Politics & Government

Mayor Palin inquired about banning library books

Corrections and Clarifications (from Sunday's print edition):A headline in Saturday's Observer mischaracterized a librarian's account of Sarah Palin's 1996 discussion with her about censoring books. The librarian has said Palin, who was then the mayor of Wasilla, asked whether the librarian would be OK censoring library books if asked to do so.

In 1996, when she became mayor, Sarah Palin asked the Wasilla librarian if she would be OK censoring library books should she be asked to do so.

According to news coverage at the time, the librarian said she definitely would not be all right with it. A few months later, the librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, received a letter from Palin telling her she was going to be fired. The censorship issue was not mentioned as a reason. The letter just said the new mayor thought Emmons didn't fully support her and had to go.

Emmons had been city librarian for seven years and was well liked. After a wave of public support for her, Palin relented and let Emmons keep her job.

The 12-year-old issue has returned to dog Palin, who is under intense national scrutiny. It has been mentioned in news stories in Time magazine and The New York Times and is spreading across the blogosphere.

In December 1996, Emmons told her hometown newspaper, the Frontiersman, that Palin three times asked her about possibly removing objectionable books from the library if the need arose.

Emmons said she refused to consider any kind of censorship. Emmons, now Mary Ellen Baker, is on vacation from her current job in Fairbanks and did not return messages left for her Wednesday.

When the matter came up again in October 1996, during a City Council meeting, Anne Kilkenny, a Wasilla resident who often attends council meetings, was there.

“Sarah said to Mary Ellen, ‘What would your response be if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?'” Kilkenny said.

“I was shocked. Mary Ellen sat up straight and said something along the line of, ‘The books in the Wasilla Library collection were selected on the basis of national selection criteria for libraries of this size, and I would absolutely resist all efforts to ban books.'”

Palin didn't mention specific books at that meeting, Kilkenny said.

Palin herself, questioned at the time, called her inquiries rhetorical and simply part of a policy discussion with a department head “about understanding and following administration agendas,” according to the Frontiersman article.

Were any books censored? June Pinell-Stephens, chairwoman of the Alaska Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee since 1984, checked her files Wednesday and came up empty-handed.

Emmons received a letter from Palin asking for her resignation. Similar letters went to police Chief Irl Stambaugh, public works director Jack Felton and finance director Duane Dvorak. John Cooper, a fifth director, resigned after Palin eliminated his job overseeing the city museum.

Palin told the Anchorage Daily News then that the letters were just a test of loyalty as she took on the mayor's job, which she'd won from three-term mayor John Stein in a hard-fought election. Stein had hired many of the department heads. Both Emmons and Stambaugh had publicly supported him against Palin.

Emmons resigned in August 1999, two months before Palin was voted in for a second term.