It's a Winwood SituationThe Library Imbroglio

Thursday nights heat up with Sundown's return Authority over the library and anxiety about agendas Seven Days

19,

respond

State legislation that could keep control of the Knox County Library in the county mayor's hands indefinitely has passed both houses and is waiting for Gov. Bredesen's signature. If it becomes law, a subsequent two-thirds vote on

County

Commission

would give Ragsdale, and presumably all county mayors to come, control over the library system. At the public forum last weekend, some citizens spoke strongly in favor of returning control of the library to board members nominated by

County

Commission

.

As soon as the weather turns mild, the question on many people's lips is: "When's the first Sundown in the City?"

The answer is April 21, and AC Entertainment has released the names of most of the acts scheduled to play the 12-week, Thursday-night free concert series in Market Square. And, regardless of your personal musical taste, this year's series may feature the biggest stars in Sundown history.

Steve Winwood, who had to cancel his Knoxville appearance last fall due to the death of a bandmate's family member, will launch the series, with opening act local bluesman Hector Qirko and his band. Songwriter Buddy Miller, who has worked with Emmylou Harris and his wife Julie, will make his solo debut here on April 28. Local Texas swing favorites Lonesome Coyotes will open that show.

May will begin with a Cinco de Mayo celebration with yet-to-be-confirmed special guests, and continue with Blue Merle and Will Hoge on May 12, Victor Wooten and local funk band Dishwater Blonde on May 19, and gritty Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers on May 26. June's schedule includes indie rock darlings Rilo Kiley with local nonconformists Dixie Dirt on June 2 and reverb-lovin' rockers My Morning Jacket on June 9.

"We're able to keep bringing high-caliber artists in for Sundown solely based on the support that we receive from Knoxville and our corporate sponsors," says AC's Beth Pilkington. As performers have increased in prestige, crowds have respond in numbers. Last year's shows for Bela Fleck and Sam Bush in particular packed the square to overflowing with as many as 8,000 to 10,000 people.

Last Wednesday evening, the Friends of the Library hosted a public meeting to consider the issue of the future composition of the board of the Knox County Library. In ordinary times, it wouldn't seem a particularly passionate issue. But these aren't ordinary times, and some within the several factions involved are concerned that bureaucratic alterations may make a major impact on family values, freedom of information, or democratic principles. About 70 people showed up at the meeting, held at the health department's auditorium. It drew a range; some attendees had graduate degrees in library sciences; some struggled with the pronunciation of library .

Until two years ago, the library board was the library system's chief governing body, and membership in the board has been an honor bestowed by county commissioners on citizens in their districts. Some commissioners have taken the duty of nominating members to the board earnestly. It's long been suspected that some members were merely political pals with little expertise in running a modern municipal public library; some commissioners' nominees to the library board were rumored not even to be library patrons.

The board is entrusted with making major decisions, especially in selecting the library's director. The matter came to a head two years ago when the board appointed a fellow member, Charles Davenport, to head the third-biggest library system in the state, without launching a national search. Davenport, a sometime school librarian, had little of the sort of experience that a director of a major municipal system is generally expected to have, and less library experience than most of the librarians he was ostensibly leading.

To some observers on library staff and in the citizen-volunteer group Friends of the Library, it seemed evidence of corruption or ineffectiveness in the system that chooses the library board.

The flap got national attention in library journals. It ended when, through extraordinary state legislation, County Mayor Mike Ragsdale assumed control of the library through April 2006, as the existing board was sidetracked to "advisory" status. Since then, the advisory board has rarely attracted enough of a quorum to hold an official meeting.

State legislation that could keep control of the Knox County Library in the county mayor's hands indefinitely has passed both houses and is waiting for Gov. Bredesen's signature. If it becomes law, a subsequent two-thirds vote on County Commission would give Ragsdale, and presumably all county mayors to come, control over the library system. At the public forum last weekend, some citizens spoke strongly in favor of returning control of the library to board members nominated by County Commission.

Perhaps ironically, those who prefer the single-authority model say privately that they're mainly concerned about freedom of information. They suspect some board members have religious-right agendas which may include censorship. This comes at a time when "KnoxWatch," an otherwise little-known organization of unknown size has called for removing some "offensive" items from the library system, including Metro Pulse . (Rumors that a certain county commissioner was trying to remove Grapes of Wrath from Knox County Libraries could not be confirmed by press time.)

Some librarians have expressed concern that a generally conservative Knox County Commission may be able to muster enough votes to pack a re-authorized board with pro-censorship members.

Victoria DeFreese, one of the newer members of the advisory board, seems to have emerged as leader of the faction that wants to restore the library board's authority. She's urging citizens to implore Bredesen to veto the legislation.

She has been the focus of a great deal of anxiety from those who are suspicious of a right-wing takeover of the library board. DeFreese has been associated with Christian home-schooling programs in Blount County and South Knoxville. However, she says she has no interest in staging a coup .

"My agenda is not to take over the board," she says. She got involved because she had taught reading groups at the South Knox Howard Pinkston (formerly Bonny Kate) branch. "I just feel reading is the most important thing we can teach children to do," she says. She has four of her own, and often uses the public library. She says she's motivated more by frustration with the do-nothing status quo of the board than any ideological agenda.

As for the spectre of censorship, she seems to leave no room for doubt. "No, we don't need censorship," she says, in an of-course-not sort of tone. "All of us have to guard intellectual freedom to the n th degree." She compares censorship efforts to those of Nazi Germany.

She also says she is not associated with KnoxWatch, and had never heard of the group until this reporter mentioned it.

"It would be much better for a nine-member board to protect intellectual freedom," she says. She says there's evidence that censorship is more likely in the single-authority model.

Some board members like Steve Roberts, considered a board progressive, spoke up Wednesday in favor of the single-authority model because the county mayor, unlike commissioners, has to be responsive to the county as a whole. Many librarians seem to be comfortable with the status quo, at least in terms of chain of command.

Director Larry Frank is careful not to take sides, but does say that under Ragsdale, "the library has been successful in moving forward;" he enumerates several advances the library has made, from the Rothrock Cafe and its jazz and literary programs, to the computerized self-checkout system, to the library's successful sponsorship of Movies on Market Square in the fall, all supported by the mayor's office.

Maggie Carini, president of the Friends of the Library, says, "For this year, we would like to see the board that exists become the best board it can be." Others suspect an ideal board might be enhanced with term limits and basic qualifications for board members—like a library card and a history of using it.

If anyone did have an ideological agenda for governing the Knox County Library, they'd have an uphill battle.

The advisory board, including several new members, met Monday night, and for once there was a quorum: full attendance, in fact. Some board members expected to elect officers and perhaps come up with some bylaws. But rumors spread that "Unnamed county commissioners ordered them to adjourn the meeting without conducting any business."

Library attorney David Creekmore assumed control of the meeting, which surprised some. Creekmore explains that the officers' terms had expired, leaving no obvious president. So he stepped in, observing Roberts' Rules of Order, and fairly handily adjourned it. He says he assumed the meeting was never intended to be anything but a get-acquainted session. The next one, at which officers will presumably be elected, will be April 25.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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