Some trustees of a public library system in Flathead County, Montana have taken a page from the playbook of right-wing school board warriors and written a new chapter for their libraries.
February 4, 2022

Some trustees of a public library system in Flathead County, Montana have taken a page from the playbook of right-wing school board warriors and written a new chapter for their libraries.

The disturbing tale about the ImagineIF Library system was published in the Flathead Beacon in an article that makes clear the conservative trustee activists feel a kinship with their school board brethren elsewhere in the country. The article begins with an anecdote about one trustee sending an email to the others, as well as to the Flathead County Commissioners, with a link to a video from a Virginia school board meeting about two queer-themed books that were also in the ImagineIF collection. The trustee told the commissioners “he intended to review the collection development policy ‘in the near future’ in light of the national debate,” the Beacon reported. This, despite the fact that no complaints about either title had been made by any patrons.

The Beacon obtained a series of emails between trustees, county commissioners and library personnel over the past year. Those emails should alarm anyone who cares about libraries, good government or intellectual freedom:

In some instances, the communications between appointed public officials betray an ulterior motive shared by several board members, who characterized their positions, as well as their reason for seeking them, as being more about changing the library’s governing policies than serving as trustees of a community resource. As a result, morale has plummeted within the public library’s leadership ranks as ImagineIF struggles to recruit and retain a qualified director, having lost both its previous director and interim director to resignations in just six months.

Most recently, the board moved forward with hiring a new library director who does not meet Montana’s public library standards for a community the size of the Flathead Valley. The decision was made despite concerns expressed by staff, the ImagineIF Library Foundation and members of the public, and will result in a loss of more than $35,000 in annual funding from the state. The contentious vote means that out of 82 libraries in the state, ImagineIF will be one of just four that are not certified, according to Montana State Librarian Jennie Stapp, and the only non-certified library serving a community larger than 4,000 residents.

The article also includes such disturbing details as trustee Doug Adams refusing to abide by Montana State Library guidelines which, among other things, state that a trustee should “officially adopt and support the ALA Bill of Rights and Freedom to Read statement.”

Adams is no rogue but someone in sync with at least some county commissioners. The article states:

According to Adams, two different county commissioners requested he apply for the library board over the years, but it wasn’t until he found himself upset over the way the board handled a controversial children’s book, “Prince and Knight,” [a fairy tale about a gay prince] that he put his name forward. Adams said the people responsible for reading the book during storytime should be fired and in his application he stated the board had lost its objectivity and neutrality.

The board has also lowered salaries and frozen the budget, thus “making it difficult to attract and retain qualified staff,” the Beacon notes.

There’s plenty more in the article to disturb any library lover.

I learned about this article via a tweet from Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run For Something, a group dedicated to recruiting and supporting young, diverse progressive candidates for down ballot races. And that’s the real point here. The article should serve as a cautionary tale about the urgent need for decent people to serve at the local level in order to stem the tide of right-wing radicalism in the U.S.

You don’t have to be young, either. I (old enough to join AARP) serve on the community board of my local library where, even in my progressive community, we have faced some of these same issues.

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