes to be removed from the county library system.
They’ve filed removal request forms at the library, spoken at board meetings and started a website to highlight passages and images from the books that they say are sexually explicit.
In response, the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors has issued two resolutions to declare its unwavering support for the library system and the staff at its four branches.
But a proposal made by board chair Donald “Mac” Scothorn at the board’s July 31 meeting offered a different solution to resident concerns: prohibit anyone under 18 from visiting the library without adult supervision.
If enacted, it would likely make Botetourt Libraries’ visiting policy for young people the most restrictive in the state. It’s one element of a broader intellectual freedom debate that has cropped up several times recently in various parts of Virginia.
At the meeting, Scothorn said he would share his recommendation with the Botetourt County Library Board of Trustees for consideration. There was no formal vote on the item, which was not included on the evening’s agenda, and no board members voiced objection to the proposal.
Library policy currently requires children under 13 to be supervised by adults. Scothorn’s proposal would require adults to supervise anyone under 18. Teens with written permission from their parents would be able to visit independently at age 16 or 17.
Attendance policies for children and teens vary around the state and are set by local library systems. In Franklin County, children 10 and younger must be accompanied by a parent or caregiver who’s 14 or older. In Rockbridge County, children under 8 must be supervised by someone who is at least 18. The same policy applies at the Bristol Public Library, which has one branch in Virginia and one in Tennessee.
Restricting access to the library for young people may quell some fears that parents don’t have enough control over the books their children pick up off the shelves. But changing the policy could have a wide-ranging impact on how teenagers in particular interact with the public library.
Programming for teens at Botetourt libraries includes a chess club at the Eagle Rock branch and occasional special programs such as improv theater classes, library director Julie Phillips said by email.
The library system doesn’t formally track visitor demographics, but Phillips provided anecdotal data. The Blue Ridge Branch in Bonsack sees 15 to 20 teen visitors daily, with many coming in after school to study or attend tutoring sessions.
The other three branches don’t see as many teenage visitors, she said, but visits increase in the summer months.
Phillips said she didn’t have concerns about the current policy for young patrons.
“In the four years I’ve been here, we have no record of any incidents where a tween/teen has been asked to leave due to behavioral problems,” she said. “Staff address concerning behaviors promptly, and according to staff, those interactions have gone well with no action required beyond a conversation.”
Along with books, DVDs and CDs, the libraries offer free computer and internet use. The population they primarily serve is rural, and some areas don’t yet have broadband internet access. A universal broadband access project underway in the county has an expected completion date of 2024.
The county libraries had about 88,000 visitors in 2022, according to a county report. That equates to fewer than three visits annually per person for Botetourt’s approximately 34,000 residents.
Age policy will be up to library board
The county library board, which has five members from the community along with county Supervisor Steve Clinton, is scheduled to meet Aug. 16. It’s unclear whether it will take up Scothorn’s recommendation for discussion.
Clinton said Scothorn’s plan to introduce the policy change recommendation was a “news flash” to him Monday afternoon prior to the board meeting. In an interview Tuesday, he said that he doesn’t support changing the library’s age policy. He also said the library’s board of trustees had not discussed changing the policy.
“The Library Board hasn’t endorsed or even discussed any changes to our policies regarding teens in the library,” Marlene Preston, chair of the library board, said by email Tuesday. “For now, we’re pleased that the Board of Supervisors has formally supported the library and its staff.”
The unattended child policy posted on the library website was most recently revised by the library trustees in August 2020. Before that, it was even less restrictive: “Children under the age of seven, or who have emotional or social difficulty, must be attended by a parent or other responsible caregiver at all times.”
In June, the board of supervisors heard from county attorney Mike Lockaby, who outlined the limited rights local governments have in restricting access to library materials. Lockaby noted in his statement to the board that the current policy of allowing children 13 and up to visit the library unsupervised is already “stronger than those in most similar localities.”
Since then, the board has unanimously passed two resolutions: one in support of Phillips and library staff, and a second reiterating support of the Botetourt County Libraries and its current policies.
The American Library Association also provides guidance for restricting patron access to library collections in an explanation of its Library Bill of Rights. “Constitutionally protected speech cannot be suppressed solely to protect children or young adults from ideas or images a legislative body believes to be unsuitable for them,” the guide states. “Libraries and their library governing bodies should not resort to age restrictions in an effort to avoid actual or anticipated objections, because only a court of law can determine whether or not content is constitutionally protected.”
Campaign ad behind surprise policy recommendation
Scothorn’s recommendation was a last-minute addition to Monday night’s meeting. But it followed up on a campaign pledge he made prior to the June 20 primary election.
In the midst of the countywide debate over library books, Scothorn and Billy Martin, who was also running for reelection to the board, shared a statement regarding library access through a June 17 ad in the Fincastle Herald.
The ad said in part, “We pledge to bring before the Board of Supervisors of Botetourt County a proposal to raise the age of required parental consent for access to graphic sexually explicit materials to the age of 18.” Doing so would “ultimately give the decision on access to such materials to the parents, where we believe that decision belongs,” the statement continued.
Martin was defeated in his primary reelection campaign against Walter Michael, while Scothorn defeated challenger Robert Young by a large margin.
Scothorn could have submitted his recommendation to the library board privately. But by reading the proposed rule change before the board of supervisors before passing it to the library trustees for consideration, Scothorn essentially made a public demonstration of fulfilling his campaign promise — even though the restrictions proposed in the advertisement differed from what he outlined during the July 31 meeting.
Clinton said he hadn’t heard anything about Scothorn and Martin’s pledge since the Fincastle Herald advertisement ran. Scothorn, Martin and supervisors Amy White and Richard Bailey have not yet responded to emails requesting comment for this story.