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News / Northwest

Forget banning books — a rural WA county may close its library

After a fight over LGBTQ+ young-adult titles, a November ballot measure will decide the fate of the only library in Columbia County.

By Meg Butterworth, Crosscut
Published: August 21, 2023, 6:02am
3 Photos
A selection of books that deal with LGBTQ+ issues is seen here at the Southwest Branch of the Seattle Public Library. Calls to ban books at public libraries have been increasing nationwide, including in Washington where the number of titles challenged state has skyrocketed from 10 in 2017 to 42 in 2021, according to the ALA.
A selection of books that deal with LGBTQ+ issues is seen here at the Southwest Branch of the Seattle Public Library. Calls to ban books at public libraries have been increasing nationwide, including in Washington where the number of titles challenged state has skyrocketed from 10 in 2017 to 42 in 2021, according to the ALA. (Genna Martin/Crosscut) Photo Gallery

As libraries throughout the country face increasing calls to ban young adult books that cover race and LGBTQ+ issues, one in a rural district east of Walla Walla faces a challenge to its very existence. The Columbia County Rural Library District could be dissolved by voters after a community member filed a petition to close the library amid a censorship fight over LGBTQ+ books aimed at teens.

The Columbia County Rural Library District serves approximately 4,000 people and has a collection of 34,500 books as well as a selection of videos and other media materials. Its one building, the Dayton Memorial Library in Dayton, welcomes on average 40 to 50 people daily – up to 70 if there’s a special event. An active community group, Friends of the Dayton Memorial Library, organizes volunteers and raises money for programs not covered by the budget. The library also hosts evenings of crafting and art for adults and kids, job-search classes and substance-abuse meetings; borrows books from other libraries for patrons; and checks out Apple iPads and Samsung Galaxys to community members to help patrons access the internet.

“There are no bookstores, no books in stores other than the All Saints Thrift Store,” Lorna Barth, president of Friends of the Dayton Memorial Library, told Crosscut in an email. “For many people in this county the library has the ONLY WiFi, computers for Internet access … and it is the ONLY place for young people to have any access at all to any books they could have free access to choose and check out and take home or read right there with the dignity of privacy and choice and peace and safety.”

In July, a petition to dissolve the library district was submitted by a county resident upset that minors had access to books that she and others believe have sexual content. The petition collected 163 signatures, well over the minimum requirement of 107, to get on the November ballot. The threat of closure to this small Washington public library is an example of what can happen as libraries become politicized.
The number of book challenges nationwide is growing. According to the American Library Association (ALA), people made 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022 alone. That number is nearly double the 729 book-banning attempts the ALA reported for 2021. Public school libraries are experiencing the same frequency of book bans: PEN America reported that from July to December 2022 saw 1,477 instances of individual books banned in school libraries, affecting 874 unique titles. From January to June there were 1,149 recorded book bans.

Washington is not exempt. Challenges to books have occurred over the past two years in the Walla Walla, Kent and Mukilteo school districts. And The Seattle Public Library has seen an increase in concern from a wide array of political perspectives. In the past few years, according to the ALA, the number of titles challenged in Washington quadrupled from 10 in 2017 to 42 in 2021.

Book banners are also taking their demands to local elected officials and state legislatures, asking them to create lists of books to remove from library shelves.

“These are people who know nothing about collections, the mission of libraries, or who the users are,” said Helene Williams, teaching faculty in the University of Washington’s master’s program in library and information science (MLIS).

“They have a playbook,” said Williams. “They have been strategically planning. Which is our fault for not seeing that. They’ve taken over school boards and public library boards. Voting out librarians. Voting out anything they don’t agree with whether it’s fact-based or not.”

Williams also said that today’s book-ban attempts sometimes include threatening behavior. Library school alumni have told her about being physically threatened on their jobs or being called predators and groomers.

Books Unbanned

In April, the Seattle Public Library joined Books Unbanned, an initiative started by the Brooklyn Public Library in New York in response to the nationwide rise in book-banning attempts. The program invites anyone living in the U.S. aged 13-26 to get a library card to check out SPL’s ebooks and audiobooks. Privacy is protected and records are kept confidential. The program is funded through the Seattle Public Library Foundation, which has committed up to $100,000 to cover its full cost. Additionally, nearly $71,000 has been raised through the foundation in private donations.

Seattle library data show that in the two months since its nationwide circulation program launched, 3,642 people have signed up, from every state in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. California is the state with the most sign-ups, alongside 165 participants from Washington.

Reasons for joining Seattle’s program, they report, include gaining access to books that might not be available at their local public or school library due to bans or underfunding; having difficulty getting to their local library because of limited mobility or physical disability; or feeling uncomfortable checking out books on LGBTQ+ topics from their small-town library. Others simply live outside a city or library district zone and are ineligible for a library card.

Along with the multitude of needs, “It really brings into light the individual impacts of these book bans,” said SPL’s Andrew Harbison, director of library programs and services. “We’re very fortunate to have as much [support] as we do in Seattle; there are a lot of places that don’t and that’s another reason why efforts to expand access and share resources is all the more important.”

Challenges in Columbia County

This latest chapter for Columbia County Rural Library District started during Pride Month 2022, when several new books about LGBTQ+ topics were on display in different sections of the library. Someone took pictures of the displays, altered the photos to make it appear that all the books were located in the children’s section of the library and posted the false image on a Dayton community Facebook page. One of the books was Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, a graphic novel that contains sexually explicit images but was shelved in the adult section.

At an Aug. 15, 2022, library board meeting, two library patrons spoke during the public comment section of the meeting and voiced concerns over approximately six books, all dealing with race or LGBTQ+ topics. Todd Vandenbark, at the time the library district director, took notes from the meeting that show that one comment made about the book Our Skin by Megan Madison was that it would make the individual’s daughter “feel bad about being white.”

Vandenbark, who had been on the job for two years, invited the patrons to complete a “Request for Reconsideration of Materials” form that he would review according to the library district’s policies.

It was not until after that meeting that Vandenbark became aware of the Facebook post with the doctored image. By then comments had been posted containing inflammatory and threatening language calling Vandenbark, his staff and the library board pedophiles and groomers. One post said they should be “in prison, or pushing daisies up from the roots.” Vandenbark reported the comments to Facebook, which has since removed them.

Approximately 90 people attended the September 2022 library board meeting. A typical board meeting might see a few patrons, but Vandenbark recalls “a lot of upset and angry people who hadn’t read the books for themselves.”

About one-third of the audience showed up in support of the library. Vandenbark again explained the reconsideration procedure and handed out “at least a dozen forms.” Many of them came back to him with incomplete information. Rather than listing specific titles, people simply wrote that they wanted the library to remove certain books that the local paper, the Dayton Chronicle, had reported on, but did not provide any other reason for their removal. Some patrons also asked for books to be relocated from the young adult section to the adult section.

During this time, three people came to Vandenbark’s office to talk about the books, but these meetings were not fruitful. “It was clear that no dialogue was going to take place,” he said. They just wanted to convince him. “One guy came in and we talked for a long time, and he always fell back on ‘It’s my belief.’”

Vandenbark responded to each reconsideration request and asked people to complete a new form and be specific about the titles and reasons for reconsideration. By the December board meeting, Vandenbark’s notes show that these requests had been reviewed and it was decided that all books would remain in the library’s collection.

In January 2023, a patron submitted an appeal to the board to remove the book What’s the T? by Juno Dawson, a book for teenagers about transgender and nonbinary issues. Before considering the appeal at the February board meeting, they heard a presentation by Dr. Tamara Meredith, director of the nearby Jefferson County Library District, on intellectual freedom and censorship.

Board members asked those present to raise their hands if they had read What’s the T? According to Vandenbark, almost no one did. After a public comment period at which only two board members spoke, a vote was taken. Four of the five board members voted to deny the appeal and maintain the original decision to keep What’s the T? on the shelves. The lone dissent came from board member Chuck Beleny, who joined the board in 2022.

Board members are appointed by the county’s three commissioners and are not required to have any credentials in library and information science.

Beleny didn’t respond to Crosscut’s request for an interview about his vote, but Beleny has in the past given money to the political group Columbia County Conservatives, founded in 2021 by former county commissioner Chuck Amerein. According to its website, the group supports candidates for office who espouse conservative principles, including similar themes in the battles over books: “Rejecting the claims that the United States is racist or xenophobic rejection of critical race theory” and “Support for freedom of speech and a rejection of cancel culture.”

After the library board denied the appeal, Dayton resident Jessica Ruffcorn created a petition to dissolve the library district. According to the Dayton Chronicle, Ruffcorn took issue with the placement of books she regards as sexually explicit in the children’s section of the library. She also asked the library board to review its collection and reconsideration policies, staffing and budget. The petition needed a minimum of 107 valid signatures, representing 10% of registered voters in unincorporated areas of the county. Her first attempt fell short by six, but her second attempt gathered 163 valid signatures.

After Ruffcorn’s second petition was verified by the county auditor, she told the Dayton Chronicle, “This is a strong statement, and between the sexually explicit books and the extremely large budget we know that it’s time to reevaluate the priorities and needs of Dayton.”

Ruffcorn did not respond to Crosscut’s request for an interview.

Vandenbark resigned from the library district in July, largely due to the stress from this experience. He has moved on to a larger public library system.

Asked what helped him navigate things over the past year, he said the Washington State Librarian’s office was “enormously helpful.” Washington State Librarian Sara Jones attended the February Columbia County library board meeting and spoke in support of the library. Vandenbark also found valuable support and resources in the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom, as well as moral support and help from other library directors from around the state.

Vandenbark said other librarians going through similar challenges should find every source of support, “especially community members who will say things that you as a director can’t … I had some people like that. Make sure the board is well-educated, understands intellectual freedom and the First Amendment.”

Williams of the UW’s library school acknowledges that being a librarian is hard work. “It’s labor-intensive, it’s emotionally exhausting, especially now.”

“All librarians recognize each other as fellow warriors,” said Williams’ colleague Cindy Aden, chair of UW’s MLIS program. The program has always covered how to respond to book challenges; however, in recent years students have expressed greater interest in being better-prepared. Many of the library school’s changes since 2016 were made to help future librarians address those issues, Williams said.

“There are lots of different things we try to teach our students about building a resilient, responsive, inclusive institution that is part of the community,” Aden said. The UW offers a library school class on community engagement. Another class on developing a library collection not only covers selecting books and budgeting, but also responding to intellectual-freedom challenges.

“Knowing your community, listening to your community … all of those tactics help … so you have something to work with when people start to get upset. And you have a sense of support that people recognize what the library is doing for them. People understand the mission and purpose of their library,” Aden said.

Intellectual freedom is addressed in almost every class in the program. Aden and Williams emphasized that librarians follow a code of ethics established by the ALA. One key principle for librarians is to “uphold intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.”

Jones, the state librarian, echoes this sentiment: “For me it really is access to a variety of information that’s not chosen for partisan or doctrinal reasons. We’re trying to make sure there’s a large amount of information available for people to make their own choices. The public library in the U.S. is a big part of our democracy.”

Despite the added pressures librarians have faced in recent years, the UW library science program has not experienced an enrollment decline. Instead, it saw an upswing in enrollment in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, especially among younger applicants right out of college as opposed to applicants in their 30s and 40s with prior library work experience.

“We brought in so many new students it caused us to go on teaching overload for the next couple of years,” Williams said. She and Aden think that people understood that libraries can address the issues of racism, inequities, accessibility and humanity. Enrollment has since remained steady.

What’s next

The measure to dissolve the rural library district will be in front of Columbia County voters on their Nov. 7 ballots. It’s a county that has tended to vote conservative. In 2020, voters here heavily favored Republicans President Donald Trump and gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp, and rejected the sexual health education in schools measure that was on the ballot that year.

If voters approve the ballot measure, borrowing a hardback or paperback could become trickier for Columbia County residents, although some in the young adult age group might sign up for Seattle’s Books Unbanned program to get free ebooks and audiobooks, which the library district has already been promoting. The building would return to the city’s control. The library’s special events, public programming and other services would likely disappear, unless a different entity takes over those programs.

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Lorna Barth, president of the Friends of the Dayton Memorial Library, said the group is part of a growing number of community members urging people to vote no on the measure. She said they are reminding people of the services that it provides, including offering space for classes and group meetings and allowing readers of all ages to borrow books on numerous subjects without judgment.

It is “the ONE place that is welcoming to everyone in the community,” Barth said. “It is the only common meeting place that is not a church or a business or a school, and all of those have multiple layers of social barriers.”

If the Dayton Memorial Library closed, Columbia County would be a library desert. Library patrons who want to borrow a book would have to go to the Weller Public Library in Waitsburg, a small library 10 miles away with reduced hours, or to the library in Walla Walla, 31 miles away. Both city libraries currently require residents from Columbia County to pay for a library card.

In the meantime, the Columbia County Rural Library District board selected Ellen Brigham as the interim library director. She said there is no need to review the district’s policies: “Our collection development policy is robust and modern.”

However, Brigham has decided to make changes to the collection. Sexual education books have been moved to their own section, housed within the parenting collection. Additionally, the entire young adult nonfiction section – including What’s the T? – will be separated from the young adult section and moved to the adult nonfiction section.

Brigham does not feel that either of these adjustments compromise the district’s commitment to intellectual freedom. Brigham said the young adult nonfiction section was small and contained books like college prep materials that older patrons wanted to access. She said people have been very pleased that the library is responding to community concerns.

Crosscut is a service of Cascade Public Media, a nonprofit, public media organization. Visit crosscut.com/donate to support nonprofit, freely distributed, local journalism.
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