CANTON, Miss.—Madison County Library Board Director Tonja Johnson accepted the largest fundraiser check of her career in the stacks of the Canton Public Library on Feb. 24, 2022, courtesy of supporters from across the globe after a potential book-banning controversy.
“To have people care enough to take action, to do something, to reach out the way that they have … this is an issue that touches so many people,” Johnson told the Mississippi Free Press after receiving the check, showing emotion and fatigue in equal measure. “They believe in the importance of the library and what the library does.”
Friends of the Ridgeland Library President Teresa Gerald and Treasurer Jane Bond hand-delivered the check, a crowdfunded stopgap to a library system still at serious risk after the sudden revocation of its funding contract with the City of Ridgeland.
Bond sat across from Johnson, animated when discussing the sheer range of the fundraiser. “We got money from Australia, from most European countries,” she said. And many more from the U.S. “The messages would make you cry. They were so heartfelt. I was amazed at people who said, ‘I don’t really have any money, but here’s $5.’”
The Friends of the Ridgeland Library has now delivered half the $110,000 fund raised in support of the Madison County Library System. This money fills the hole left over after Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee defunded the library of the same amount following complaints against LGBTQ+ content in the collection and visible on the shelves, claiming an expired contract.
Gerald said she would not forget that thousands contributed in support of the library. “I was just humbled by it: that people who have never been to Mississippi and never heard of Ridgeland cared enough about this issue—the dilemma that our library’s facing—to take the time to donate money. Like Jane said, donations from a dollar to up to $5,000.”
With the library system and the Ridgeland board of aldermen still in dispute over a funding contract, the money now in the hands of Johnson and the library board will pay for the operational budget of the Ridgeland Public Library. As the library is in the second quarter of the current financial year, the donations are covering the missing half of Ridgeland’s $110,000 contribution.
Johnson remained hopeful that a contract would be in place before the end of the financial year, but acknowledged that talks were still preliminary with draft proposals shared between legal counsel. The board of aldermen, which meets twice a month, must formally vote to offer a new contract to the library system in order to resume payments.
Payment Follow Contentious Public Hearing
The fundraiser began shortly after the Mississippi Free Press reported that Mayor McGee had withheld the funding, with Tonja Johnson alleging that he had done so before making demands for the removal of “homosexual materials” in the library’s catalogue. McGee has since denied an attempt to censor content or remove books from the library, but has offered contradictory answers on what precisely he was doing.
In an interview with the Mississippi Free Press on Jan. 26, McGee claimed that he demanded the library board respond to “sexual content” in the Ridgeland Public Library. Later, he informed the Madison County Journal that it was a “political display” that supposedly forced his hand.
At a rowdy meeting of the board of aldermen on Feb. 15, with residents, activists and an out-of-state designated hate group in attendance, speakers backing the mayor’s decision to withhold funds from the Ridgeland Public Library mostly favored a restrictive approach to LGBTQ+ content and identities. Numerous speakers equated the scattered collection of queer essays and children’s books under discussion to political indoctrination and pornographic filth.
Notably, Johnson repeated, none of the residents who had previously complained about LGBTQ+ content in the library had ever actually filled out a simple document that begins a formal challenge against the material—the standard method for questioning a book’s place in a library’s collection.
“Everyone who has some sort of complaint about materials (in the library) is offered that process. And the one person who called about that particular display didn’t want to participate in that process,” Johnson said.
Now, private negotiations between the legal counsel for the library board and the City of Ridgeland will advance the outcome of what is shaping up to be a more significant funding crisis than originally anticipated.
Library Revenue Threatened
Tonja Johnson explained in an interview with the Mississippi Free Press that the ongoing revenue loss was a significant portion of the library’s operating budget. “That $110,000 represents 5% of the overall budget of the library system, but that represents about 20% of the operations of that particular branch,” she said. “It’s a significant impact to that branch, and (without it) there would have to be some serious discussions about what services we could continue at that branch without the commitment from the city.”
Contractual obligations that the library system has to maintain compound the problem, she added. The sudden loss of revenue would put a six-figure grant the Madison County Library System relies on to pay personnel in question.
“We have a responsibility to maintain our funding sources, and to ensure that those funding levels don’t fall more than 2% below what our current funding is—this involves state funding that comes through the library commission,” Johnson said. “One of those is maintenance of effort.”
Johnson explained that an across-the-board cut reducing the library’s revenue would not violate this responsibility, but a targeted cut, the kind the system is currently experiencing, will put the funds at risk.
“It’s above that 2% threshold … if it doesn’t get restored, we would have to go before the board of commissioners for the library commission and seek a waiver in order to avoid potentially losing grant funding,” Johnson said. That grant funding in particular accounts for just over $100,000 in “personnel grants,” and would represent another serious blow to the continued operation of the Ridgeland Public Library.
The loss of the grant funds is not guaranteed. The Madison County Library Board could petition the Mississippi Library Commission for a waiver, but Johnson said there would be no way to anticipate if a waiver was attainable.
The funds raised for the current financial year are an enormous one-time relief to the library system, but with the financial year already halfway over, Johnson is already considering plans for how to address the shortfall if it continues into the next year.
‘If You Control That Information’
At the Canton meeting, Johnson, Gerald and Bond all said that they hope this will be the last of the donations spent on emergency funding. With $55,000 from the fundraiser remaining, the Ridgeland Public Library could benefit from “special projects,” including additional reading programs and extracurricular activities for kids.
“We’ve talked a little bit about how we can turn the situation into a positive for the community, to add programming that would address some of the issues,” Johnson said. “(It would) give the community a chance to have conversations together.”
Once the money is transferred to the library system, it cannot be returned to the Friends of the Ridgeland Library. But the only real restriction on the money is that it all be used specifically in support of the Ridgeland Public Library, no matter which organization formally spends it.
Johnson was contemplative about the future of the Ridgeland Public Library in the interview, seeing the debate over the content of one library in one town as representative of larger conversations about freedom of information.
“Libraries have always been a hotbed of controversy,” Johnson concluded. “We have information. And if you control that information, you can control groups of people, entire countries. … Book challenges and censorship ebb and flow with what’s going on in the rest of society.”