Conservative activists want to ban 400 books from a library — but they aren't even on shelves
For months, a group of conservative Christians have inundated the staff and board of a public library in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, with complaints about books they didn’t want to see on the shelves.
Their list of more than 400 titles predominantly focuses on young adult books with LGBTQ characters, scenes describing sexual activity or invoking the occult.
The only problem: None of the books are in the library’s collection.
Still, the activists in this town of 2,500 people wanted the books pre-emptively banned. They fumed that the library planned to join the American Library Association, a nonprofit trade organization known for fighting censorship that local activists falsely accused of “promoting pedophilia.” They started a campaign to recall four of the five library trustees over a policy against restricting access to controversial books, putting up signs around town that read: “Our Mission is to protect children from explicit materials and grooming.”
The fervor has become so heated that the library’s director is quitting after just nine months, citing a barrage of harassment that she said made it impossible to do her job. Kimber Glidden, 51, a former bank manager turned librarian, said the stress became so bad that she developed a tic that makes her thumb quiver uncontrollably.
In Glidden’s Aug. 16 resignation announcement on Facebook, she stated that “nothing in my background could have prepared me for the political atmosphere of extremism, militant Christian fundamentalism, intimidation tactics, and threatening behavior currently being employed in the community.”
“They don’t know what comes next. They just want to burn it down, and they’re doing a good job,” Glidden told NBC News.
Related video: Public libraries try to stay politically neutral amid calls for censorship
Donna Capurso and Adrienne Norris, two of the trustees’ recall organizers, did not respond to requests for comment.
“We want a strongly written policy that will not allow the library to order materials with sex acts,” the group stated on Facebook this month, adding that the American Library Association “has brainwashed our libraries” into believing this is a First Amendment issue.
The fight in Bonners Ferry over what books are allowed in the Boundary County Public Library echoes battles playing out at libraries across the country. Conflicts over literature that discuss sexuality and contain explicit passages have bled from school board meetings into library board meetings, as conservative and far-right activists call for bans on books, Pride Month displays and membership to the American Library Association.
In August, a librarian in Louisiana was nearly fired after she spoke out against censorship. Local officials in a Texas town suggested that the public library could be evicted if it didn’t reconsider complaints about LGBTQ-themed books in its collection. And a group of conservative residents in a Michigan town successfully campaigned to deny funding to the local library after its board said it would not ban books, an effort that far-right activists on Facebook and Telegram have held up as inspiration.
According to the American Library Association, attempts to censor materials in libraries and schools nationwide increased last year to 729 — more than double the typical amount of book challenges in previous years, targeting 1,597 books. More than a third of the censorship attempts in 2021 occurred at public libraries, prompting some libraries to ban Black History Month and Pride displays, while others closed due to harassment of LGBTQ employees.
“It’s wrong when one parent can dictate what information is available to an entire community, which may have the effect of denying the diversity and the variety of identities that are already living in that community,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who oversees the association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.
‘Under God’s standards’
In Bonners Ferry, where about 78% of voters supported former President Donald Trump in 2020, the library has been a jewel in the community. The Library Journal, a trade publication, named it the Best Small Library in America in 2017, celebrating its 3D printer, laser engraver and milling machine, as well as computer and smartphone tutoring for the elderly, and free virtual classes with NASA scientists.
The conflict over controversial materials started in March, when a handful of locals approached library officials with a list of books from the right-wing website Growing Freedom for Idaho that they wanted to see removed from the shelves. Library officials responded that they did not have any of those books and didn’t plan to stock them anytime soon.
Lee Colson, one of the Boundary County library trustees, said he thought informing them that the library didn’t have the books would be the end of their complaints, but “then it seemed to morph.”
Activists fumed at board meetings after Glidden, the library’s director, said she would order some of the books if enough patrons requested them. They demanded that the board pass a policy promising not to order controversial books, or — if they did — to place them in an adults-only room so that children are not “accidentally exposed” while browsing the library stacks. They asked the library to judge books “under God’s standards and not of the world’s standards,” according to emails obtained through open records requests.
“What they are looking for us to do is say we will never get a book that offends them personally, which is pretty hard to define, and not really the point of the library,” Colson, the trustee, said.
Activists also cited a bill, HB 666, that had recently cleared the Idaho House, but died in the Senate. The bill would have removed an exemption in state law that protects employees of schools, museums, universities and libraries from prosecution for “disseminating material harmful to minors.” The exemption’s intent is to protect educators, curators and librarians from criminal charges over explicit or risqué art and literature that they consider to have merit.
Book ban supporters argued HB 666 was needed because the Boundary County library was “hiding” behind the exemption. But censorship opponents disagreed.
“They would rather that nobody have access to books rather than one or two people have access to gay content or content written by people of color,” said Jessica Tingley, who has organized demonstrations in support of the Boundary County library.
‘They’re spreading lies’
Glidden, who previously worked at a library in neighboring Sandpoint, Idaho, started in December as the Boundary County library director and reviewed its policies to ensure they were up to date.
In June, the board of trustees voted to update the rules for selecting materials, requiring a variety of viewpoints to be reflected in the titles on the shelves. The updated materials selection policy also vowed that the library will “not place materials on ‘closed shelves’ or label items to protect the public from their content.” It passed by a vote of 3-1, with one member absent.
Then the pressure ramped up.
Capurso, a real estate agent and activist, arranged a meeting in July to organize a recall of the library trustees, accusing board members of voting to expose children to “adult only” material “without listening to ‘We the People’ regarding their actions before their votes.”
“We need to avert this travesty being promulgated by the far left, not just here, but all over our nation,” Capurso, who calls herself a “patriot journalist” wrote on a blog affiliated with the American Redoubt, a far-right migration movement seeking to establish a safe haven in the Northwest for conservative Christians.
At least three times in the last three months, a woman has blown a shofar horn outside the library, according to Glidden and security footage obtained by NBC News. (Shofars, typically made from ram’s horns, are part of Jewish traditions, but Christians have increasingly used them as a message of spiritual warfare.)
Glidden said people have falsely accused her of “grooming children for pedophiles,” and her staff has started dining and shopping in neighboring counties to avoid conflicts. Critics of the library have called the censorship conflict a “spiritual battle for the hearts and minds of children,” on Facebook.
“They’re spreading lies, they’re destroying lives and they’re doing it with impunity,” Glidden said. “They’re putting on this cloak of religion, but I’m not sure what god they worship.”
Library trustee Kenneth Blockhan, who said he considers himself religious, said he has concerns about the amount of discussion of LGBTQ issues in public school curricula. But he said he is disturbed by the call to ban books from the public library and believes it’s part of a larger movement to impose puritan standards on the community.
“The library is not a day care,” he said. “If you’re a parent, you are the responsible party for checking out books that your children need to read. It’s not the library’s responsibility. It is the parent’s responsibility to make sure that their children are not getting a hold of the bad stuff or whatever to sit there and read.”
At the library’s Aug. 18 board meeting, two days after Glidden announced resignation plans, multiple people reiterated their complaints about how Glidden and the trustees have dealt with book ban requests. Several people cited Bible verses and warned board members and Glidden that they’re bringing a curse on themselves.
Glidden said she plans to stay on until Sept. 10. She said she and her family are still plotting where they will go next, but she vowed it would not be a red state.
“This is a publicly funded library,” Glidden said. “That means what they’re ultimately going to demand that I do is actually end up being in violation of the Constitution,” she said, referring to the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. “I’d rather be someone accused of having naughty books than be in violation of the Constitution.”