Library board splits vote on contested books


Bob Lopp was the first to speak during the public comment period at an ImagineIF Library board meeting on Jan. 13, which focused on the Flathead County institution’s policies for removing the controversial books from its collection of documents.

“I want to state frankly my objection to all the quilt books that we have and spend money on. It tears the social fabric apart,” he told the crowd of nearly 50 crammed into the basement meeting room.

The joke was a brief moment of levity during the two-hour trustees’ meeting centered on citizen complaints about two books, Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy” and Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer,” which were the focus of a heated debate. in school libraries across the country, as well as several public libraries, due to what the plaintiffs call sexually explicit content.

At the end of the meeting, the trustees voted unanimously to retain “Lawn Boy” in the library’s collection. The vote to keep “Gender Queer” failed, with directors Connie Leistiko and Marsha Sultz voting in favor, and directors Doug Adams, Dave Ingram and Heidi Roedel abstaining. In a follow-up motion, the trustees voted 3-2 to agree to suspend discussion and vote to delete “Gender Queer” indefinitely, in anticipation of upcoming changes to the materials collection policy.

Cover of the book “Gender Queer”, by Maia Kobabe.

More than 20 people spoke during the public comment period, including Carmen Cuthbertson, one of the original complainants.

“We actually have a healthy discussion about the allocation of public funds,” Cuthbertson said. “Disputing a book is not a bad thing. A challenge is a good thing because it leads to discussion. I wanted to talk about the content, standard, format, and age appropriateness of this book to the Flathead County Library. I care about this one because I have skin in the game – I’m paying for this library like you do.

The majority of public comments were in favor of bookkeeping.

Patty Jones, a former ImagineIF librarian, said she could remember only a handful of disputed documents from her 30 years at the library.

“The library is a community place, so it should be all-inclusive for everyone,” she said. “It is an individual choice to enter. There should be something for everyone in the library and there should be something to offend everyone in the library. That’s what makes it complete.

A second moment of levity interrupted the hour of public discussion when Stacy Dietz, a former teacher and school counselor, responded to reading an explicit “Gender Queer” passage while meeting participant Jonathan Bowden.

“A fire started to rise inside me listening to the gentleman read, because he didn’t read romance novels,” she said. “While some of these words are uncomfortable to listen to in a room full of people, there are a number of books that would make anyone blush.”

There should be something for everyone in the library and there should be something to offend everyone in the library.

Patty Jones speaking at the ImagineIF Library Board Meeting

Several other community members spoke out against what they called obscenity in “Gender Queer,” questioning whether such content was illegal under state and federal laws.

“How much do you have in your legal defense fund to defend the library against criminal prosecution under the law?” Constantius Neumann asked.

Under the Montana Code Annotated (MCA), library administrators and staff do not violate obscenity laws so long as the material is “acquired by the library and disseminated in accordance with policies approved by the library’s governing body “.

Administrator Doug Adams said board members shouldn’t agree with the loophole.

“If the best we can do is say we’re okay on a technical point, then we’ve set the bar very low,” Adams said.

After the end of public comments, the administrators discussed the two books starting with “Lawn Boy”.

Senior Librarian Sean Anderson, a member of the four-person committee selected by former acting director Martha Furman to evaluate the books, read the staff memo. The committee unanimously recommended keeping the book.

“When staff collect books, they’re supposed to review them for literary value,” Administrator Adams said in response. “This guy is a good writer, he has a wit. I think the book was a compelling story, it was well written, but I feel bad for the trees because if it had removed the bad language it would have been half as long.

In a roll-call vote, all five directors voted in favor of keeping the book.

Cover of the novel “Lawn Boy”, by Jonathan Evison

As the discussion shifted to “Gender Queer,” Anderson said the committee came to the same unanimous conclusion to keep the book in the collection.

Administrator Ingram said he was dismayed that the staff recommendation did not mention the possibility that the book could be in violation of the MCA, stating that he believed a page in the book described child pornography, a violation clear from the MCA.

“Unfortunately, our current policy as written does not allow us to make any decision other than affirmation. There is no other option,” Ingram said. “I acknowledge that I will follow the policy. , but it mocks community input if you disagree with a selection.”

“Our job is not to pass judgment or evaluate the content of these materials as they are selected,” Anderson responded, adding that the collection policy has been in place for years and has been reaffirmed by at least three iterations of the board.

“Nowhere in this policy is there any reference to the role of the library in assessing suitability, to judge whether something is pornographic or illegal in some way. The courts have always maintained that it is their responsibility, not the responsibility of the library and not the responsibility of the library administrators.

Anderson pointed out that “Gender Queer” has won national awards, clearly making it literary merit.

“Based on the application of our policy, it more than fulfills a lot of those things,” Anderson said. “And I want to be very clear that this is our policy, this is our language – nowhere in our policy does it require that we follow the advice of the ALA (American Library Association) in selecting them. .”

Adams, who called the book’s writing and imagery “hobbyist,” said the board should be able to make its own decisions about materials.

“If all we’re doing is following recommendations from staff or the Foundation or Friends of the Library, then we really don’t need to be here,” he said, referring to the boosters. ImgaineIF’s nonprofit.

“The point is that the council has been instructed to make decisions and the council has the power to do so,” Adams continued. “But we are paralyzed. Everybody wants to talk about freedom and the first amendment and all that stuff and how we’re infringing on your freedom, but our hands are tied. We have no freedom. »

ImagineIF Library Board Member Doug Adams speaks during an ImagineIF Library Board meeting in Kalispell on December 2, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | flathead beacon

Adams and Roedel called a vote, with trustees Leistiko and Sultz voting in favor of keeping the book while the other three abstained, failing the motion.

In a follow-up request, Administrator Adams offered to remove the book from the collection. Administrator Ingram added a subsidiary motion to postpone the revocation decision indefinitely saying that “as the policy is currently written, there is no possibility of revocation”.

Both Leistiko and Sultz opposed the idea of ​​postponing a decision until the policy is rewritten.

“We’re talking about changing the rules in the middle of the game,” Anderson said. “This council made it clear that they felt they had no discretion to remove a book from the library, so they wanted to change the rules to allow themselves to do so. I think it’s a bad decision.”

Roedel, the chairman of the board, objected to this interpretation.

“We had a challenge from a citizen, and as a trustee, I don’t think the citizen can be heard because of our policies,” Roedel said. “We are in real trouble.”

“The reason the policy is there, the reason the Constitution is there is not to tell you that you can’t make those decisions,” Anderson replied. “He’s here to tell you that there are consequences to doing these things. Your hands are not tied. And if you bravely stand up for what you believe in and believe that removing this book is in the best interests of the community and the people we heard from today, then be brave and remove it.

Trustee Adams responded that he had spoken with the county attorney and was trying to work within the parameters of the law.

In a 3-2 vote, Roedel, Adams, and Ingram approved the motion to suspend discussion of removing “Gender Queer” indefinitely.

It is ImagineIF’s policy that until a deletion vote is passed, the disputed title will remain in the collection.

Speaking after the meeting, Adams said he had already rewritten the policies and would implement them “as soon as possible”, adding that he was no longer inclined to wait for the new director of the library begins.

In another controversial vote that recently showed the division of the board, trustees voted last week to hire a new library manager, despite objections from library staff.

“I was going to defend my choice at all costs, but I know we’re going to be sued and the county attorney said we’re going to lose the case because we’re violating our policy,” Adams said. “But we have the right to change policy, and when we do it will give us the opportunity to make an intelligent decision.”

“I hope we never try to get rid of a book again,” he added. “I can tell you this; if we have a library manager or staff selecting the appropriate material in the first place, that won’t be a problem.

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