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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Boundary Library policy seeks compromise in book banning debate

Pat McCalmant, left, and Brianna Wheeler browse through the stacks at the Boundary County Library in 2002.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

BONNERS FERRY – Nine months after its director resigned over threats, a North Idaho library appears to have reached a compromise with the community.

Boundary County Library’s revised materials and collections policy, which formalizes a process for concerned community members to challenge books, comes into play ahead of an election May 16 for two seats on the board.

When former library director Kimber Glidden resigned last September, it brought national media attention to Bonners Ferry, a small town near the Canadian border.

“Nothing in my background could have prepared me for the political atmosphere of extremism, militant Christian fundamentalism, intimidation tactics, and threatening behavior currently being employed in the community,” Glidden wrote in her public resignation letter.

The episode is an example of recent widespread efforts by conservative groups to ban books across the country.

In Liberty Lake, the city council has attempted to take control of the library board, and the debate is at the center of the Community Library Network elections in Kootenai County. Another librarian in Coeur d’Alene quit over intimidation last year.

Last month, the Boundary County Library board named Lynn Silva the new library director. A longtime employee, she had been serving as interim director since Glidden left.

Glidden had been in the role for less than a year. Part of her new job was to update the library’s policy, which had not been revised since the early 1980s.

Language in the new policy alarmed some citizens.

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

The board approved the policy before sharing a draft with the public. The move triggered a recall effort against four of the five trustees, which eventually petered out, never making it to the ballot.

Trustee Lee Colson said he did not understand at the time that the board could have shared the policy with the community as a draft beforehand.

“That was a mistake on my part,” he said.

Colson soon came to chair a committee tasked with revising the policy again with community input.

His goal was to revise the policy so that the process to reconsider a challenged book did not involve the director.

It was hard to recruit volunteers to join the committee in the hostile environment, Colson said.

The committee included two board members and four community members. The committee began meeting in November and submitted the policy back to the board in February.

The new policy removes an entire section titled “Freedom to Read, View and Listen” that emphasized an anti-censorship stance. The new policy is more neutral, but still endorses the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which champions First Amendment rights.

Both policies agree “materials which come within the Supreme Court of the United States’ definition of obscenity should be excluded,” but the old policy added: “no (adult) item should be eliminated because of coarse language, violence, or frank discussion of sexual episodes, when such are pertinent to the plot or character delineation.”

The Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity, also known as the Miller Test, is: “The average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest; the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law; and the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

The new policy moves authority from the director to the board in overseeing the reconsideration process and outlines the steps more clearly.

If a cardholder would like to challenge a book in the collection, they must submit a form to the library.

The board will consider no more than three per meeting and cardholders can submit no more than five forms a year.

The library has received four reconsideration forms.

The first three are for books by the same author, Ellen Hopkins: “Crank,” “Impulse” and “Perfect.”

The young adult books deal with themes of drug addiction, sexuality, sexual orientation and suicide among teenagers.

Common Sense Media, a moderate online media guide for parents, rates the books as appropriate for ages 15 or 16 and up.

The young adult section of Boundary County Library is for ages 13 to 18.

A recent report by PEN America found that Hopkins was the most banned author in school libraries during the 2021-22 school year. The American Library Association frequently lists her books as among the most banned and challenged in both school and public libraries.

A special meeting has been scheduled for May 18 at which the board will consider whether to remove the three books. They are currently checked out, as each of the board members tries to read at least one of them entirely.

The board has three options: leave the book where it is, recatalog the book to another section of the library such as the adult section or remove the book from the library.

Colson said he is looking to judge whether a reasonable person would consider the book to have value and that the themes are relevant to the community.

“To me, the library is to represent our community,” he said. “The conflicts, interests or concerns that the community has.”

Adrienne Norris, an activist who runs a website and social media presence called Boundary County Watchmen, submitted a fourth reconsideration form for the 2012 young adult book “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” by Jesse Andrews.

Norris read aloud lines from the book during public comment at a recent board meeting.

“My son is the only minor in here and I ask the Lord for forgiveness,” she said before starting. Her son is 17.

The passage depicted two teenage boys joking about cunnilingus in vulgar, but not explicit, terms. The quotes do not depict or describe how to have oral sex, but in less than a page of dialogue the boys repeat a slang term for female genitalia eight times.

Norris said these books should not be in a section of the library for children.

“All I’m asking is to protect our children,” she said. “I don’t care if adults want sexually explicit materials.”

A 2015 film adaptation of the book was rated PG-13.

Common Sense Media recommends the book for ages 14 and up.

In an interview, Norris insisted her concerns are about protecting children from pornography. She said there is a mischaracterization by some media that concerned parents like her are against LGBTQ themes.

Colson, who was appointed in late 2021 after another board member died, is running to keep his seat. The remainder of the term representing the southern part of the county is two years.

He said he is running because the library is important to the community.

“This is a time of contention,” he said, “so people need to help the library out and that’s what I intend to do.”

Running against him is Mary-Esther Williams, who also sat on the policy committee.

She said she is happy with the new policy.

Williams makes a distinction between obscenity and child pornography. She takes a firm stand against anything that would count as child pornography, which is illegal under Idaho law.

She also said the library should hold materials in line with local community standards. Those standards might be different from Las Vegas or even Sandpoint, she said.

“I think the community members should decide what is obscene,” Williams said.

“If community members say it is obscene, then we should probably listen.”

The other seat up for election is for a full six-year term. Lewis Clark, a retired police officer from California, is challenging incumbent Aaron Bohachek.

“I feel the need to run for a position on the library board stems in part from my law enforcement career and especially my time investigating child abuse cases,” Clark said in a campaign statement. “I know God charges us and it is our duty to protect our children and frankly, any material that would be illegal under state or federal law should not be knowingly disseminated to a minor by a public library.”

The Watchmen and other conservative groups endorsed Williams and Clark against the incumbents.

The temperature of the rhetoric cooled down as the committee developed the new policy, Colson said, but it is heating up again because of the upcoming election.

Colson said he never felt threatened but he could understand how someone might be concerned, given the way some people in society are acting out these days and that violence is a possible outcome.

“I assumed they were just angry,” he said. “I didn’t expect them to follow through with any of their threats because they seemed ridiculous.”

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.