A Florida county weighs its recent role in Trumpian culture wars

On a recent evening, Citrus County residents poured into the Central Ridge Library in Beverly Hills, Florida, for a special meeting of their library advisory board. Ben Kampschroer, the library’s public information officer, greeted each new arrival and directed them to fill out a green comment card if they wanted to speak. His eyes darted from one person to the next, and he flexed his hands. He wasn’t used to so much excitement.

Weeks before, county commissioners had refused a request from the library to purchase a digital subscription to the New York Times—a decision covered by the Citrus Chronicle, the local newspaper, on October 25. One commissioner had justified his position by expressing his support for President Trump and calling the Times “fake news.” A Washington Post story about the episode had gone viral, and brought a nation’s ire to the tiny library system and its county. More stories followed. The episode had reportedly hurt Citrus County tourism; it also prompted the American Library Association to issue a statement declaring Citrus County Libraries in violation of the ALA Library Bill of Rights and the ALA Code of Ethics. A Tampa Bay Times headline declared Citrus County “home to the culture war for a day.”

But most of the people at the meeting seemed like aging hippies and public servants rather than the right-wingers one might have expected after reading national coverage. Retirees with gray or white hair outnumbered those with salt-and-pepper brown; no one wore a “Make America Great Again” hat. Some were dressed for hiking, with zippered pants and loose blouses. One woman arrived with her oxygen tank in tow. The only print reporter in attendance was the Citrus Chronicle’s Mike Wright, who first covered the subscription dispute. With the exception of a lone sheriff’s deputy, who prowled the sidewalk outside, the atmosphere was friendly, like an after-church meet-and-greet. Attendees called out to each other by name, complained about the frigid temperature of the room, and shook their heads at the whole overblown situation. 

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After the pledge of allegiance, 41 speakers lined up behind the podium to address the audience and the all-female Library Advisory Board. Only one resident shouted and raved, challenging the Times for its “leftist ideology.” The audience laughed. She then railed against The 1619 Project. When she compared the Times to Pravda, the audience booed. “Free speech!” she yelled as she fled. The audience shared looks of confusion.

Such shouting and political posturing did not prevail. Most speakers, instead, spoke about funding concerns or the benefits of digital subscription services for library patrons.

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“I think we’re all missing the point,” said Lucille Tompkins-Davis, 67, a Hernando resident and one of only two black women present in the sea of white faces. “This was about expansion of services that already exist. That is not an odd thing for library to do. That’s what most libraries want to do. They want to expand their services so all of us citizens can have them.” Patrons who could not visit the library and read a print newspaper could still access the Times digitally through their membership, Tompkins-Davis pointed out. “You have disabled citizens. What about them? What about our disabled veterans who cannot get to a physical building? They will be penalized.” The issue, she concluded, wasn’t about the Times, but “equal access. It doesn’t matter what paper it is.”

Other speakers agreed. Nancy Kephart, 73, of Hernando, said her eyesight made it difficult to read the small print. “When I heard that you were going to make the digital available, I was thrilled,” she said.

Gay Courter, 75, a Crystal River resident and bestselling author of the 1981 novel The Midwife, advocated for those young library patrons that are digital natives. “This is a research tool,” Courter said of the Times. “If you want sports history, baseball history—there’s no other newspaper in America, I daresay the world, that has that level of digitization. And, folks, life is about digital. All my books used to be a hardback, paperback. I sell 98 percent of them digitally.”

The vast majority of the speakers were pro-library, pro-learning and pro-accessibility. (In their comments, those opposed to the subscription often inflated the cost, which came out to $2,700 per year for the whole library system, or less than four cents per library card holder.) Most wanted to make the library a more welcoming place for all, and believed Commissioner Carnahan had misrepresented Citrus County with his anti-press remark.

“I think I’m intelligent enough to read opposing viewpoints and come to a decision on my own,” said Jim Boland. “And I don’t need a county commissioner telling me what to read or what not to read.”

“This issue has become distorted,” said Kenneth Gould, 75, a resident of Hernando. “It started out to be an issue about information, and it’s becoming an issue about politics. Let’s get rid of the politics and think about the issue.” 

The general consensus was that the library should provide more options for newspapers, not just one. Several residents argued that, in addition to the Times, they would like digital subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal, the Tampa Bay Times, and the Miami Herald. Eric Head, director of the Citrus County Library System, said staff planned to invest in multiple online news services to augment their popular ebook options, but needed to test the service first, and started with the Times because it had been easy to integrate with the library’s database and authentication systems. “If there’s a concern about balance, I would like to make a comment that balance does take time,” Head said.

After community members finished their remarks, the Library Advisory Board members took their turns to speak. Most voiced the same kind of frustration. One, Neale Brennan, reminded the room that the commission had only been asked to sign off on the budget request. 

“Nobody was there to ask the county commissioners for their blessing on the content of this library,” said Brennan. Politicians, she added, shouldn’t decide such things. “That’s what we have professionals for.” 

But the county commissioners still have to sign the check. They will reconvene on November 20 to make a final decision on the subscription.

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Rebecca Renner is an independent journalist in Orlando, Florida. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Paris Review, and The Guardian. She is working on a novel.