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Shawn Vestal: The war on libraries roils “the best small library in America”

Earlier this year, a patron of the Boundary County Library in Bonners Ferry – “the best small library in America” – approached the library director with a concern.

She was upset about a graphic memoir, “Gender Queer,” which has been at the center of the far-right’s push to wipe library shelves, school curricula and history books clean of everything but white Christianity and jingoistic folk tales.

The book includes a few images of LGBTQ sexual experiences, and these have become a rallying cry for censors and book burners across the nation. Everywhere you look, where there are people shouting at a school board, or organizing a book ban, or criminalizing librarians, or painting teachers as “groomers” – “Gender Queer” is stoking the fire.

And so it was when the patron approached Kimber Glidden, director of the Boundary County Library, to make a formal complaint about the book.

Which the library does not have.

That is emblematic of what’s happening in Boundary County these days, as far-right ideologues – some associated with a Christian nationalist church whose pastor rails against “sodomites” and believes slavery is sanctioned by the Bible – have harangued the library board over innocuous changes to its policy, accused library officials of endangering children by adding pornography to the stacks, and started a recall effort against four of the five board members.

The board recently adopted a policy affirming the value of offering a broad diversity of viewpoints, and noting that materials may include “social, sexual or ethical issues” to which some may object.

The policy says, “Selection of materials will not be affected by any such potential disapproval, and the Boundary County Library will not place materials on ‘closed shelves’ or label items to protect the public from their content.”

The relatively small collection in the library – influenced in part by community standards – has tended to include few of the controversial titles that have anchored the lists spread around by national political groups, library officials say. Those titles overwhelmingly tend to focus on the experiences of LGBTQ people and people of color.

“A lot of the books that are concerning to the public – all of them, to my knowledge – we do not carry in the library and we do not plan to carry in the library,” said Lee Colson, one of the four board members who approved the policy.

He said he has had many circular conversations this year about specific titles: “They say, ‘I’m very concerned about X,’ and I say, ‘We don’t have X.’ ”

The one board member who voted against the new policy, Aaron Bohachek, said he did so in an effort to modify it to balance community concerns about protecting children with freedom of access to information for adults. But he also emphasized that the particular books mentioned by critics are not actually in the library.

“Let’s be clear,” he wrote in an email response to questions. “The Boundary County Library, our board, and our director have never had the intention, nor does it in the future, of purchasing so-called pornographic materials. The three books specifically drawn to our attention, ‘Gender Queer,’ ‘It’s Perfectly Normal,’ and ‘Fun Home,’ have never been requested by our patrons, aren’t on our list to purchase and won’t be.”

If a patron specifically requested those books or others, though, Glidden has said the library would get the title on interlibrary loan – to which library critics object .

People have also accused Glidden of wanting to bring drag queen story hours to the library.

“It isn’t true,” she said. “It’s never even been discussed.

“I spend 50 to 75% of my time dealing with mythological scenarios that don’t actually exist. That’s what I deal with every single day.”

‘Pornographic editions’

The recall effort is in the early signature-gathering stages and is being organized in part by Donna Capurso, a real estate agent who writes occasional articles for the Redoubt News and has run unsuccessfully for the Legislature and school board.

In an interview last week, Capurso said that she is devoted to protecting children, based in part on her experiences as a police officer in Fresno, California, where she saw awful things done to kids.

She said the library board was planning to add materials that would be inappropriate for children, and that it had voted to purchase specific unsuitable titles.

“They are planning to put pornographic editions” into the library, she said.

Capurso could not name a title that the board was planning to add. (A written statement she issued announcing the recall described the board’s actions more accurately as not selecting particular materials but adopting an overall policy.)

She was also concerned that the policy was adopted without community input. Other recall supporters have said they oppose the decision of the Bonners Ferry library to join the American Library Association – alleging that the head of the ALA is a Marxist, according to one report.

Capurso said that she worries that one of Bonners Ferry’s 21 registered sex offenders would have the chance to prey on teenagers who might go to the library and look through the stacks for adult materials.

“I’m a Christian and I’m going to do what I can to protect kids,” she said.

Many of the library critics come from the Redoubt movement, which envisions the Northwest as a political sanctuary for ultraconservative Christians. Recall organizers are meeting at the Lordship Church, which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The church considers itself a “free church” and refused to register as a nonprofit with the government, according to its website.

In an interview with the Idaho Statesman in 2018, the church’s pastor, Warren Campbell, denied that his church is a hate group and said the SPLC is “a proponent of the sodomite agenda.”

But Campbell’s own sermons – according to a review of them published in the Inlander – are more damning than any SPLC designation. Campbell railed against “sodomites” continually, claimed the Holocaust was blown out of proportion, and portrayed white Christian men as the true victims of discrimination in the world.

He praised the Confederacy (calling Robert E. Lee a “great Christian general” and the Civil War “Lincoln’s war against Christianity”) and minimized slavery (saying Black people fought with the South “because they loved their masters.”)

He said true Christians should recognize that the Bible sanctions certain forms of slavery (“It may not be popular now to say that God’s word allows for slavery. But that’s what God’s word says.”)

‘Pervasive anger’

The attack against libraries and the attempt to censor diverse perspectives are part of the overall suite of cultural battles against knowledge and modernity coming from the extreme right, built largely on a foundation of white grievance.

That is the animating force behind the anti-CRT (critical race theory) movement, the widespread effort to label school teachers as “groomers,” the curriculum whitewashing and “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, and various book-banning drives. A lot of this is fueled by national groups spreading a kind of mania across social media, built on conspiratorial threads that often don’t align with local politics.

The complaints about the books that aren’t in the Boundary County Library are good examples. The titles that critics bring up tend to come from the lists compiled by groups from other places, such as Moms for Liberty – which has compiled long lists of books, such as “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “The Kite Runner,” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” among many others, they want stripped from school libraries in other communities.

And yet, there is a definite homegrown threat to free expression and the ability to express diverse viewpoints in Idaho. During the last legislative session, for just one example, the notorious House Bill 666 would have allowed the criminal prosecution of librarians for “disseminating material that is harmful to minors.”

Backers of the bill passed around a “super-secret” folder of objectionable material to generate support among lawmakers – including, of course, “Gender Queer” – but when the Idaho Press went to check the titles in the Boise library system, they found nearly every title shelved in adult sections.

This proposal passed the House, but stalled in committee on the Senate side. But many people fear its return in the next legislative session, as the drive to censor adult materials in the name of protecting children gains steam.

Colson is the newest member of the library board, having taken his place in December.

He is a retired Forest Service employee and longtime Boundary County resident who said he is committed to his community, reads the Constitution regularly, volunteers with Boy Scouts and as a firefighter.

He believes in the values of freedom and equal access to information that are built into the idea of a library – a place that serves the whole community.

Here is how he put it at the board meeting last month: “Our job is not to support one group’s rights over another. Our job is not to support one idea or another. Our job is to support all ideas. We are a public service. Our service is to provide public information.”

The idea that the recall effort paints him and his fellow board members as a threat to children is bizarre.

“There is no way I would, through action or inaction, wish to put kids at risk of any kind of harm,” he said.

Bohachek, the board member who is not being targeted for a recall, said that he’s seen a shift in the demographics of the area in his decade living in the county – “an influx of what I call right-wing refugees, those conservatives feeling more liberal areas in search of a conservative place they can feel safe.”

This has often taken the form of an “angrier, more aggressive form of conservatism” from people who are “still stinging from what they consider an assault on their liberty and freedom by overreaching liberal governments in other areas and feel they need to shore up protections against this in our area.

“Often, it seems, they are willing to do this before taking the time to understand our politics or get to know the people in these positions. Personally, I strive for a balance between all interested parties.”

Glidden took over as library director at the end of 2021. She said that a good part of the community outcry has been directed at her personally – at the sense that she has a hidden agenda. (Capurso noted that Glidden had previously worked at the Sandpoint library, which has some books she disapproves of, as a sign of possible concern.)

The unruly crowds at meetings and the tone of some criticisms have often been intense enough that she worries for her safety. People have screamed in her face as well as made veiled threats, she said.

“There’s a pervasive anger and a willingness to threaten people,” she said.

When the complaints began arising earlier this year, library officials audited the collection for LGBTQ content, given that this was the focus of most of the complaints. According to a story in the Bonners Ferry Herald, the staff found fewer than 20 books with such content, and none with what they would describe as “visually offensive to children.”

And yet the battle doesn’t seem based on a clear understanding of what’s actually in the library. It seems more directed at the very idea of a library.

“I think they are really looking for a way to dismantle the library,” she said. “I don’t think they want us to do anything other than stop being an entity.”

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