ImagineIF Library Staff Honored with Intellectual Freedom Award

Current and former staff members will be recognized by the Montana Library Association for resisting book challenges

By Micah Drew
ImagineIF Library in Kalispell on March 14, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Montana Library Association has recognized four ImagineIF Library staff members for their responses to two book challenges over the last year with the Pat Williams Intellectual Freedom Award. The recognition is part of the MLA’s annual awards ceremony that recognizes excellence in the profession.

ImagineIF librarians Sean Anderson, Kat Wilson, Starr White, and former interim Director Martha Furman, were nominated for the award for serving on a review committee during the concurrent challenges to “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison and “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe.

“An award like this makes me very proud of the entire ImagineIF team,” Anderson said. “Each of us has been affected by the controversy surrounding these book challenges, and recognition of our efforts by our peers is a reminder of the importance and impact of our work and that the challenges we’ve faced are not unique to us at ImagineIF.”

Challenges to the two books were made last October. Carmen Cuthbertson, who was recently appointed to the trustee board, filed the initial challenge to “Gender Queer” and fiercely advocated for its removal. At a January ImagineIF Board of Trustees meeting, the four-member review committee unanimously found the books were not in violation of any policy and recommended they remain available to the community.

While library staff defended their selection criteria, the trustees split their decision on the books, voting unanimously to retain “Lawn Boy,” while voting 3-2 against retaining “Gender Queer.” A decision on removing the latter title was tabled indefinitely.

Shortly after the ImagineIF decision, the Billings Public School District had challenges to the same books, but the school board voted unanimously to retain both in the district’s high school collections.

“Librarians are a naturally tight-knit group, because we have a shared responsibility to fulfill the promise of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” Anderson said. “If our experience and our response can be a model for others, then that is a role we are happy to play.”

The Pat Williams Intellectual Freedom Award acknowledges an “individual or group who has made significant contributions during the past year to the enhancement of First Amendment rights,” and demonstrates a “clear understanding of the principles, nature, responsibilities and implications of the First Amendment.”

“As always, the ImagineIF Board of Trustees is pleased to hear that our library staff has been recognized as deserving of an award by peers in their profession, and we appreciate their enthusiasm and passion,” ImagineIF trustee chair Doug Adams said.

Adams voted against keeping “Gender Queer” in the library’s collection and has worked to alter library policies relating to materials collection.

“Not everyone’s going to agree on everything, but it sure is nice to have people who feel strongly and stand up for what they believe in,” Adams said. “The fact that they’re willing to speak up for what they’re passionate about is admirable.”

The MLA awards are voted on by a committee based on nominations from MLA members. ImagineIF received several nominations from library staff across Montana.

“ImagineIF staff have remained professional and adhered to the precepts that guide our profession,” Lewis & Clark Library Director John Finn wrote in his nomination letter. “They have held up the right to read for all members of the community in an inclusive way. Patrons in Flathead County should feel proud that they live in a community where their freedom of choice to read what they wish is being upheld by professional librarians and a freedom loving staff.”

Former ImagineIF Director Connie Behe received the Pat Williams Intellectual Freedom Award in 2020. The award recipients will be recognized at an awards ceremony in Missoula on Aug. 5 as part of a conference made up of the MLA, Pacific Northwest Library Association and Mountain Plains Library Association.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.