The interim leader of Flathead County’s ImagineIF public library system resigned on Thursday, citing interference by a board of trustees that has devalued the institution by slashing salaries while entertaining motions to censor certain books and materials, particularly those that portray characters who are gay, queer or transgender.
After serving in the director position for just four months, yet dedicating 15 years to ImagineIF, Martha Furman resigned as the interim head of the library system, effective Dec. 10. Her departure marks the second time in six months that a director has resigned from the top post.
“I’m looking for new opportunities in a less stressful environment,” Furman told the Beacon following the four-hour-long board of trustees meeting on Dec. 2, when she made her resignation public before a above-capacity crowd in the library’s basement meeting room. “It’s been difficult because this board has really been trying to get its hands on the materials and the staff.”
In the wake of Furman’s resignation, the board discussed what steps could be taken to replace the vacant post. Over the summer, the board suspended the library’s succession plan to replace outgoing personnel. That plan would have placed senior librarian Sean Anderson as next in the chain of command.
Anderson, however, remains reluctant to assume the leadership role.
“I am supremely proud of the staff here, I would be very proud to help lead them,” Anderson said. “My concern, and it is a significant concern, is in the last six months I’ve seen the actions of this board drive out two directors from this position.
“And they’ve been driven out not because of the job being difficult or difficult positions faced from the public, but self-inflicted chaos that’s come from this board.”
“I would not feel comfortable stepping into an interim position unless there’s some assurance that the devaluing of our profession comes to an end, that the internal chaos and overstepping of boundaries between library board and staff comes to an end,” Anderson continued. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable stepping into that role and I don’t think anyone else would… because we are still overwhelmed and in crisis until the bleeding stops at the management level.”
When pressed for another interim candidate, Columbia Falls branch manager Tony Edmundson also refused to assume the position.
The board determined that the position will remain vacant. In an effort to aid staff already operating in “skeleton mode,” the trustees approved a motion to not unduly burden library staff with tasks normally carried out by the director.
Trustee Dave Ingram asked for further clarification about how the board was overstepping its authority, to which Furman and Anderson cited the board’s involvement with the hiring process of personnel, specifically the youth services librarian, was troubling to staff. The board’s bylaws only give trustees hiring authority over the director position.
With Furman’s resignation, the ImagineIf Library system has only three professional library staff with master’s degrees in library science or an equivalent field — the fewest advanced degrees of Montana’s six largest libraries.
Despite the persistent staffing shortage, Furman told the board that “as long as there are enough staff to keep the doors open, operations will largely not be impacted because I spend nearly all of my time in crisis mode, dealing with board requests and board infrastructure issues. I spent most of my time managing the board of trustees.”
Another major point of discussion during the board meeting centered on the materials collection at the library.
While not on the agenda, much of the half-hour public comment period concerned the challenges of two books in the library’s collection — “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison. The two books have been at the center of discussions regarding book challenges and bans in libraries around the country.
Carmen Cuthbertson, who submitted one of the original challenges for “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel with a transgender protagonist, brought several visual aids of enlarged pages from the book.
“‘Gender Queer’ portrays behaviors as commonplace, harmless or even positive, that I find legally, medically and psychologically questionable,” Cuthbertson said, listing examples including gay pornography, sexting, testosterone therapy and top surgery. Cuthbertson, who told the Beacon she learned about the book after someone shared a video depicting its content, acknowledged the book would not have come to her attention if she hadn’t seen the video.
“I’m in favor of removing this book from the library not because it is a book about a gender queer person, but because it is a poorly written childishly illustrated jumble of nightmarish recollections that blithely dispenses medically questionable advice to a vulnerable teen audience,” she said in her public comment. “As a side note, removing a book from a library collection is not book banning. A book is not banned if you are free to buy it on Amazon.”
Library staff noted during public comment that the book is part of the adult collection and is aimed at readers in grades nine and older.
Roughly a dozen members of the public spoke at the meeting, almost all regarding the library’s collection and specifically the two books in question. A majority were in favor of keeping the books in the collection.
The board will make its decision about the challenged books at a future meeting after library staff have conducted a review of the materials and submitted a recommendation to the board.
Another agenda item discussing “collection development” prompted a heated exchange between board members and library staff. Trustees Ingram and Doug Adams requested more insight as to how the library chooses its materials, adding that since the board makes the policy, it should be more informed about the process.
“My understanding was that a lot of materials that we purchase are pre-ordered, without local input to a great degree,” Ingram said, adding that he felt “resistance” to being allowed to observe the decision-making process.
Furman laid out that it was improper to allow a board member into a workroom, stating that the board, which is appointed by the Flathead County Commission, needs to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
“The library has a responsibility to protect the people from government interference,” Furman said. “Allowing a board member, appointed by an elected official, into a workroom could have a chilling effect on what’s purchased.”
Adams said the board is currently behind on updating its policies, including those governing the materials collection and book challenges, which he called “particularly egregious.”
“If you look at what we say we stand for as a library, we generally base that on the American Library Association (ALA) and what their tenets are,” Adams continued, referring to the nonprofit organization that promotes libraries and library education. “I find them to be hindering and I don’t find them to be genuine. The fact of the matter is, change is hard, but political winds blow and they blow in different directions.”
Earlier this week, the ALA released a statement condemning “acts of censorship and intimidation,” noting that it has documented 155 separate incidents of efforts to remove or ban books that focus on LGBTQ+ issues and books by Black authors.
Adams said he did not want the board to operate as “sheep” following the ALA’s example, which he said promotes “intellectual freedom” as a means of “getting everybody to toe their line.”
“Their line is a radical leftist agenda,” he stated, drawing audible gasps and groans from meeting attendees. “As a library trustee, I do not agree with their agenda and I will not be held to that agenda. It would be my goal to disassociate from them completely and rewrite policy accordingly.”
The ALA has its own Bill of Rights, which states that materials should not be “excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation,” or “proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”
“Regardless of any board members’ opinion of the American Library Association, the board is responsible for upholding people’s rights and not violating the law,” Furman responded to Adams. “ALA aside, you still have the First Amendment to answer to. I recommend you not set this library up in a way that violates the First Amendment because it would present a legal challenge and extreme liability issue for you.”
Adams continued in his line of reasoning, at one point making a formal motion to stop selecting and adding material to the library until a new director is hired and the collection policies are changed, which Furman said amounted to an impediment to the free flow of information. Such a motion would have stopped any addition to the collection including replacing old or damaged books and acquiring newly published books.
He eventually rescinded the motion.