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Difference Makers: Bette Ammon navigates book-bandit attention, guides the growth of CdA library

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When Bette Ammon arrived in Coeur d’Alene to become the city’s library director, she never expected to be interviewed by the BBC or to find the library the subject of a monologue on late-night TV because someone wanted to control what others can read.

Librarians in Coeur d’Alene wondered for months about the wandering books – titles that would disappear from their rightful place in the Dewey decimal system only to be found later either in the wrong place, hidden behind other books on the shelves or sometimes just turned around so the book’s title was not visible. The titles had something in common: They tended to be from the more progressive side of the spectrum.

Only in August 2018 did Ammon and the library crew learn what really was up, thanks to a comment card left by an apparently disgruntled patron.

“I noticed a large volume of Books attacking our President. I am going to continue hiding these books in the most obscure places I can find to keep this propaganda out of the hands of young minds,” the anonymous patron wrote. “Your liberal angst gives me great pleasure.”

Ammon takes comments seriously. As a public agency, correspondence is part of the public record, so she makes a point to publicly reply. The comment was tacked up on the bulletin board, along with others collected, and dutifully replied to by Ammon.

“Every month a number of books are published about political issues,” her response read. “Your library tries hard to purchase well-reviewed books on all sides and most of these books are frequently checked out and not on display. We’re sorry you feel the need to hide books you don’t agree with since that takes up valuable staff time to reorder and replace lost titles. If you have recommendations on titles you’d like the library to buy, please let us know.”

It was posted for three months, with very little attention, before Ammon swapped it out for a new batch of comments. Books continued to wander around the library. They’re discovered when librarians head to the stacks to fill out a request for a patron. Of course, mischief is not the only reason for books to have gone missing, Ammon said.

“Sometimes people steal them, and sometimes people think they’ve checked them out from the self-checkout when they haven’t,” Ammon said. “And sometimes people hide them.”

An offhand comment in September to Taylor Viydo, a KREM reporter who was working on another story, opened the flood gates. Most local media outlets have now reported on it, and Ammon has fielded interview requests from around the globe. She’s answered emails from Australia and Europe and was tickled to receive a clipping of the story from the international edition of the New York Times, courtesy of a vacationing Pullman couple who found it in the lobby of their Paris hotel.

The story came to the attention of writers too. Rick Reilly, whose “Commander in Cheat” was a frequently hidden book, came to Coeur d’Alene last month to give a talk and plant 10 copies of his book throughout the library. But nothing tops “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert. When he found out the “Whose Boat is This Boat?” picture book complied by the “Late Show” staff was among the relocated titles, they delivered a huge, “unhideable” and autographed copy of the book.

“It’s turned into a library opportunity. We just had a staff meeting and we talked about the impact of people coming in to see the big book, the unhideable book,” she said. “It’s not a bad thing if the idea of ‘library’ is pushed up to the forefront of conversation. That benefits everybody, and we can’t be upset about that.”

Statistics bear that out. Library numbers show a 50% increase in use in November alone. After opening in 2008, the library had 22,913 library card holders who checked out 467,364 items. In 2018, it was 38,704 cardholders borrowing 729,326 items.

Ammon is not a stereotypical librarian. She is not a primly dressed shusher; in fact her laugh is apt to spill out of the open door of her office into the library’s research area. Among city departments, she admits, the library staff tends to be the rowdiest. Originally from Lafayette, Colorado, she fell into library work, first working in her hometown library and later at the University of Northern Colorado, where she’d gone intending to become a teacher. She was an English major who entered the teaching market at a time it was saturated with English teachers, so she moved to Pocatello, Idaho. She started taking her kids to story time at the local library and volunteering. Soon that turned into a part-time job and a big realization.

“Why didn’t I pursue this after college? It’s always what I should have been doing,” she said.

She earned her master’s degree in library science from Idaho State University, and eventually made her way to Missoula.

After working there for 15 years, seven as library director, she looked for a new challenge. Coeur d’Alene presented a major opportunity: To build a new library.

After Coeur d’Alene hired her (“stole her” is how library board chairman Steve McCrea puts it) in 2005, Ammon arrived in a library that was located in an aging, squat and relatively dark building in the Midtown neighborhood.

But Coeur d’Alene voters had approved a bond to build a new library, so she and her team got to work. The facility, unveiled to the community in 2008 at 702 E. Front St., now looks out over Tubbs Hill and a redeveloped McEuen Park with Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Coeur d’Alene Resort in the distance. Its two stories feature large windows that let in plenty of natural light. There are cozier corners, too. Comfy chairs bank a fireplace on the main level, and reading nooks are tucked here and there, offering quiet spots for work or thumbing through a good book or two.

Eleven years since opening, the library remains a key player in Coeur d’Alene’s civic life. It has played host to Earth Day fairs and comicons and celebrations for Mudgy and Millie, the moose and mouse who star in Susan Nipp’s popular children’s books.

Under Ammon’s watch, the library has opened a second branch, inside Lake City High School, to serve residents on the north side of town. McCrea points to Ammon’s successful lobbying to join the Community Information Network, as a critical achievement. The consortium includes libraries from throughout North Idaho, from Bonners Ferry to St. Maries, and those in Washington close to the state line, such as Liberty Lake, Ione and Newport. One library card gains a patron access to any of the libraries, in person or online, and the catalogs are pooled, vastly expanding the number of materials available to check out.

“Bette made a point one time, she said some librarians think it’s really cool to have this big library with a bunch of books on the shelf. We think it’s really cool to have those books checked out,” McCrea said.

And the great thing about having so many different books to choose from is that there is something for everyone, even if the book bandit disagrees. Ammon takes pride in that.

“I think that if you’re a person who likes more conservative books, you should be reassured that your library has those, too.” she said. “And there’s a dialogue to be had for getting those voices in.”

That balance is something the library strives to maintain, McCrea said.

“We want the public to know there are a wide, wide range of opinions and perspectives available in the library. We don’t tilt one way or the other,” he said. “That’s not our job. … Whatever books are out there, we buy them.”

“Being in the spotlight is not a normal state of being for librarians. Ammon is quick to credit her talented staff for helping the Coeur d’Alene Library put its best face forward to the world during their time in the media spotlight.

“That happens because we have a great staff,” Ammon said. “We have creative people here who care about what they do. And the bottom line is if someone wants a book, and the catalog says we have it, we want to get it to them. It’s that simple.

“I’ve had a lot of support from staff, and a lot of encouragement from the library board,” she added. “They’re big intellectual freedom champions.”

It may be because of the attention, or it may be the times we live in now, but Ammon says it appears that political books are becoming more popular among library patrons.

“Many of those books are not going to be on any display because they’re checked out and have a lot of holds on them,” she said, citing Reilly’s book, as well as Donald Trump Jr.’s “Triggered.”

As for the book bandit, they are still at it apparently, Ammon said. A new book on impeachment recently turned up missing. She is frustrated that this attempt at censorship is still happening, because the alternative is easier: “If you have requests, let us know.”

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