Connecting state and local government leaders
In Boundary County, Idaho a local librarian decided to resign citing a “political atmosphere of extremism.” The situation there mirrors a trend affecting libraries around the country.
A small town library board meeting isn’t the kind of local government convening where most Americans would expect to come across violent threats, prayer vigils or the blare of a ritual musical horn.
But this is all part of what Kimber Glidden encountered as administrator of the Boundary County Library in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. Glidden, who took the job in December, announced her resignation last week. She chose to step down after several months of tension with community members who are concerned about books featuring LGBTQ storylines, descriptions of sex and violence, and other topics they consider objectionable, finding a place on the library’s shelves.
“My experience and skill set made me a good fit to help the district move toward a more current and relevant business model and to implement updated policy and best practices,” Glidden said in a statement tendering her resignation. “However 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.”
In a somewhat odd twist, the library never held the book that ignited the controversy. The same goes for dozens of other titles that conservative activists are opposed to public libraries carrying. Boundary County Library did not own them, according to Glidden.
“If it was really about banning books, we’d have to have the books,” she told Route Fifty in an interview this week.
Even so, activists have pushed to restrict access at the library to works they see as inappropriate and a group has formed that is calling for elected members of the county’s five-person library board to be recalled.
The episode in Bonners Ferry reflects a rising trend where local government officials, both elected and unelected, are facing extreme scrutiny over routine matters, as well as intimidation, threats and harassment in the course of their day-to-day work. And Boundary County is not alone in having its library dragged into a dispute over the books in its inventory.
“We're seeing a growing number of libraries confront this issue,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s office for intellectual freedom.
During the past year or so, a number of advocacy groups are advancing a narrative that books dealing with topics like gender identity, sexual orientation, puberty, and sex education and pregnancy are “inherently unsuitable for minors,” Caldwell-Stone added.
In Louisiana, a conservative library board tried to fire a librarian who included an LGBTQ book in a display. In Texas, pressure from parents and political leaders has pushed some librarians to pull certain titles from school library shelves.
The American Library Association collects reports and data about challenged books. In the summer of 2021, attempts to remove or restrict materials began to increase, Caldwell-Stone said. The association also started to see groups like the Proud Boys—a far-right group known for engaging in political violence—attend library board meetings.
Book Blowback in Boundary County
Boundary County is located in a largely rural area at the northern tip of Idaho’s panhandle and is home to about 12,500 residents. The recent controversy surrounding the library there all started with one local parent and one book, according to Glidden. In February, the parent approached her asking if the library had “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe.
The library did not have that title, but the parent was concerned that it could potentially acquire the book in the future.
That patron returned several times to have similar conversations, Glidden said. Soon, a second parent came in, with a longer list of books they were worried about. Then a third came to voice concerns.
Over the next several months, the debate about the library’s materials escalated as the board conducted a routine policy audit. That included updating outdated guidelines for developing and maintaining the library's collection to ensure the policies were comprehensive, used proper language, and aligned with state laws, Glidden said.
But around town, conservative activists troubled by the library began leaving cards on car windshields, reading “Our mission is to protect children from explicit materials and grooming.”
Then, in June, more than 130 people turned out for a library board meeting, Glidden said. A year or two ago, having five or six members of the public at one of the meetings would have been a big turnout, she said, but the number of attendees had been growing since February.
Local church groups organized a prayer vigil outside the library that people needed to cut through to get to the meeting. After the meeting ended, attendees exited to the sound of hymns and a shofar, a Jewish musical horn used for religious purposes.
During that meeting, one board member brought up a policy that prevents the library from restricting access to books by labeling them in specific ways, or placing them on closed shelves. That member noted that some in the community favored the idea of limiting access to certain materials and suggested reworking the policy in question with public input.
But, based on a recording of the meeting, three of the four participating board members voted to keep the policy as it was.
During public comments after the vote, attendees shared their thoughts about the policy. One person focused on three graphic novels that include depictions of sex, and said that if the library were to ever acquire those books, she did not want her children to accidentally come across the illustrations.
Another said he believed that if the library had materials with explicit content, minors would likely be exposed to it regardless of what safeguards were in place. “We are here to put the library board and staff on notice that we vehemently oppose and will fight to keep inappropriate materials out of the hands of minors,” the commenter said.
A group of residents has called for all but one board member—the one who argued for reconsidering the policy on restricting book access—to be recalled, Glidden said. That group did not respond to a request for comment. But written remarks posted on its website, and credited to one parent, emphasized not wanting to ban books deemed inappropriate, but rather finding options to “brainstorm on how we can keep these books out of young children’s hands.”
Ahead of a July board meeting, the library's attorney received an email from a man who claimed to have evidence of "a person plotting some sort of violent action” at the meeting, Glidden said. The threat was enough for local police to advise calling off the meeting, which the board did.
Meanwhile, conservative groups in the state have circulated a list of 400 titles they wanted removed from libraries, Glidden said. Most of those books featured LGBTQ characters and storylines, and others focused on the Black Lives Matter movement or critical race theory.
Since resigning last week, Glidden said she’s seen an outpouring of support for the library, and the greater community seems more engaged in local issues than before. But she also said she is considering leaving Idaho as far-right conservatives gain more power in the state.
‘A Real Chilling Effect’
In other states, elected officials are using their authority to restrict certain library materials. Caldwell-Stone pointed to Missouri, which recently implemented a law banning sexual imagery from materials in K-12 schools, with certain exceptions for artistic or scientific works.
In a statement published earlier this month, the Missouri Association of School Librarians offered guidance and support for librarians navigating the new legislation. “We understand the immense impact of facing a challenge and will support our librarians to preserve intellectual freedom,” the statement said.
Directives in other states, like Texas and Tennessee, have also been broadly restrictive, according to Caldwell-Stone.
Elected officials mobilizing to restrict what libraries can offer—rather than relying on the professional expertise of educators and librarians—is “deeply disturbing,” Caldwell-Stone said.
“There's been a real chilling effect,” she said, noting that teachers and librarians in some places are growing more wary of offering “any information at all to students.”
For younger library patrons, that can be detrimental, Caldwell-Stone added. “[It’s] harming their ability to acquire the critical thinking skills and the empathy that they need to become successful at college, or starting a career in the military or in the world of work.”
Molly Bolan is an assistant editor for Route Fifty.