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As school libraries face more scrutiny, public libraries are feeling the pressure as well

School libraries in Florida are getting more attention as new laws continue restricting what books are available to students. A Pinellas County library is one of the latest to feel that pressure as well.

The Palm Harbor Library in Pinellas County has vibrant colors everywhere, with art covering the walls and bookshelves. Even the tables are carved and painted by local artists.

Gene Coppola is the library director.

“I'm very anti-brown and beige and tan, I think those are really boring looking colors," Coppola said one recent morning, while standing near the front desk. "So we tried to make (the library) as colorful as possible.”

He’s worked at Palm Harbor Library for 23 years, before coming under fire in June.

The Tampa Bay Times reported an LGBTQ+ display for Pride Month was removed from the children's section after a county commissioner saw pictures of it online and took to social media to express his disapproval.

In response, a lot of people emailed Coppola about the display. He said some were vicious and hurtful, but others voiced full support.

"Nobody should applaud us for (putting up the display), it should be routine, it should not be exceptional," Coppola said. "It’s not a big deal. And it hasn’t been a big deal for 10 years."

A man in a green shirt stands in front of a blue background.
Palm Harbor Library
Gene Coppola has been library director at Palm Harbor Library for 23 years. He will retire on Aug. 11, 2023.

But he eventually relented and removed the display.

Coppola announced plans to retire Aug. 11 not long after.

Filters are a 'form of censorship'

Years ago, the state wanted libraries to put filters on library computers that would limit online access to certain topics, Coppola said. He declined, opting instead to give up his E-Rate funding — money from the state that ensures public libraries can offer access to telecommunication services.

"So we did not filter at all because I want to have complete open access," Coppola said. "That's what public libraries do. That's a form of censorship."

But he said that experience pales in comparison to what is happening today with the scrutiny over books.

A Palm Harbor Community Services Agency meeting that came two weeks after his decision to remove the display drew over 30 members of the public who spoke in support of Coppola. Most said the agency should have done more to protect him from county officials.

Others, including agency board member Bill Mazurek, questioned whether Coppola took down the display voluntarily or if he was forced to do it.

"I talked to (Coppola) a month ago and he said he was going to work another two years," Mazurek said. "What changed? The Pride exhibit, guys."

"People are just challenging and they're just throwing mud on the walls and they want us to change."
Bill Mazurek

"What's next — (removing) Juneteenth (displays)?" Mazurek added.

"People are just challenging and they're just throwing mud on the walls and they want us to change."

Coppola said no books have been banned at Palm Harbor Library, as of yet.

But if he removed every book that someone had a problem with during his career, he said there would be nothing left on the shelves.

"Think that through. Think of what you would not have — the instruction, the support, the encouragement, the accessibility," Coppola said. "Oh, my God, that would be awful."

Major changes coming to Manatee

To the south of Palm Harbor, in Manatee County, the public library system is getting an overhaul.

An advisory board is drafting "Parents Choice" library cards that will limit what children 12 and under and teens ages 13 to 17 can check out.

County Commissioner Amanda Ballard recently joined the board. She said the goal is to try and empower parents by giving them more choice in their kid's public library selections.

 A woman with a black shirt and white pearls in front of a blue background.
Manatee County Commission
Amanda Ballard is a Manatee County commissioner.

"I think that people have had concerns about what’s been going on in the school libraries," Ballard said. "And then out of that, their concerns have extended into public libraries as well.”

Librarians will be deciding what category and age groups books will go into, according to Tammy Parrott, the Library Services Manager for Manatee County. She's been there for four years, and worked in libraries for 17 years.

"A public library has a different relationship with a family than a school," Parrott said. "In a public library, we are for, obviously, everyone to use. And it is for the parents to decide, and the families to decide what that means to them."
Ballard became a commissioner about eight months ago. She's heard from people with strong opinions on both sides of the issue and said she falls somewhere in the middle.

"I've heard a lot of people who would like to see certain materials removed completely," she said. "Which for a public library, I don't think is really a feasible solution.

"I've also seen other people who have completely balked at any type of restriction."

Parental consent will be required

As far as potentially controversial topics like sex, gender identity, and race, Ballard said they’re not looking at banning books. But children will need their parent’s permission for any material that falls outside their age limit.

"Those types of materials, if their life experiences are fiction, it's really hard to categorize items, books, materials, by one characteristic," Parrott said.

Meanwhile, the non-partisan American Library Association has been tracking data on the subject for the last 20 years.

It has seen more activity nationwide this past year than ever before, according to Sonia Alcantara-Antoine, the president of the Public Library Association, a subsidiary of the ALA.

“There were over 1,200 attempts to censor books or remove books from libraries," she said. "And it’s concerning, because you need access to books and literature and information to be able to be a healthy democratic society.”

The ALA also points to a 2022 survey that found 71% of 1,000 voters polled opposed removing books from public libraries, with majorities across party lines — Democrats (75%), independents (58%), and Republicans (70%) — agreeing.

It's that smaller group that's putting libraries like Gene Coppola's under attack.

"But frankly, who the hell are they to tell somebody else what they can or cannot read?" Coppola said. "Can you imagine if the shoe was on the other foot? How would they feel about that?"

Nothing about my life has been typical. Before I fell in love with radio journalism, I enjoyed a long career in the arts in musical theatre.