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‘It’s challenging’: How Idaho libraries are coping with budget cuts after smut claims

Lake City High School Librarian JD Smithson files books in the library after school in Coeur d’Alene in January 2018. The Coeur d’Alene Public Library invests in public space-sharing with Lake City High School.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Lake City High School Librarian JD Smithson files books in the library after school in Coeur d’Alene in January 2018. The Coeur d’Alene Public Library invests in public space-sharing with Lake City High School. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Ryan Suppe Idaho Statesman

Idaho library officials are clarifying policy and seeking out private grants to fund new services, after the Idaho Legislature targeted library budgets this year over concerns about pornography.

Republican lawmakers cut $3.8 million from this fiscal year’s original $11.5 million budget for the Commission for Libraries, the state agency that funnels resources to locally controlled libraries across the state. The cuts came amid a debate over whether to hold librarians criminally liable for distributing material considered “harmful to minors.”

Most of the budget cut – $3.5 million – denied libraries access to American Rescue Plan Act federal COVID-19 relief funds, earmarked for expanding telehealth service, a valuable resources in rural areas with limited health care and internet access.

“Library construction funds are hard to come by, and it would have been a great opportunity for many libraries to be able to remodel or carve out that space for that new service,” Idaho State Librarian Stephanie Bailey-White told the Idaho Statesman by phone.

Libraries turn to

private grants

Now, libraries are competing for a pool of $40,000 in grants offered by the Blue Cross Foundation, Blue Cross of Idaho’s charitable arm.

In Parma, an agricultural community west of Boise, where seniors make up about one-fifth of the population, the public library received nearly $7,000 from Blue Cross to build a private telehealth space in an old bank vault. Parma recently lost its only health clinic, and many seniors rely on others for transportation to appointments in bigger cities, such as Nampa or Caldwell.

Library Director Gina Day said the new space isn’t ready yet. In the meantime, library staff is inventing applications for the forthcoming asset, on top of telehealth. It may be used as a private room for job interviews or a place where incarcerated people can read stories to their children, Day told the Statesman by phone.

“We’re finding new uses for it all the time,” she said.

Urban libraries are seeking funds for telehealth services as well. Ada Community Libraries, a district that manages four libraries on the fringes of Ada County’s urban core, hoped to direct the American Rescue Plan Act funds toward privacy pods, in which patrons could have space for calls with medical providers.

Instead, the Ada County library district is applying for a Blue Cross grant, Director Mary DeWalt told the Statesman by phone. That’s because areas just southwest of Boise have spotty internet coverage.

“It’s good for us, even as an urban library, to be able to offer stable internet,” she said. “It just provides another opportunity for people to get regular health care.”

The Patricia Romanko Public Library in Parma has a $100,000 annual budget. Ada Community Libraries’ budget is $3 million. Neither institution could afford to implement telehealth without cutting other services, directors told the Statesman.

“When you think about being able to offer something new, you have to find a way to carve it in, unless you have an opportunity, like these grants or those extra ARPA funds,” DeWalt said.

E-book repository

in doubt

Lawmakers this year also defunded a statewide electronic book program managed by the Idaho Commission for Libraries.

Through the Idaho Digital E-book Alliance, launched amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the state commission provides e-book access to local libraries and school districts, which often struggle to afford new titles.

One in four elementary school libraries has $500 or less in annual book collection funding, Bailey-White said.

“That doesn’t really allow those schools to purchase the newest, best titles to meet the needs of students,” she said. “I think it’s really important that all students in the state have equal access to recreational reading materials, books that support the curriculum and meet the needs of students.”

Ada Community Libraries is able to bolster its adult book collection because IDEA titles are targeted for children, DeWalt said.

“I think it was a very effective use of resources,” she said.

But the Legislature removed $300,000 from the library commission’s budget for the e-book collection, leaving the future of the program in doubt.

“Not having that funded, it’s challenging, but we’re finding a way see if we can still maintain that collection,” Bailey-White said.

Local libraries and schools have been recent targets of book bans and criticism.

The Nampa school board permanently banned 23 books from its school libraries and classrooms in May. A group of parents also have accused the Meridian Library of distributing “smut-filled pornography” to minors; librarians have said they simply provide a diverse and inclusive set of materials that reflect the interests of the community.

Commission updates policy to appease Legislature

In the final days of this year’s legislative session, House Republicans derailed the Commission for Library’s budget after a controversial bill failed to garner support in the Senate.

House Bill 666, sponsored by Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, would have held librarians criminally liable if a minor obtained a library book considered “harmful.” Idaho law essentially doesn’t define harmful materials, but legislators pointed to literature and comics with sexual descriptions and images.

The House passed the bill nearly along party lines, but the Senate never considered it. Then House Republicans killed the libraries commission budget multiple times, citing concerns over smut they said is accessible to children, until a compromise cut the budget and created a legislative working group to study “harmful materials” in libraries.

The budget bill required that the Commission for Libraries verify resources for students comply with the Idaho statute on “obscene materials” and incorporate references to the code in its electronic resource policy.

The commission incorporated the code Thursday during its board of directors meeting. Without discussion, the commissioners approved an update to the policy, which now reads, “all titles” in electronic collections will comply with Idaho state law “to ensure that no materials harmful to minors … are available.”

“We’ve always been compliant with the law, but it was requested that we include it in the policy, so we did that,” Bailey-White said.

It’s unclear whether the legislative working group to study harmful materials has been created. House GOP leaders could not be reached for comment Friday.

The group won’t find any pornography in Ada Community Libraries.

“We have a selection process in place that very carefully evaluates materials,” DeWalt said. “I don’t think I have seen something that would truly fall into the pornographic category be even under consideration for us.”

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