Rumford Public Library in Maine successfully defended itself and its displays again this year, after a local politician declared the librarians and the public displays were a way to politicize the library on the “town’s dime.”
“I thought we had reconciled everything last year,” library director Tamara Butler said last week. “I thought it was over.”
Last September, Butler and her librarians landed in the middle of a public debate over a display in the library featuring banned and challenged books for the annual Banned Books Week. More specifically, the divide concerned two LGBTQ+ books, Two Boys Kissing and My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness and a letter from three local religious figures asking that the books be removed from public areas to protect children and avoid offending Christians and Muslims. CBLDF along with National Coalition Against Censorship and the ALA rallied to provide quick support to the library and their staff, who were victorious in retaining the display and the targeted books in it. And as Mary Ann Fournier, the adult services librarian, pointed out to the local Press Herald, “Afterwards, people acted like it never happened and it was business as usual.”
But, as Gillian Graham writes for the Press Herald, “It wasn’t over. For the second time in eight months, the Rumford Public Library again found itself in the spotlight as librarians and trustees defended their rotating monthly display of books from questions and accusations that their contents were politically motivated and inappropriate.”
This time the attack came from interim town manager, Scott Cole, who was apparently fielding calls in February from an upset citizen about problems with the library including the display. While no specifics were mentioned as to what upset the local resident about the display in February, or the nature of the display, the library does stick with timing the displays to coincide with holidays, and special calendar months, so it seems likely people can assume the worst. Cole says that he could not explain to the aggrieved local how the displays were decided on, so he reached out to Butler to find out more about the displays.
Butler explained to Cole that the making displays in part of the librarian’s workload. With the monthly display in the front, each librarian takes a turn deciding what to display and how to do it. They often choose movies, and props, alongside books to make the display more engaging, but as to official policies regarding the display, there weren’t any. It was causally handled and mostly without incident it seems. According to the Herald, “Cole said he never questioned the content of the displays, including the current pride display. ‘I have zero concerns about the content,’ he said. ‘I’m indifferent’.”
After Cole’s meeting with Butler, he told a local town member that the librarians just put out whatever, and there didn’t seem to be much “rhyme or reason to it.” Which certainly seems to demonstrate a lack of listening comprehension from his meeting with the library director.
Then Cole received a letter in late May from the Rumford Library Board of Trustees, citing the town charter which gave charge of maintaining and operating the library to the Trustees themselves. Cole responded the following day with his own letter which, according to the Herald stated, in part,
Without new information to consider, the current practice regarding ‘banned books’ seems tantamount to providing certain individual town employees with their own political platforms during work hours. As a town manager, holding charter-based supervisory authority over all town employees, I have to wonder if this is really a good idea for the workforce? Individual political expression by employees is not allowed on ‘town time and the town’s dime’ in other areas of municipal employment. Why should library employees be treated differently? That is a question that must be asked.
After intense reactions from the library and the community that supports them, Cole would go on to muse to the Herald “You have people loaded for bear who think it’s going to be a replay of last fall,” Cole said. “I understand that, but you ask a few questions and you become a villain.”
New Library Policy
Following repeated questions about display policies and what the library planned to do about the banned book display done annually to coincide with Banned Books Week, the Trustees did opt to enact a new policy to follow with regards to Library displays. CBLDF, ALA, and NCAC, frequently talk about and counsel that strong policies protect books from censorship and not the other way around. The new policy in Rumford still leaves the individual librarians to make up the display, but now the Library Director has to approve all displays. Cole says that the absence of ambiguity is all he was after, and he’s content now that there’s a policy in place. “It’s unfortunate me asking some reasonable questions triggered a wave of hostility. I’m sorry for that,” Cole said. “I think people have moved on.”
As for Butler’s last word on the subject? She knows there’s a chance that this isn’t it. “We don’t know what will happen in September, but we will be addressing banned books again.”
CBLDF congratulates Rumford Public library for sticking up for their own rights as well as the rights of intellectual freedom outlined in the Library Bill of Rights. As for the community in Rumford who stood up for LGBTQ+ voices back in September and the support for their librarians when local politics tried to get involved, it seems clear that no one should mess with a Mainer or their library.