New East Baton Rouge Parish Library Director Spencer Watts faced his first, albeit minor, public controversy Thursday when two people questioned why the library received a book award called “Muslim Journeys.”
Lawyer Jim George and library watcher John Berry questioned the award, which was announced at Thursday’s Library Board of Control meeting.
The award from the National Endowment for the Humanities provides the library system with 25 books and three documentary films, which assistant library director Mary Stein said would go to the Carver Branch Library. The only stipulation is that the library host one program about the topic.
The website of the National Endowment for the Humanities says the program, which is offered in conjunction with the American Library Association, “aims to familiarize public audiences in the United States with the people, places, history, faith and cultures of Muslims in the United States and around the world.”
George wondered why public dollars were being used to teach people about religion.
“I have to question why our public library system is to be used as an educational resource on one particular religion,” George said during public comment on the agenda item.
George said the program could bring grief to those affected by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I am sure that a project titled ‘Muslim Journeys’ is going to carry particular weight to those families,” he said.
George insisted that he wasn’t in favor of banning the books, but questioned whether the program would be fair and balanced.
“Will other materials be available so that the whole picture can be told?” he asked.
Berry questioned who was paying for the books and what the purpose of the program was.
Stein said library officials are speaking with three LSU professors about hosting a program to go along with the award.
A third resident, Kathy Wascom, said she worked with international students at LSU and took issue with George’s and Berry’s comments.
“I would not want the international community to take from this discussion that somehow their religious beliefs are undermined by the discussion here,” she said. “Every corner of the world should be explored and the library is one place to do that.”
Library Board President Travis Woodard said the 25 books would not be the only books on Islam in the library system’s collection.
“This collection is related to a certain award, but it’s an augmentation to what we already have,” he said.
Watts said after the meeting that he thought the award was valuable.
“We have balance in our collection,” he said. “We are into sharing information about people.”
During the hour-long meeting, Watts praised the staff of the library and said he looked forward to facing the challenges.
“There’s a lot going on with our library system a lot going on in our community,” he said. “We have a lot of challenges in our future and I am ready to tackle those.”
After the meeting, Library Board members and staff said they were excited to have him.
“The pace at which he has gotten to know our library has been incredible,” said Woodard, who was elected president of the library board Thursday night.
Fellow board member Stanford O. Bardwell Jr. said Watts was exactly as he appeared during the hiring process in August.
“I was his biggest cheerleader on the selection committee,” he said. “He knows the library world very well.”
Assistant Directors Stein and Patricia Husband, who acted as interim co-directors after former director David Farrar resigned in Dec. 2011, said Watts’ arrival was a relief.
“He’s been available,” Husband said. “He’s been very generous with his time.”
“He hit the ground running,” she said. “He’s been staying late and getting in early.”