Policy Differences on Display at Library Board Retreat

Discussions focused on the role of technology in the library and proposed changes to core ImagineIF policies

By Micah Drew
ImagineIF Libraries in Kalispell on April 24, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The ImagineIF library board of trustees held a full-day retreat on March 10 with staff, new director Ashley Cummins and a representative of the Montana State Library (MSL) to discuss policy changes and the overall direction of the library.

While there were no action items on the agenda, and therefore no votes were taken, the broad ranging discussions showed the extent of changes some trustees are intent on making to how the library is managed and further displayed the philosophical differences at play between trustees and library staff.

The discussions, moderated by Tracy Cook of the state library, meandered through a laundry list of policy proposals and topics that had been at the center of tense conversations in recent weeks.

The first philosophical divide arose in a discussion about technology in the library, specifically whether providing wireless hot spots for checkout is a critical service to offer patrons.

“Simply put yes. Absolutely,” said Columbia Falls branch manager Tony Edmundson, sharing a story about a student living in Badrock Canyon who used a hot spot to apply to colleges. “She’s at the Air Force Academy now, but she may have missed a deadline without a hot spot. They are successful as another avenue into the world of information and connection.”

ImagineIF has just over 70 hot spots available for checkout and according to staff all of them are continuously on hold.

“When we closed down when the pandemic hit, we upped our commitment to digital services and offering those digital services without giving people the means to access them automatically creates an unfair situation,” said senior librarian Sean Anderson. “Even if they have a laptop at home, if they don’t have the internet, we are limiting the access to the library services we are statutorily committed to provide.”

“I think that is beyond the library’s purview,” said trustee Doug Adams, teeing up the first point of contention of the meeting. “You could just as easily take that argument that if they don’t have the money to buy gas to get to the library that it is our moral responsibility to provide them the gas so they can get access to the information we have. That’s not in the library’s mission statement, it’s not what we do.”

Technology coordinator Sam Crompton said 52% of hotspot users at ImagineIF accessed online health and telehealth services, and 52% used them to connect with family and friends.

“There’s no doubt the value of the services the library provides,” Adams said. “But for us to say we are now responsible for helping people take care of their healthcare, I say no, let the health board do that. It doesn’t need to come out of our budget.”

Adams referred to a line item in the budget for internet service of $15,750, which he called “extraordinary,” though Compton said that line item likely included the costs of maintaining the hot spots in case a state grant currently in use runs out.

“I agree it’s extraordinary. That’s a lot of money man, I couldn’t afford that,” Edmondson said. “But to do extraordinary things and to help our citizens be extraordinary, we’ve got to give them opportunities. We’ve got to have a way for them to access the things they need to be extraordinary. And that means money. We’ve got to lay money down for people to be able to get up and do something.”

In what became a recurring attempt to find common ground, Cook, along with library director Ashley Cummins, chimed in that the discussions showed a desire to both find ways to tighten the budget while keeping essential services intact.

ImagineIF Library board member Doug Adams speaks at an ImagineIF Library board of trustees meeting in Kalispell on Dec. 2, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

During the discussions over policy changes that engulfed the remainder of the day’s retreat, trustee Adams dominated the conversation with a list of revisions he has long wanted to implement.

The two main policies Adams wants rewritten are the Fair Treatment and Collection Development policies.

The Fair Treatment policy begins by stating the trustees have adopted the American Library Association’s (ALA) Bill of Rights.

Adams has stated for months he wants to remove all ALA language from ImagineIF policy, saying trustees are supposed to be apolitical, and therefore being aligned with an organization that takes “leftist” political stances is not in the library’s best interest. Adams referenced ALA’s stance following the Civil Rights Movement and statements regarding intellectual freedom, LGBT issues, homelessness and poverty as inherently political regardless of the subject matter, and aligning with such an organization was seen by some as adopting the same stances, adding that the library has been accused of having a “liberal bias.”

 “I think the issue is for somebody to take issue with those stances, to take issue with representation of the Black or LGBTQ community is not necessarily someone who should have control over what the morality of a community is,” said Anderson. “The solution to that is what libraries have always stood for, which is openness of access of information. We don’t exclude thought, but we protect it by including more thought.”

In a draft of proposed policy changes, Adams indicated that in addition to references to the ALA, he wanted to remove two sections of the policy that read:

  • “I. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”
  • “II. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”

Adams proposed adding a trustee to the collection development committee, or at least seeking approval from the board for upcoming purchase lists. He also suggested removing “critical review” from the criteria that determines whether a book should be purchased.  

In removing policy language around censorship, Adams stated it is his intent to take Gender Queer, a graphic novel with a transgender protagonist that was a flashpoint for the trustees earlier this year, out of the library’s collection and prevent controversial books from entering the collection to begin with, without violating the board’s own policies. 

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

“If you decide a book that you buy for one patron should become part of the collection, that’s a problem,” Adams said, pointing to Gender Queer having been purchased at the bequest of a patron. “It has nothing to do with whether it’s a gay book or any other book. You can look at a book on bomb building or a book on white supremacy. You can look at a lot of books that are not as a whole beneficial to society.”

Ultimately, Cook said that even removing censorship terminology from library policy wouldn’t free the trustees from legal action arising from the removal of a book. Last month, the ACLU of Montana filed a public records request to the ImagineIF trustees and released a statement that it is actively investigating the intent to remove Gender Queer.

Adams said he wants to find a way to provide customers with books they want to read, without allowing extreme viewpoints to become part of a taxpayer funded collection.

“If I’m a white supremacist and I want to put every extreme book I can think of in the library to try and influence people, what I’m telling you is that I don’t want those books in there,” Adams said.

“And I do,” Anderson said. “As a library professional, that is absolutely core to the work we do. If somebody wants a white supremacy book and I can find reviews on it, if the publisher is known, the price is reasonable and I feel there’s demand for it, I want it on my shelves. Do I find it disgusting? Absolutely. Do I feel like I have a responsibility to have it on the shelf? Yes.”

ImagineIF Library Senior Librarian Sean Anderson attends an ImagineIF Library board of trustees meeting in Kalispell on Dec. 2, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon