Flathead County Commissioner asks Gov’s office to help preserve ImagineIF Library funding

By: - February 21, 2022 8:42 am

A display of banned books at the San Jose Public Library (Photo courtesy of San Jose Public Library via Flickr | CC-BY-SA 2.0).

A Flathead County Commissioner reached out to the Governor’s Office in January seeking to preserve state funding for the county’s library system after the library board appointed a director who did not meet Montana’s state-adopted standards.

The appointment of the new director on Jan. 6 came amid a series of high-profile discussions about whether to ban two books that have LGBTQ themes. Two executive directors have quickly cycled through ImagineIF library and many worry the library’s board is throttling its ability to act as an effective public institution as staff departs and its certification and state aid are likely to be rescinded. 

The turmoil in the Flathead has reverberated far. In January, Lt. Governor Kristen Juras met with the State Librarian twice to discuss the ongoing situation but ultimately opted not to get take any administrative action, although it’s unclear how the standards, set out in state law, could be circumvented. Still, the meetings have caused concern in Kalispell and Helena as library advocates worry they demonstrate a willingness to turn what has been a local library controversy into a larger state political issue, as libraries continue to find themselves at the center of a new front in cultural war over censorship and gender identity.

And after working in the public library sector for more than 40 years, Montana State Library Commissioner Bruce Newell announced last week he was resigning from his post, citing concerns that he would not be able to act impartially if the commission is called on to address the situation in Kalispell.

The director and board of trustees oversee the four locations within the ImagineIF Library system and report to the state library commission, from which Newell resigned.

“Recent events show ImagineIF’s board turning its back on diversity, rejecting the right to read as a defining principle, dismissing the need for professional and trained librarians, and unraveling decades of their library’s many successes,” Newell said in his resignation letter. “In sum, the ImagineIF board’s actions are unwise and profoundly antithetical to several centuries of bedrock library practices and values.”

But board members pushed back on the idea the board is not acting in the library’s best interest, saying its members are simply doing things differently. Board Vice Chair Doug Adams, who said his experience with libraries comes from regular visits as a child, defended the board’s actions.

“I want to have the best library we can have for the county, but our methods are different than previous boards or previous directors. Is that undermining the library as a public institution? Absolutely not,” said Adams, speaking on behalf of himself and not the board.

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The board’s recent hiring decision could cost the library. 

The new director, Ashley Cummins, does not have a Master of Library Science or equivalent degree, as required by Montana State Library policy for libraries serving more than 25,000 people. The appointment could strip the library of its certification and subsequently  $35,000 in state aid in the fiscal year 2023 if it is not granted an exemption from the state library.

After hearing complaints about the possibility of losing state aid, Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl took the issue to the Governor’s Office.

“I asked them if they would take a look at it and see if there is anything they could do to help us to retain taxpayer money for our county,” Brodehl told the Daily Montanan.

Juras met with Montana State Library officials in January to discuss the ongoing situation, but the Governor’s Office ultimately decided not to get involved, according to State Librarian Jennie Stapp. A spokesperson for Gov. Greg Gianforte did not comment on the specifics of the meetings but said the Governor’s Office had been briefed on the matter.

Stapp confirmed to the Daily Montanan that Juras’s office requested two meetings, and she said she met with Juras and Gianforte’s Education and Workforce Policy Advisor, Dylan Klapmeier, on Jan. 18 and Jan. 27.

“I have met with her about the state funding issue. Juras wanted to know more about the process in which we evaluate public library standards and the availability of state aid,” Stapp said. “They have reiterated to me that they are not intervening in the process.”

Flathead County Commissioners have submitted a request to the Montana State Library to keep the state aid. And while the state library commission will discuss that request at its April 13 meeting in some capacity, Stapp said she and the commission are waiting to see if the ImagineIF Library Board will submit its own waiver to preserve the state aid. About a dozen libraries submit waivers each year, and Stapp said she typically grants them, but in this case, she said she does not believe there is a rationale for approval.

“(The waiver) process still has to play out, but I have verbally told them the hiring does not meet the standards, and that I don’t believe it meets the grounds for a waiver,” Stapp said.

If an exemption is not granted, the library will be one of four out of 82 in the state to lose its certification.

Adams said he does not believe the board will submit a waiver for exemption.

“As I see it now, we will not seek an exemption because we don’t have a basis for one, based on MSL’s current rules. What I would like to see is the rule change,” he told the Daily Montanan.

Brodehl said in the emails that he supported the hire of Cummins because the two other library staffers have Master of Library Science degrees, so collectively, the library staff is sufficiently trained.

“That said, I have contacted the Governor’s Office, and they are working with Director Stapp also to see if this (requirement for a master’s degree) can be changed,” he wrote in the emails shared with the Daily Montanan. “My personal thought is that we need a good person/program director to lead, and the strength/education of the staff should be considered.”

Adams echoed Brodehl’s statement and said he would like to see a change in policy at the state level: “From my perspective, it shouldn’t matter which staff members have the MLS as long as you get the job done.”

Cummins was ushered in as the new director on a 3-2 vote, with the three newest county commissioner-appointed trustees — Chairwoman Heidi Roedel, Adams and David Ingram — voting in favor.

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The board has made other controversial moves, such as lowering some staff salaries, notwithstanding warnings from former interim director Martha Furman that decreases would make it more difficult to recruit talented staff. Additionally, in recent years, multiple staff members, including two directors, have left the library.

The board members have also been vocal throughout challenges to remove “Lawn Boy” by Jonathon Evison and “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe from the library’s collection, which have been under fire nationally.

Cherilyn DeVries, a community organizer at Love Lives Here, a Flathead civil and human rights advocacy group and Montana Human Rights Network affiliate, said the three newest board members have been trying to erode the library as a public institution, including, but not limited to the effort to ban books from the library. 

“There has been an active campaign to undermine the library, and we are very alarmed at how these three newest board members have been using their personal discomfort with LGBTQ issues to undermine the First Amendment rights of the community by banning books,” she said.

Ingram, who is also running as a Republican for House District 7 in the Flathead, said DeVries’s assertions could not be further from the truth.

“I have been a resident for almost 31 years. I’ve used that library almost weekly for the duration and continue to use it. I think I probably have 10 holds right now and just picked up a book two hours ago. I can’t see any reason why I want to damage the library in that regard,” he said in an interview with the Daily Montanan.

Adams agreed and said the board is simply trying to do things differently to repair a historically strained relationship between trustees and county commissioners.

“The board and the commissioners get along like oil and water. We have changed strategy, and that new strategy is to work with the county commissioners  … but in the process, we have people who are understandably upset because they see the library as having success and winning awards,” he said. 

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In the wake of all the turmoil, a nonprofit group affiliated with EveryLibrary, a national nonprofit library advocacy group, the Flathead Library Alliance, formed to push back on what it is seeing happening with the county library board. The group is led by six steering committee members and has more than 175 supporters, said Laurel Ekern, one of the group’s steering members.

“What we are seeing from the three trustees are actions that go against everything that embodies appropriate public library stewardships from plotting book bans to inquiring about temporarily closing the library and laying off all of the staff to advocating for stagnant funding to meddling in staff roles,” she said. 

“Lawn Boy” and “Gender Queer: A Memoir” have been the focal point of a months-long debate in the Flathead. At a Jan.13 meeting, the board unanimously voted to keep Lawn Boy. But the board voted 3-2,  with Adams, Ingram and Roedel voting in favor, to postpone the discussion on “Gender Queer: A Memoir” indefinitely because “the way the policy is written, there is not latitude for the book to be judged,” according to a motion from Ingram at the meeting.

Adams told the Daily Montanan he wants to see the library’s book removal policy change. “I want to change the policy, so it is clear that we have the right to remove books, so the process is an honest policy and process. Right now, it is not.” 

Current book removal policy states the library director must establish a review committee to investigate the complaint, which then sends a recommendation to the Library Board of Trustees for a final decision. Committees assembled to review “Lawn Boy” and “Gender Queer: A Memoir” — which received a combined 11 complaints — unanimously recommended the books remain in the library’s adult collection.

But even the conversation about removing a book from the library’s collection prompted the ACLU of Montana to investigate the situation in the Flathead through a series of public records requests it made on Feb. 11.

“The ACLU of Montana is greatly concerned that efforts to ban such books as ‘Gender Queer’ and ‘Lawn Boy’ are not homegrown, but part of a larger, national effort to restrict access to books and information from libraries,” it said in its press release.

The organization also raised First Amendment concerns.

“The First Amendment’s ‘bedrock principle’ provides that ‘government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable,'” the ACLU of Montana said in a letter to the board citing a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case.

The challenging of the two books in the Flathead is the third time in recent months that they have been at the center of controversy in Montana. After a lengthy public debate on the books in late January, the Billings Public School Board unanimously voted to retain the two titles in high school libraries. And in Laurel, Stapp said a challenge levied against the books was dismissed because they were not in the library’s collection.

In his resignation letter, Newell noted the book challenges and broader attacks on Montanan libraries.

“For the majority of my career in Montana libraries, I’ve watched Montanans champion fair library access for their entire community,” he wrote. “Recently, however, some in our communities have been working hard to narrow the scope of our collections, starve our budgets, limit our programs, discriminate in library hiring, and in the end, cause our libraries to limit services to a fraction of our communities.”

And the challenges are taking place across the country.

The American Library Association said in a November news release that there has been a dramatic uptick recently in book challenges mostly centered around books that focus on LGBTQIA+ issues and books by black authors or that document the black experience or the experiences of other BIPOC individuals.

“We’re seeing an unprecedented volume of challenges in the fall of 2021,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom director in the release. “In my twenty years with ALA, I can’t recall a time when we had multiple challenges coming in on a daily basis.”

John Chrastka, founder executive director of EveryLibrary, the political action committee that lobbies for public libraries on a national level, said his organization is tracking dozens of situations across the country similar to what is playing out in Kalispell.

“We do see this happening around in the country; the aim in these kinds of cases is people who get appointed to these boards then try to deconstruct the institution from the inside out,” he said. “And sometimes book challenges are used as a political challenge or wedge issue and are about deconstructing how the library is built and disabling the library’s ability to serve the community.”

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. Keith was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. He can be reached by text or call at 406-475-2954 .

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