A district court judge ruled last week that Flathead County Library System officials can follow through with their plan to close the Whitefish library for two weeks to continue removing materials.
But Flathead County District Court Judge Stewart Stadler said that city representatives must be allowed to take part in the process and evaluate the remaining books. Stadler also asked that the two sides immediately engage in a mediation process to settle their disputes.
“We regret that it had to come to this but we are very pleased that the judge has ordered the mediated negotiations suggested by the Whitefish team early in the process,” Michael Collins, chairman of the Whitefish Community Library board, said in a press release.
The library was scheduled to close to the public on June 18 and reopen on July 1, the first day the Whitefish Community Library officially begins operating as an independent entity. Last October, the Whitefish City Council voted to break away from the county system and form its own property tax-supported library.
More than 6,000 books had already been taken out of the Whitefish library before Flathead County District Court Judge David Ortley issued a temporary restraining order in early June, prohibiting the county from removing any more books. Stadler’s ruling lifted the restraining order. There are more than 27,000 materials remaining.
County officials say that removed books are to be distributed to other branches as seen fit. There are branches of the county library system in Marion, Bigfork and Columbia Falls, along with the main facility in Kalispell.
The dispute ended up in court after the Whitefish Library Association sued members of the Flathead County Library Board of Trustees and Library Director Kim Crowley. The association is a nonprofit group that works to support the Whitefish library but is separate from the Whitefish Community Library Board.
The association requested an injunction to prevent the county from shutting down the Whitefish library and removing more books.
During testimony at a hearing for the injunction request on June 16, Anne Moran, vice chair of the Whitefish library board, reiterated her concern over books found in the Dumpsters that she believes could be transferred to the Whitefish library rather than thrown away.
Moran referenced photos taken of the books at Pacific Steel and Recycling and said Councilor Phil Mitchell took “several hundred” books out of the Dumpsters to be examined. Those materials, Moran said, are being kept in Mitchell’s garage. Moran said she also surveyed books in the dumpsters and found one that had markings indicating it belonged to Whitefish.
Crowley, who is the president-elect of the Montana Library Association, said nationwide it’s controversial when libraries discard older books into recycling rather than find a new home for them, but said it’s a standard practice to maintain an updated collection.
“We can’t warehouse every book that was ever brought into our libraries,” Crowley said.
A question was also raised over whether the 6,000 books already taken from the facility could be returned. Crowley said that it’s not possible to track down all of those books.
Crowley said she was concerned by the high number of book checkouts and renewals by several unnamed individuals. Due to confidentiality considerations, their names were redacted, but Crowley said reports showed that four different individuals at one point had checked out a combined 1,237 books, including 457 by one person.
Given the time the materials were checked out, they could have been renewed past July 1, the day the county cedes control of the Whitefish library, Crowley said. There were 629 renewals on a single day, Crowley said.
“Typically that would be the number of renewals for a month,” Crowley said. “I thought that was very odd.”
Crowley said the county library system placed holds on the books in question so that when a renewal attempt was made the book had to be returned to the library first and could be evaluated.
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