Flathead County

ImagineIF Library Board Adds Obscenity Language to Collection Policy

Library staff calls policy changes "unnecessary and redundant;" trustees say move brings policy in line with new Montana laws

By Micah Drew
ImagineIF Library in Kalispell on Oct. 2, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The ImagineIF Library Board of Trustees amended a library policy at its Jan. 25 meeting, adding sections to the Collection Development and Management Policy specifically aimed at preventing “obscene” books from entering the collection, or being inappropriately shelved, an issue library staff have long argued is not a problem at any library system, much less ImagineIF.

The change, proposed by board chair Dave Ingram, adds language to the policy’s selection criteria to avoid materials containing “explicit or detailed descriptions or narrative accounts of sexual excitement or sexual conduct which is obscene or otherwise harmful to minors.”

“This language is used as an attempt not to exclude or take away the librarian’s choices and books, but to give them guidance on what is out there as far as definitions,” Ingram said.  

According to Ingram, the move was made to bring the county library system in line with Montana Code Annotated following the 2023 Montana Legislature’s passage of HB 234. The so-called “obscenity bill” altered a state law about disseminating obscene material to minors by initially removing an exemption for museums, libraries and schools to share materials that might be considered obscene in another context. This exception has allowed educational institutions to have works of artistic, literary and scientific significance — such as a nude sculpture in a museum, or a library book that includes sexual themes — in their collections. ImagineIF Trustee Doug Adams previously called this exemption a “loophole” that prevents objectionable material from being removed.

The final version of the HB 234, which was signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte last May, was amended from its initial draft form and reinstated a definition that still creates an exemption for libraries, museums and schools. Even vocal critics of the law ultimately deemed it a “largely benign” change.

“The state law was changed last year … including it in the policy seems both redundant and disrespectful to the people who have the education, the expertise and the hard-won experience to select these items, none of which are obscene,” ImagineIF librarian Sierra Benjamin told the trustees.

Despite the library exception to the law, Ingram said his main concern is protecting children. He raised the issue that publishers classify “Young Adult” books as suitable for ages ranging from 12 to 25, which could create difficulties with a law that specifically deals with legal minors. Legally defining “harmful to minors” can be ambiguous, Ingram admitted, and the trustees ultimately used an definition found in U.S. statute.

Board Chair David Ingram at an ImagineIF Libraries trustee meeting in Columbia Falls on Oct. 27, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Roughly 30 members of the public showed up to the committee meeting, with more than a dozen offering comments opposing any changes to the policy, which they saw as yet another move by the board to limit access to materials or sequester them in different sections of the library.

“You have a duty for this community, for this building to serve as the community hub that it is,” said Anna Lang Ofstad. “Not to draw people away from their work and their tasks to come down here and remind you that we have a right by law to do what we want to do in this library and read materials to our children that we deem appropriate. And your policy states so.”

Valeri McGarvey, a frequent critic of the ImagineIF trustees, pointed out that the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution negate any changes to the collection policy.

“These both protect intellectual freedom, and protect equal access to that information,” she said. “There is no such thing as pornography being published by publishing houses for kids. There is nothing that meets that legal definition.”

Montana’s obscenity law includes a requirement that materials are only obscene if they lack “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value,” a standard that has been upheld in numerous court cases and insulates institutions such as libraries.

An additional amendment to the collection development policy states that librarians have the latitude to relocate materials between collections, particularly if a book is challenged for being shelved inappropriately. A final change removed the list of selection aids that librarians often consult — including professionally recognized journals such as Publisher’s Weekly and awards lists. Trustee Jane Wheeler opposed this change, saying that the inclusion of the list helps to inform library patrons of their selection process, but she was overruled.

“I was under the impression that making this a general statement, that I respect the librarians’ expertise and selection criterion,” Ingram said.

“I want to be clear, [the staff] would like the policy to remain intact as is,” interim library director Teri Dugan told the trustees.  

Throughout the meeting, library staff spoke at length about more serious issues the trustees could be dealing with, including failing library infrastructure and safety concerns.

“The past few years have been pretty tough for the library and it’s getting pretty hard. We have a lot of people who are in crisis in the building, we’ve done training and done de-escalation and we still struggle with that. We are also having a hard time with this facility in Kalispell — pipes are leaking, the carpet’s peeling up, the bathrooms are not in a good place,” Benjamin said. “We do have lots of problems, so this policy change to keep us in line and make sure that the people selecting our materials aren’t committing crimes seems like a bit of a waste of time to me.”

“Instead of the board showing support and help, because we need help badly, it just feels like we’re under increased scrutiny,” she added. “I just want to ask for more help in the areas we desperately need, and less of this scrutiny and disingenuous addition of rules that are unnecessary, redundant, and disrespectful.”

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