Local librarians respond to current legislation

BY LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

Librarians across the state have banded together to oppose two bills working their way through the Indiana legislature this session, and local librarians are part of the opposition.

One of the bills, HB 1343, would give the fiscal body of a city, town or county with a library oversight of the library’s budget. The other, SB 64, requires libraries to conduct annual background checks on anyone who interacts with children under age 14, even if that person is only in the library once for a special program.

The two main criticisms of both bills have been the financial toll they could have on libraries, and that both seem to have been authored in response to an isolated incident.

Rep. Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, has authored a version of HB 1343 annually for the past 12 years in response to an issue with one library in his district, according to a letter librarians across the region sent to Senator Mark Messmer. The Indiana Library Federation has opposed the bill, and local librarians have joined the effort.

“I think it makes more sense to work on that issue without making a law for the whole state,” said Christine Golden, director of the Jasper-Dubois County Public Library.

HB 1343 is currently scheduled for a hearing in the Senate’s local government committee, and has gone through several amendments. In its current form, the bill gives the local fiscal body the option to pass a resolution taking on oversight of the library budget, but does not require it. For fiscal bodies that elect to take on the oversight, the bill allows up to a 10 percent cut. That wouldn’t be a huge issue for local libraries, since the Jasper-Dubois County Public Library and the Huntingburg Public Library both have strong reserve funds, but Huntingburg Library Director Angie Haake said she knows some directors who would have to cut a staff position if their budgets were cut 10 percent. And even for local libraries, such cuts would mean using reserve funds to maintain operations.

Librarians have also questioned the need for additional oversight when both the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance and the State Board of Accounts review and approve their budgets.

The answer they’ve gotten from Leonard, according to the letter to Messmer, is that library boards are appointed, not elected, and Leonard would like to see more local control.

“That is 100 percent true,” the letter said, referencing library boards being appointed. “But those library board appointments are made by elected bodies.”

Both Haake and Golden said if the bills pass, they don’t anticipate any issues locally.

“We have a wonderful relationship with our county leaders,” Golden said.

HB 1343 is scheduled for another committee hearing Thursday.

SB 64 seems to have come out of discussions around a drag queen story hour held at Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library. According to a report from at least one Evansville television station, the library did not run a background check on the performer, as the library’s policy is to run background checks on library employees, but not volunteers. Volunteers are then supervised by an employee. One of the bill’s authors, Senator James Tomes, represents the Evansville area.

Currently, libraries are not required to run background checks on volunteers, but under the new law, they would be required to run an annual background check on anyone who works with children under 14.

“I don’t think it’s that bad of an idea,” Haake said.

Golden agreed, but added that she’d like to see the law become more specific. In its current form, the law requires annual background checks even on volunteers who only come in once. As an example, Golden said that in its current form, libraries would be required to run a background check on a representative or senator if they wanted to come and do a story hour once.

“We don’t want to be making it harder for people to come and share their love of reading,” Golden said.

Golden added that volunteers and performers are never left alone with children. A library employee is always present to supervise.

“We never would leave a performer alone with children,” Golden said. “That would never happen.”

In its current form, one of the potential issues of the bill for libraries is logistics. Libraries often use performers from companies — for example, Silly Safaris is popular locally — and those companies have multiple performers. Librarians don’t always know which performer will be coming until the day of the visit, making it difficult to get a background check quickly enough.

Libraries also use a lot of the same performers, leading librarians to question if they all need to run a background check. In response, legislators added language to the bill allowing libraries to share background checks, possibly through a database. Golden likes that addition, but questions who will manage and pay for the database.

Basic background checks also cost about $15 each, which could get costly for libraries. Golden said she’d like to see the bill and its possible effects considered more before it is passed. The bill is currently in the house committee on courts and criminal code. It is not currently scheduled for a hearing, and will die in committee unless it is added to an agenda.

Local librarians are not too worried about either bill negatively affecting local libraries. They joined the opposition to support other libraries across the state who could be negatively affected. Haake, for example, knows a few librarians who could lose a staff position if either bill takes too much of a financial toll, and both Haake and Golden agreed the bills could have unintended consequences, especially for libraries without the robust reserves local libraries have.

“We know how important it is to support each other,” Golden said of librarians.




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