The wife of an Arkansas Republican state lawmaker has expanded the culture wars to miniature free libraries that encourage passersby to take a book and maybe leave one.
“I have been swapping out books in little free libraries for awhile,” Jennifer Meeks announced in a Facebook post. “From what I have seen a lot of these books and other things don’t align with Christian values.”
The Aug. 1 post has since been either deleted or made private, but not before it was screenshot by the Faulkner County Social Justice Coalition, which displayed it on the group’s website.
“Today, I saw a bunch of Pride stuff in one,” Meeks said in the post. “There’s a group of leftists, especially in Conway, who are very active in keeping little libraries well-stocked.”
Meeks wrote that she had been doing some stocking of her own.
“Recently I have been picking up free Bibles at flea markets and thrift stores,” she reported. “Sometimes I find good devotion books or kids’ Bible stories at a good price to add. Or just great books, and a gospel tract is a nice idea, too.”
Meeks did not respond to a call from The Daily Beast about her literary vigilantism.
But after the coalition publicized Meeks’ post, her husband tried to claim her words were being twisted into “a complete lie” perpetrated by “a leftist, activist group.”
“She’s not removing books that she disagrees with and does not advocate … that anybody else do that,” Rep. Stephen Meeks told the Arkansas Times, insisting that his wife had only been adding “Christian-related books as well as history, science and other books.”
“The point that she was trying to make is that she saw the Pride material in there,” he said, “As Christians, it would be a good opportunity that we too should be stocking those resources with Bibles, devotionals, things like that.”
He tried to make it sound like an act of civic virtue.
“In other words, we want to give people more choice, and I think everybody would agree that having more choice is a good thing.”
But that is not what Jennifer Meeks said in her post, as one local resident noted.
“Does she not know what ‘swapping out’ means?” asked Stephanie Vanderslice, the steward of the Little Free Library outside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Conway, one of seven that appear in photos Meeks included in her post.
Vanderslice has kept an eye on the makeshift library for nine years.
“I make sure that it’s not messy and that it has books,” she told the Daily Beast on Tuesday.
“I love books,” she said. “I’m just all about getting books to as many people as possible. I think the point of little free libraries is to put engaging material in there.”
Vanderslice hopes her particular little library would appeal to the students of the junior high school across the street.
“I just wanna get kids, especially, reading,” he said.
Along with being a professor of creative writing for children and director of the Arkansas Writers MFA Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas, Vanderslice is on the Faulkner County Library Board. Her board, along with others in Arkansas and across the country, has witnessed politically driven controversies about book content, including book bans
“It’s definitely been on the rise,” she said. “I kind of worried that it was gonna come to the little free libraries. And it seems like it has.”
She had not imagined that an increase in Bibles left at the little library could be a sign of trouble.
“There’s been at least one every time I’ve checked,” she said.
Until now, she assumed the books that vanished from among the two dozen offerings had been taken only by people who wanted to read them.
“It disturbs me to think that someone is taking it to censor and they don’t intend to read it,” she said. “I don’t know what’s done with those books once they’re taken.”
She said that people who do not like a book should simply leave it for someone who does.
“It’s your freedom not to read that book,” he said. “It’s not your freedom to take it away from someone else.”
In other words, real choice.
She believes taking a book because you don’t agree with it is a form of theft, even if it is not defined as such by the penal code. She is contemplating putting up a sign warning visitors against “criminal mischief.”
“I hate that this has become a political issue,” she said. “Books are books and they should be there for people, not for proselytizing.”
She spoke of Todd Bol of Wisconsin, who built the first Little Free Library in 2009 out of scrap wood, a 2-by-2 memorial to his school-teacher mother.
“It was a spiritual gesture,” Bol once said.
Bol died in 2018, at the age of 62. His spirit lives on in 150,000 of the Little Free Libraries in 120 countries, which have shared more than 300 million books. At least seven of them in Arkansas appear to have been visited by Jennifer Meeks, who seems to have made these shrines to freedom of expression less holy with Bibles “swapped” in for all the wrong reasons.