County Library Authority Under Fire in Whitefish

By Beacon Staff

The British journalist George Holbrook Jackson once said, “Your library is your portrait.” If this is true, then the Flathead County Library System is currently the picture of unrest.

Several former FCLS Board trustees in Whitefish have publicly declared that they would like permission from the Whitefish City Council to research the possibility of changing the Whitefish branch’s relationship with the county, even if it means cutting ties all together.

Most of the contention lies in the idea that the county library system is trying to centralize its efforts and take away authority from the individual branches of the FCLS in Kalispell, Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Bigfork and Marion.

Jerry Hanson, a former library board trustee for four years, said each town is unique and shouldn’t have to conform to mandated activities.

“What may work well in the Kalispell library system may be a travesty in the other branches,” Hanson said.

But the current library board trustees and the county library director, Kim Crowley, disputed the idea that the branch libraries are becoming cookie-cutter images of one another.

“We are the Flathead County Library System and all of the libraries reflect their communities,” Crowley said.

All of the activities that happen at one library must be available to the other branches, but that doesn’t necessarily mean those other branches must participate. For example, Crowley said the Whitefish branch and literacy volunteers host an English as a Second Language series in the winter to help the international workers who work at the ski resort. No other library hosts that program in the winter, Crowley said, but they could if they wanted to.

One program that has caused friction is the implementation of a teen program in Whitefish. FCLS Trustee Connie Leistiko told the Whitefish City Council on Oct. 28 that there has been a “real resistance” to the teen program. Leistiko also said several teens have said they are uncomfortable at the Whitefish branch.

Hanson didn’t dispute the notion of resistance to the teen program.

“We do not need to turn the Whitefish library into another teen center,” Hanson said.

The actual Whitefish library building itself is another source for contention. The city of Whitefish owns the building, but the FCLS owns all the materials and manages the employees. There have been disputes, however, about how the building’s eating policies should be run and what can be displayed on the walls.

Anne Moran is also a former library board trustee upset with the current management. She said she has received numerous requests from Whitefish residents to research a possible split from the county.

“This community collected the funds and built the library at a time when this community was not wealthy,” Moran said. “It was really a labor of love.”

Moran believes the city should be able to set its own building policies since they are responsible for cleaning and maintenance.

Another source of dispute is the distribution of new materials. Hanson staunchly believes that the Whitefish branch isn’t getting its fair share of new books. But Crowley disagreed, citing the relatively new method of reserving new books online, which takes those items off the shelves before they arrive.

“I think that is one thing that maybe some people aren’t clear on, that the real popular stuff goes out right away and you might not see it on the shelf right away,” Crowley said.

According to FCLS distribution numbers, Whitefish has 21 to 26 percent of the new books at any given time, which is in line with the FCLS distribution policy.

Some in Whitefish have also accused the county of staffing mismanagement. Crowley said library staff has been disciplined in the past, but Whitefish has not been specifically targeted.

“I think we’re doing a lot to work on staff relations,” Crowley said. “We will hold staff accountable, all staff, system wide.”

Moran asserted that, at this point, the concerned citizens in Whitefish are just researching various options to help fix some problems with the library system. These options include leaving things the way they are or changing the terms of the inter-local agreement binding Whitefish to the county system. But she did not rule out cutting ties with the county.

Crowley said the FCLS would not be hurt financially if Whitefish left the county system. The FCLS would still receive the nearly $120,000 in county taxes from Whitefish; that number would most likely stay the same unless changed at the county level, she said. To support their own library, Whitefish would probably have to levy its own taxes to pay for it, Crowley said.

“We feel that we provide really good library services to everyone equally in the county,” Crowley said. “If they were to break off, there would be a huge duplication of services.”