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The impact of the Arkansas State Library Board

The Arkansas state Library boards work to allocate funding for libraries receive.
Jack Travis
The Arkansas state Library boards work to allocate funding for libraries receive.

If you ask April Griffith what the typical workday looks like as the regional library administrator for the Carroll and Madison Library system, she’ll ponder for a moment and instead tell you what she’s done so far this week.

“On Monday, I was over in Berryville teaching a class on digital literacy," Griffith said. "We were going over computer basics, and that's part of our systems initiative to help close that digital divide and connect people with the skills they need to navigate so much of modern life — from taxes, to applying for jobs or any other types of services. I think a lot of government agencies are moving fully to online platforms, but libraries then are kind of tasked with helping people how to navigate even just using a computer.”

On Tuesday, she drove to all 6 libraries in the bi-county library system to help deliver books. The six libraries share their collections with one another to provide greater access to the community. If someone at the Berryville library is looking for a book that’s currently housed at the Eureka Springs library, Griffith delivers it herself.

“When I do that," she said, "I stop at the different libraries and talk to the employees and staff and help provide feedback on any questions they may have or sort of give them ideas about library best practices.”

We spoke on a Wednesday. She started her morning facilitating a storytime program, and after our phone call had plans to spend more time on the phone and email talking to representatives from digital platforms.

“I'm [also] talking to other librarians via email," she said. "My job is a little bit less face to face with the public nowadays, it's a lot more about administrative important tasks, but running reports and seeing how our libraries are performing and what they're doing.”

Griffith said a major source of funding for her library system comes from the Arkansas State Library board. The board provides state aid for these 6 libraries so that they can have greater access to resources.

“One way they do that is through our integrated library system software. Every library has one of these and they're quite costly. And we as a system pay for that with help from funds through state aid.”

The state library board determines how much funding libraries throughout the state receive.

“About half of our funding for this office comes through state aid, which is determined by the State Library Board, so it has a very direct impact on the work that we do,” she said.

The Arkansas State Library Board meets quarterly at the Arkansas State Library in downtown Little Rock. The meetings typically consist of approval of state aid. In the minutes of these quarterly meetings, a document lays out the standards for state and public libraries. It includes details about how they are organized— that they must provide library services for all residents, finances, and more. If a public library abides by these standards, they qualify for state aid.

One of the seven members of the board is Jo Ann Campbell. We reached out to Campbell for an interview for this reporting, but she declined a recorded interview for the radio. She did, however, provide some more details about what her experience has been on the board.

Campbell is from Fort Smith and said she served for several years on the Fort Smith Public Library board in the late 1990s and into the 2000s. The library saw major expansion during her time on the Fort Smith board, including the addition of three branches.

Campbell said she eventually applied for appointment to the state board with support from her local state senator, and in 2011, she was appointed by Governor Mike Beebe and reappointed by Governor Asa Hutchinson at the end of her 7-year term in 2018.

In addition to a seven-member board, the Arkansas state librarian also attends and offers regular notes and information at these meetings. Jennifer Chilcoat has served as the Arkansas state librarian since 2018. We reached out to Chilcoat to discuss the work that goes into being the state librarian and how she interacts with local libraries and librarians for this reporting. Kimberly Mundell, the director of communications for the Arkansas Department of Education, responded to our email and denied our request for an interview with Chilcoat and instead pointed us to the Arkansas State Library website.

Appointments to the state library board — and most every state board for that matter — are not confirmed until the Arkansas Senate votes to approve them.

Greg Leding, state senator for District 30, said they generally get a list of the appointments one to two weeks before voting to approve them.

“There's very little vetting on the Senate side that actually happens," Leding said, "but we do have the responsibility of confirming — and there's a committee that they have to go through first before they go to the full Senate. But generally, I myself and the full Senate take the position that a governor should generally be allowed to pick the people they want, and that the Senate should only intervene in the cases of clear conflict or controversy.”

Senator Leding said the appointment of former state senator Jason Rapert is one of those cases.

“This will be the first time I've ever voted no on a gubernatorial appointment," he said. "And it's not just that he was a Republican and I'm a Democrat. Republican Senator Brian King from over in Green Forest has also publicly stated his opposition. Jason made few friends in the Senate during his time in the legislature, And so I imagine there are a number of senators who aren't necessarily wild about the appointment. It'll just be a matter of whether or not they want to show the governor deference. “

As a senator, Leding said he should only object if he sees a clear conflict.

“Given what I know about my former colleague, there are a number of boards and commissions that would have made much more sense," Leding said. "It's my understanding that he raised cattle, so why not put them on the Livestock and Poultry commission? It's my understanding that he has a financial background, he could have been put on the Board of Public Accountancy. He and I also worked together on fracking legislation — because he's right there in the heart of Fayetteville shale — so, you put him on the Oil and Gas Commission. By putting him on the Arkansas State Library Board — where to my knowledge, he has absolutely no background in libraries — it just seems like a direct provocation. as we've sort of seen, libraries [have] become targets, and this is just one more step in that direction that she's putting somebody who's going to be actively hostile toward libraries on the board that's in charge of overseeing them.”

Rapert was a member of the Arkansas State Senate from 2011 until he left office in 2023. He ran for lieutenant governor in 2022, garnering 14% of the vote in the Republican primary. Rapert founded the National Association of Christian Lawmakers in 2019 and has proudly called himself a Christian Nationalist on his daily Facebook Live show called Save The Nation. In a recent interview on 40/29 News, Rapert said he agrees with Governor Sanders’s stance that libraries in Arkansas should not have inappropriate material within reach of children.

“I think that many people in the state of Arkansas have common sense," Rapert said. "You don't want minor children having access to pornographic material. And if you've ever picked up some of these books that have found their ways onto bookshelves in public libraries, as well as even our school libraries… teachers and parents have been appalled at the fact that there has been fairly pornographic depictions in those books.”

Senator Leding disagrees.

“I would say that in all the libraries I have been in, all the time I've spent in Springdale and Fayetteville libraries — I've never once come across pornography," Leding said. "Certainly there are materials in these buildings that I might not agree with: I don't think anything that Tom Clancy wrote after Without Remorse should be on the shelves. I think libraries should have multiple copies of everything Elmore Leonard every wrote. But you know, they're working with the resources they've got, they're trying to provide information for as many issues and areas as possible. It's not really a librarian’s role to decide what's appropriate for me. That's really on parents. I would say that libraries are such incredible resources and so many Arkansans depend on them, and for politicians to politicize them and start you know, trying to ban books or throw librarians in prison. I just don't think it's what most Arkansans want.”

Act 372 was passed by the legislature earlier this year, which aims to ban or relocate books deemed “obscene” from being available in public libraries in Arkansas. The law is currently held up in court by the western district of Arkansas and has not been put in place at this time. Rapert has said that he wants any library that is involved in the lawsuit to not be able to receive state aid. But according to the library board’s current standards, that is not a valid reason to revoke a library’s funding.

One of those libraries is in Eureka Springs, which is a part of the system April Griffith works in. When asked what she would show Rapert if he came to visit her libraries, she said it would be interesting. She talked about the Berryville Library and the major fundraising work they have done over the last several years.

“I think their goal was to raise $3.5 million, and I just am blown away at how much this community cared," Griffith said. "The individuals in the community cared so much and support their library so much that they made it happen. It's strong, and it's important work. So if he visited one of the libraries, he might not see it, he might see some of the other things we do."

“I'd love to show him some of our cognitive care kits," she said. "We received grant funding to put together these kits to help caregivers who are taking care of folks who are living with dementia, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's. There are these kits to help engage with those folks in a meaningful way. We are constantly working with these very limited budgets to provide solutions where we see that there are challenges that our communities face to try and help make their lives better. And I think there's a number of ways in which we do that and that's what I'd want. I'd want him to come to a storytime program and see the kids and the young parents connecting, meeting and making community there.”

Griffith said there is so much important work that her libraries are doing, and something as small as some books that people take issue with should not be given such import.

“I think it's been blown completely out of proportion what these books mean versus the work that we're doing," Griffith said. "Something that small really shouldn't have such an outsized influence to be threatening the funding of our organizations.”

Jo Ann Campbell, a board member who was first nominated by Governor Mike Beebe — a Democrat — and then reappointed by Governor Asa Hutchinson — a Republican — tells a story of a fellow board member. He described himself as a “yellow dog democrat, ” an early 1900s phrase that was used to describe voters in the South who would tell people who would vote for a “yellow dog” before they’d vote for a Republican. Campbell said her colleague was worried he wouldn’t get reappointed now that a Republican was in office. He was, indeed, reappointed, but passed away before his second term expired.

Senator Leding, a Democrat and the senate minority leader, said librarians have allies in the legislature.

“Right now, we might be outnumbered," Leding said. "We'll see what happens when the vote comes. You do have people who are working in your interest. I do think as we have seen, eventually some of these culture wars that a few of my colleagues have launched, we've eventually seen those receded. And I think, hopefully that's going to be the case with this one. They'll eventually find something else to move on to or they'll decide to actually focus on real issues like addressing hunger, health care, and education, rather than constantly seeking out these headline grabbing and divisive issues.”

There are no sessions in front of the state senate where appointees are asked by a panel of senators to discuss their future positions. But if given the opportunity, Senator Leding said he would ask Rapert to more fully explain his agenda.

“I think, again, that's one more giant red flag here," Leding said. He doesn't seem like he's going to come in and be an impartial person who's just going to make sure that libraries are getting the resources that they need. He really does seem to be coming in with this personal agenda. And why do you think that that is necessary for this position? Why do you think that is good? What do you think that is going to do to help libraries and Arkansans who depend on them?

“Because Arkansans do depend on libraries. They are a vital resource. Unfortunately, I do think a lot of my colleagues still have this idea that [a library] is just a place where you go to get a book. I actually had a Republican colleague of mine once say, ‘Everything's online now, why do we need a library?’ It just really alarmed me. I would just ask my former colleague to more fully explain what it is he intends to do with his role.”

The Arkansas Senate will vote on more than 90 gubernatorial appointments, including the two for the state library board, on Friday.

Matthew Moore is a reporter and producer for Ozarks At Large. Before going into journalism, Matthew spent time in the music production industry, working with artists such as Reba McEntire, Steve Martin, 2 Chainz and Chris Thile.