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Library culture wars trickling down to local Idaho politics

Book challenges and library fights are becoming more prevalent nationwide, and ultimately trickling down to the local level.
Credit: Bryan Myrick/Idaho Press
Meridian Library

MERIDIAN, Idaho — This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press.

Meridian Library District Board of Trustees members watched during their April 20 board meeting as four Meridian residents “served” the board with letters related to potential tort claims.

The issues at hand were enforcing a mask mandate, promoting critical race theory and “disseminating obscene materials,” according to a social media post by someone involved.

These types of book challenges and library fights are becoming more prevalent nationwide, and ultimately trickling down to the local level. Though book-banning is bipartisan nationally, in Idaho, some Republicans are leading the charge against libraries and their books.

During the most recent legislative session, the Idaho House passed a bill, HB 666, that would have criminally charged librarians if a minor were to check out materials deemed “harmful.” During debate on the House floor, representatives passed around a “super secret folder” of the materials they objected to being available in libraries.

“I would rather my 6-year-old grandson start smoking cigarettes tomorrow than get a view of this stuff one time,” Rep. Bruce Skaug said at the time.

The Senate did not hear the bill.

The House also repeatedly rejected the budget of the Idaho Commission for Libraries, with some representatives citing librarians opposition to HB 666 and their desire to punish libraries for having “smut.”

“There are three violations of state codes and statutes and three violations of federal codes,” District 20 state representative candidate Mike Hon told the library board on April 20 as the board members listened silently. “With that, I wish you a good night.”

Hon did not respond to a request for comment from the Idaho Press.

These letters of intent are an “unfortunate diversion of limited resources,” Meridian Library District Board of Trustees Chair Megan Larsen said. Larsen said she can’t comment on the specifics of the letters because of pending litigation, but they appeared to be copy and pasted from an internet source.

“It’s not really tailored to Meridian library specifically and it’s not a substantive claim,” Larsen said.

Credit: Bryan Myrick/Idaho Press
Meridian Library

Gloria Urwin, a candidate for District 20 state representative who was among those with potential claims, said serving letters of intent was popularized by Bonds for the Win — a recently formed group that focuses on filing claims against public officials to counter certain policies or causes, such as COVID testing and critical race theory, according to its website. These claims have all been illegitimate, NBC News reported in February, according to election officials, insurance companies and the FBI.

Bonds for the Win did not respond to a request for comment.

On a video of the meeting posted to social media, Urwin commented “watching their faces as we served them the LOI’s was priceless!”.

“If the Senate won’t do its job, then We the People have to step up,” District 21 state Senate candidate Thad Butterworth commented on social media. “We need an entirely new group of senators in this upcoming session so that good bills actually get heard.”

Though Larsen is not sure why this is happening, she said, she was a little taken aback because her experience with libraries has been so positive. The Meridian Library issued over 3,800 new library cards in Fiscal Year 2021, she said, and each year has loaned over 1 million items.

“I think we have a small group of individuals that just have some really strong feelings on certain topics and they’re trying to impose those opinions on the community at large,” Larsen said.

How culture wars came for libraries

Almost all of the challenged books listed by the American Library Association are cited for LGBTQ or racial themes, according to the Associated Press.

Urwin, one of the District 20 candidates, said critical race theory is one of the reasons why libraries have become a culture war issue.

“We’ve got too many liberals trying to run the show and infiltrating Idaho,” Urwin said in an interview with the Idaho Press. “They’ve allowed CRT to come into the system.”

But the bigger picture is that people are looking to see their perspective manifested across society. Take for example, the recent fight over Disney’s tight-lipped political neutrality or various companies taking political stands.

“People on both sides of the aisle have this view that there’s no such thing as neutrality,” said Jeff Lyons, associate professor in the Boise State University School of Public Service. “There’s always this assumption that every entity is likely pushing some kind of an agenda.”

In a polarized world, many individuals have also taken on partisanship and politics as part of their identity, Lyons said. For them, their ideology and political party is a part of who they are and is a lens with which they look at everything.

Plus, there’s been a lot of focus on public entities recently, including public schools and now public libraries.

“Some folks are evidently not just going to the library, they’re going to the library with their political perspectives in tow,” Lyons said. “They’re kind of looking for the library to be doing the same thing.”

These factors have resulted in the increase in book challenges.

Credit: Brian Myrick / Idaho Press
A wide selection of books fill the Meridian Library on Thursday.

The American Library Association recorded 729 challenges to library, school and university materials and services in 2021 which affected nearly 1,600 books.

“Books unite us. They reach across boundaries and build connections between readers,” the American Library Association wrote in a censorship report. “Censorship, on the other hand, divides us and creates barriers.”

Around 44% of book challenges take place in school libraries, and 37% in public libraries, according to the American Library Association. Most challenges (39%) are initiated by parents, followed by patrons at 24%. Elected officials make up only 2% of those initiating challenges.

But some of those serving the Meridian library trustees are hoping to become elected officials.

Several far-right candidates have said they are running for state Senate in order to make sure certain bills get heard. Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder said in March that HB 666, a bill that would have criminalized librarians if a minor checks out objectionable content, would not get a hearing.

The future ahead

There is debate among librarians about whether neutrality and objectivity is possible, said Ben Hunter, dean of university libraries at the University of Idaho.

The idea is to present all viewpoints fairly, Hunter said, but it’s hard to present all voices if not all voices are being published. Still, Hunter said it’s not like there aren’t plenty of stories in libraries about Americans of European descent or people who are middle class.

However, there are some viewpoints that don’t need to be presented, Hunter said, like the idea that murder is OK. A library would not put out tons of resources on how to get away with murder.

“There are things that are beyond the pale of a civilized society and drawing those lines is sometimes complicated,” Hunter said. “The more polarized our society is, the more complex that can be.”

With all these library fights, Hunter said he is concerned about government overreach and losing an important cultural institution just because people are thinking about their campaigns.

“The ultimate risk here is that in order to score some cheap political points and pursue a wedge issue, try and get some short-term gain in the vote tally, that they could really kind of destroy a beloved cultural institution through government overreach,” Hunter said.

It may be hard to change the mind of people who are determined to be riled up, Hunter said, but he does have some advice.

“People who want to get really upset over what’s going on in their libraries, really need to visit their libraries,” Hunter said.

This article originally appeared in the 
Idaho Press. Read more at IdahoPress.com 

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