Thousands raised for Kenai library after council postpones accepting grant

A building with a sign that says 163 Kenai Community Library.
Kenai Community Library. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

In less than a day, two Kenai residents raised more than $5,000 for the Kenai Community Library.

The fundraiser is a response to a decision from the Kenai City Council to hold off on accepting a grant until the library can provide a list of books it plans to buy, which the fundraisers’ organizers say is censorship.

Todd Smith and Sovala Kisena, both of Kenai, say they’re long-time supporters of the Kenai Community Library. They started the fundraiser Monday night and are sending donations to the Friends of the Kenai Community Library, the library’s fundraising arm. 

“The city council looking to approve individual purchases of books is, in my opinion, the definition of censorship,” said Smith.

At its last meeting, the Kenai City Council voted to hold off on accepting a $1,500 grant from the National Library of Medicine Region 5, under the federally-funded National Institutes of Health. The grant is geared toward funding library collections across the country that focus on health equity.

Several Kenai residents and council members said they worried about accepting a grant from the feds. The council told librarian Katja Wolfe to send them a list of titles she planned to purchase before the next meeting.

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But City Manager Paul Ostrander and council members Glenese Petty and Henry Knackstedt said it’s a “slippery slope” for the council to start screening books before providing them in the library, since city code gives the librarian discretion to select materials.

They each donated $100 to the fundraiser. Mike Navarre, former mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, donated $500.

“I’ve been a long-time supporter of libraries,” Navarre said. “I just think that the librarian should be in charge of purchasing books. And so a friend of mine sent it to me and I thought, ‘Yeah, this is as good a time as any to make a contribution to help out the local librarian,’ and also to allow them to purchase books using their discretion rather than some local politicians.”

Kisena said he was taken aback by how willing people were to donate right off the bat.

“We exceeded our initial $1,500 goal in under three hours, late at night, so that was pretty shocking,” he said. “And then just seeing the list of donors and what they contributed has been equally shocking throughout the day.”

As of Thursday afternoon, about 130 donors had contributed a total of $12,000 — more than doubling the organizers’ $5,000 goal.

Wolfe said she’s grateful for the generosity of the community. She said the donation will have to be approved by the Kenai City Council through an ordinance.

Smith said he wants the money raised to be spent at the discretion of the librarian.

“To be honest, I think we trust the library director and the professional librarians to do their jobs,” he said. “And I would like to see my city council do the same.”

Wolfe said she hopes the ordinance to accept the grant from the National Library of Medicine is reintroduced at a future city council meeting. She said she’s not yet sure if she will present a list of titles for the council.

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