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Montana State Library withdraws from national association

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Commission votes to pull Montana’s membership in the American Library Association, citing president’s Marxist beliefs and sparking concern among local librarians.

By Alex Sakariassen MONTANA FREE PRESS

A seven-member commission voted Tuesday to immediately withdraw the Montana State Library from membership in the American Library Association, a national nonprofit founded in 1876 that advocates for and provides services to tens of thousands of libraries across the country.

The Montana State Library Commission’s decision came in response to a 2022 tweet posted by current ALA President Emily Drabinski describing herself as a “Marxist Lesbian,” which quickly drew the attention of conservative media outlets nationwide. In his motion to “immediately withdraw” the state library from the association, commissioner Tom Burnett directed that a letter be sent to the ALA explaining that “our oath of office and resulting duty to the Constitution forbids association with an organization led by a Marxist.”

Burnett was joined by five other members of the commission in supporting the motion, among them state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen. Newly seated commissioner Brian Rossmann, who works as an associate professor at the Montana State University Library, cast the sole opposing vote. Commission Chair Peggy Taylor abstained.

As demonstrated by nearly an hour of public comment before Tuesday’s vote, the Montana State Library’s separation from the ALA is the latest development in a broader debate about the nature of books available in public schools and libraries. Several prominent members of the self-styled parental rights movement spoke in favor of the withdrawal, including Bozeman parent Cheryl Tusken and Moms for Liberty Montana chapter treasurer Jessie Browning. Both testified regularly during the 2023 Montana Legislature in support of proposals such as House Bill 234, the state’s so-called obscenity bill.

“I think this is a really good move to send a really clear signal to our national organizations that we are not in agreement with the direction they are taking these organizations,” Tusken said, likening the motion to the Montana School Boards Association’s decision last year to withdraw from the National School Boards Association. That decision was fueled by the NSBA’s request for federal assistance in addressing widespread threats against teachers and school board members over COVID-19 mask mandates and other issues — threats the NSBA likened to domestic terrorism.

Tusken and other parents were joined in public comment Tuesday by Derek Oestreicher, legal counsel for the conservative Montana Family Foundation, and by David Ingram, a board trustee at Kalispell’s ImagineIF library. Both framed their support for withdrawing the state library from ALA membership in the context of national culture-war issues, claiming the organization embraces policies tied to critical race theory and uses public funds to, as Ingram stated, “undermine truth and natural law.”

“Instead of pursuing the long-term viability of future libraries and supporting the traditional role of acquisition, preservation and circulation, ALA desires to inject the library into the vanguard of the culture wars,” said Ingram, whose local library’s recent struggles with such issues were the subject of an April article in the New Yorker. Fellow ImagineIF trustee Carmen Cuthbertson, who sits on the Montana State Library Commission, spoke in favor of and voted for the ALA withdrawal.

Similar points were raised by other individuals who alleged that the association is responsible for making objectionable materials available to minors, has advocated in support of conversations about gender identity among children, and is actively seeking to promote a Marxist ideology. Two commenters in the meeting’s Zoom chat wrote that they’d attended in the hope of initiating similar efforts to withdraw from ALA in Georgia and Kentucky.

Critics of Burnett’s motion countered that the ALA is a long-standing and diverse organization that provides much-needed resources to libraries throughout the U.S., including professional development, policy guidance and funding for efforts to expand broadband access for community members. Prior to public comment, Rossmann noted that the ALA presidency is “largely a ceremonial role,” and librarians from across Montana sought to reassure the commission that decisions impacting the ALA’s policies and agenda are made by its executive director and 100-member council. Montana Library Association board member Matt Beckstrom, who also serves as Montana’s representative to the ALA, stressed that the presidency itself is a “one-year volunteer position.”

“This role cannot change the association without ALA staff, the executive board, the ALA council and entire membership approving changes,” Beckstrom said, after noting that nothing Drabinski stated in her tweet violated the U.S. or Montana constitutions or any state law. “If you truly want to make a change in the association, stay in and speak up. Don’t walk away.”

Susan Gregory, director of the Bozeman Public Library, echoed Beckstrom’s argument that the ALA president is a “figurehead.” Gregory said the ALA has been a crucial source of professional training and guidance for her and her staff, adding that in her 40 years of involvement with the association, she’s never once witnessed a program or presentation at an ALA conference centered on Marxism or on the elevation of one political ideology over another.

Star Bradley, who identified herself as a professional librarian in Montana, characterized withdrawing from the association over the statements of one individual as “a very extreme idea.” And speaking with Montana Free Press prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Missoula Public Library Director Slaven Lee said the message being sent by the commission’s proposed action was “not good.”

“This is undermining what public libraries represent and what they are, and that’s a disservice to the communities they serve,” Lee said.

Several supporters of the motion did make the suggestion that the commission consider revisiting ALA membership once Drabinski’s term as president expires. Arntzen expressed the same sentiment in lodging her support for ALA withdrawal, encouraging fellow commissioners to “rebuild” and look elsewhere for professional opportunities in the meantime, but remain open to future ALA involvement when the organization “has a different leader.” Arntzen also acknowledged the vote had a “dollar impact,” referencing the average $1,000 that ALA membership has annually cost the Montana State Library.

A majority of the commission’s current members have been appointed by Gov. Greg Gianforte since he took office in January 2021. Rossmann is the commission’s only active librarian and was appointed last month by Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian. 

In response to Tuesday’s vote, Montana State Librarian Jennie Stapp told MTFP that the ALA would be notified of the commission’s decision by day’s end. As for herself and her staff, she said, “We will continue to do our jobs to the best of our abilities to support all Montana libraries and all Montana communities.”

The ALA did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding Tuesday’s vote.

This isn’t the first time that the Montana State Library has become embroiled in such a debate. Last summer, the commission voted 4-3 to reject a redesigned library logo after two commissioners expressed concern that the color scheme resembled the LGBTQ pride flag. The logo’s color palette was altered slightly in response to the concerns, and the commission approved the redesign in October.

For Kelly Reisig, president of the Montana Library Association, the state library’s withdrawal from the ALA poses a significant resource challenge for public libraries in smaller communities. While libraries in larger communities tend to have larger staffs — and even independent membership in the ALA — Reisig told MTFP that many libraries in Montana operate with only a few employees. As the director of the Richland County Library in Sidney, Reisig received a grant several years ago through a division of the ALA to attend a conference in Memphis. She said the experience, and the connections she made with other librarians around the U.S., was pivotal in helping her hone the skills necessary to identify her community’s needs and develop the local partnerships required to meet them.

“The library became a very interactive partner in developing community resources to answer needs that were critical in the community,” Reisig added. “That was the universal takeaway from that grant.”

The latest episode involving libraries and national culture-war issues also led Reisig to wonder about her own statements on social media. The reality that one tweet could throw into question a state’s involvement with an association prompted her to comb through her own Twitter and Facebook posts, she said, some of which reflect her own Catholic beliefs. Those beliefs alone don’t define her, Reisig continued, saying she’s not “a one-dimensional person.” But the potential for a new precedent has left her concerned about the impacts her social media presence could have on her organization.

“Our [executive] board is about 20 people, and then there’s at least 150 on-the-ground volunteers,” Reisig said. “If I do something that’s going to affect everybody’s hard work and dedication, that’s a really scary thing.”

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