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Rural library is caught in the crossfire of controversial book battles

If a ballot measure passes in November, this could be the first library in the nation to close over books some deem "sexually explicit."
Rural library is caught in the crossfire of controversial book battles
Posted at 10:19 PM, Aug 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-28 22:21:06-04

As an outsider driving through its golden hills of wheat, it's easy to understand why the people of Columbia County, Washington want to protect it.

"If you need help, you could ask anyone here and they would help you if you were down on your luck, if you just needed help with a project," said Deb Fortner, a wheat farmer who has lived in the county her whole life.

She says she's one of the many people hoping to protect Columbia County, but she represents one of two groups fiercely opposed on how to go about doing it.

"I wasn't surprised, and knew it was time to hunker down with the community and fight for our library," she said.

At the center of these two sides is the Columbia County Library in Dayton — also known as the Dayton Memorial Library — the only one in the county. It's a place where, in an area with spotty service and long drives,  there is access to the internet and other information materials. It's also the only free gathering space in the region.

One side, Deb's side, wants to save the library. The other side wants the library to be "dissolved." Both sides believe their will is for the good of the county.

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The divide is over controversial book titles — books either similar to or the same as the books at the center of bans across the country, books with mainly LGBTQ+ themes, and that have in them what some consider to be sexually explicit descriptions.

The side that wants the library "dissolved" claims all they want is for the books to be moved out of the downstairs children's and young adult areas — books they refer to as "pornography."

"There's ways to rearrange things and meet needs if you can come to an understanding of those desires as much as possible. But if it's gonna go to that point where it's, they are demanding that one side only be represented, then I'm gonna say, well, we have a issue there," said Lorna Barth, the president of the Friends of Dayton Library, an organization that was created to help the library fundraise. Now it's the group that's fighting to save it.

The library said it did move some books upstairs, but not all, and it hasn't removed any book outright from its collection. The "dissolve" side says those moves aren't enough.

Several back-and-forths in public meetings and a growing list of titles later, a petition to dissolve the library was passed with 163 signatures. In November it will come down to a county ballot measure, where 1,007 people will be eligible to vote to save or dissolve the library. Because of a Washington law, no one who lives in the city of Dayton, where the library is located, can vote. Only those living in the unincorporated areas of Columbia County can cast a ballot. 

"It's a person's individual choice to read a book or not to read a book if they don't want to read it or they don't want their children to read it. That is their choice, and I'm all for that. Do as you please, but if we remove them, we'd be preventing anybody from reading it, and I don't think that's our place at all," said interim library director, Ellen Brigham.

According to the American Library Association, or ALA, requests to remove library books hit a 21-year high last year at 1,050, a 70% increase from 2021.

No one from the dissolve-the-library side agreed to an interview with Scripps News, saying they were either busy or that other journalists didn't represent their side fairly in past stories.

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One man, Seth Murdock, agreed to answer some questions over email. He wrote: "The biggest concern with this library is the procurement and display of sexually explicit books written for children and youth."

This story reflects conversations happening in communities across the country — the debate not only about certain books, but about the role of public and school libraries and who should control what books they have on their shelves.

While Columbia County's library garners national attention, as it could be potentially the first county in the country to have their library closed over this issue, we asked local residents: What do they want Americans outside their community to take away from this story?

Brigham hopes an understanding of the books comes out of it.

"I'd like them to understand that words like 'pornography' and 'obscenity' have definitions when it comes to library books, and the library does not have anything that would qualify as pornography. Any books that have sex scenes in them or sexual themes have those as part of the broader themes of the book, as part of the broader story. And simply having those themes in a book does not make it pornography," she said.

Barth says while their cause has garnered support around the country for their library, she hopes others will take a look at their own local library.

"Contact your own libraries. See if you, if they're hearing anything, be aware of what's happening. Let them know that you want to support them," she said, "I guess that's my warning. This is real. It's that they could take it away."

Murdock also answered the same question, writing: "I would simply suggest that people look into the institutions that they directly fund, to take the responsibility of curating what is essentially theirs, to not be ashamed of the values and beliefs that they hold and to stand behind them, to teach their children about civics — the rights and responsibilities of citizenship."

For Deb Fortner, as she watches this play out in her beloved community, she hopes that people across the country stay active and get informed, because for her, there's too much at stake to stay quiet.

"The most important thing that I would like people to know from this is it doesn't matter how you vote, just vote educated. Don't vote based on these emotions that you hear spinning around. Go do the research, take the time. It's messy, it's painful. Do the research," she said.

The vote on the library will take place Nov. 7.


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