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North Idaho election will set future for public library network

Signs remind passersby about the Community Library Network's May 16 trustee election.
Brandon Hollingsworth, SPR News
Signs outside the Post Falls Public Library remind passersby about the Community Library Network's May 16 trustee election.

In North Idaho next month, two seats on the Community Library Network (CLN) Board of Trustees will be up for a vote. Trustees help set library policy, approve the budget and work with the system’s director. But this election will also be a test of whether voters think the board ought to be clearing bookshelves as well.

Tom Hanley and Tim Plass are running for two seats in the May 16 election. They claim CLN, a library system that serves Shoshone County and much of Kootenai County, is putting inappropriate books within reach of children.

Hanley and Plass have the backing of the powerful Kootenai County Republican Central Committee. Both candidates say books they consider objectionable should be moved to a different location or even removed from CLN’s collection entirely.

“For more than two years, the library board has been warned over and over that their staff is offering obscene books to minors,” Plass told the current trustees during a meeting in March. “Your inaction shows you approve it. The time has come to change the board of trustees and clean the filth out of our libraries.”

In the same March 16 meeting, Plass and Hanley announced their bids for the board.

“You’ve been informed repeatedly by the taxpayers that there are hundreds of books containing obscene and sexually-explicit material in the children’s areas of your libraries,” Hanley told trustees.

Both Hanley’s and Plass’ campaign websites link to a group of north Idaho library critics called “Clean Books 4 Kids.” The group compiled a list of books it considers inappropriate – a list that numbers more than 800 titles.

The books are categorized using a code – for instance, RA stands for rape, and V for violence. But the list also bears a clear cultural stamp: its codes include G for gay, GI for gender identity, and AP for anti-police. The list includes a children’s biography of Frederick Douglass, a history of the LGBT rights movement, and nonfiction books that explain puberty.

The incumbent trustees in the race, Judy Meyer and Regina McCrea, say the library network is already a responsible resource for its patrons, and that it’s not the board’s place to censor content.

Since the summer of 2021, a consistent roster of library opponents has shown up to the board’s public meetings. In their comments, they have labeled some books outright pornography, implied that libraries are turning kids gay, and called library staffers “groomers,” a term for predatory adults that’s popular in right-wing politics.

CLN’s interim director, Lindsey Miller-Escarfuller, said those explosive accusations are simply false.

“As a librarian of 20-plus years, it is incredibly sad to me that library staff, who have servants’ hearts and desire for nothing more than to better the community, are personally being labeled as groomers and pedophiles,” Miller-Escarfuller said. “And I know in my heart that’s not what we’re doing here.”

Emily Christopherson homeschools her young children, so they spend a lot of time at the Post Falls Public Library. The drumbeat of criticism and misinformation put forth at the board’s public meetings worried her. So in November, she co-founded Community Library Network Alliance, a group to support the library system. Christopherson said the power to oversee children’s reading is in the hands of parents and guardians, not the board of trustees.

“As a mother of three, I have to say ‘no’ to my children sometimes,” Christopherson said. “But that’s my choice to make. My children are all eight and under, so I don’t let them wander the adult section, and the young adult section. I help choose books.”

Community Library Network Alliance is separate from the library system itself. Its membership grew to 250 people by February, and 500 people in April. Christopherson says the accusations voiced by library critics don’t reflect reality.

“The people who are leading the book-banning movement and insisting there’s pornography in the libraries are totally out of touch with what’s happening in the libraries,” she said.

The board and the library network are trying to find a middle ground, refuting the extreme claims that have been made in public meetings, but implementing steps that will increase parental monitoring and control of what children read. A project underway now will create a tiered library card system, based on age. Certain books will be out-of-bounds for young people, and if they try to check them out, an error message will alert a librarian not to allow the checkout.

In a written response to questions from Spokane Public Radio, Tim Plass said that doesn’t go far enough. For example, children could still read the books without checking them out.

“The policy cannot go into effect for months, until all the books in the library are reclassified according to the new their appropriate age group,” Plass wrote. “And in the meantime, they remain accessible to all children.”

Lindsey Miller-Escarfuller says whatever happens in the May 16 election, the tension between the Community Library Network’s critics and its defenders has got to give.

“I feel like we’re at the top and something is either going to stop, or we might have a more tense meeting next month. I don’t know. It just feels like it can’t keep going like this.”

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.