Mia Maldonado

(Idaho Capital Sun) Maegan Hanson became a librarian because of her love of reading. Her favorite part of her job is helping people discover their next favorite book.

Hanson is the Buhl Public Library director, doubling as its children’s librarian. She has worked in libraries for more than 15 years, and her library serves rural Idahoans in a region where only 40% of the population has access to Wi-Fi.

But in her one year serving as library director, she said she regularly considers leaving the profession because of the stress and exhaustion she feels from the state’s increasingly antagonistic rhetoric against librarians.

Hanson is not alone in this feeling. Through an informal survey, interviews and rallies, many Idaho librarians have voiced a sense of demoralization in response to legislation directly impacting their profession.

According to an informal survey conducted by the Idaho Library Association, more than half of Idaho librarians are considering leaving library work as a result of library-related legislation.

Hanson faces a shortage of staff and a perpetual need to train new workers after several of her colleagues have departed because of the stress caused from library-related bills making their way through the Idaho Legislature. To add to her challenges, an elected official during a town hall meeting referred to her as a “groomer.” Moreover, she said that legislation establishing an “adults only” section would be impractical in her small, one-room library.

While those bills’ legislative sponsors have said their goal is to protect children from mature content, Idaho librarians — like Hanson — said they are coping with the possibility of new laws that could drastically change the way they cater their content to youth.

“I could go to a bigger town, a smaller town, or the same size of town and get paid triple of what I’m getting paid now to work somewhere else, but I don’t want to do that,” she said. “I want to set roots and raise my family here. But if this is the climate, I genuinely don’t know how long we can sustain the good work that we’re doing.”

Idaho library materials legislation was introduced in 2023, and it’s back for 2024

According to the American Library Association, there were at least five bills introduced last year in Idaho focused on codifying library selection policy and restricting library content for minors. And this year, library-related legislation, through bills House Bill 384 and Senate Bill 1221, is once again a focal point for Idaho legislators.

Of those bills, House Bill 384 sparked significant controversy among Idahoans.

The bill would have allowed library patrons to sue libraries if they provide “harmful materials” to minors. It would have also created a policy that requires community members fill out a written notice asking libraries to relocate a library item that they deem “harmful” to an adult’s only section. If a library failed to relocate the item within 30 days, then one could have sued the library for $250, as well as “actual damages and any other relief.”

Rep. Jaron Crane, R-Nampa, the sponsor for House Bill 384, previously said in a House State Affairs Committee meeting that the legislation is intended to protect minors from harmful materials without banning or burning books.

“We guarantee that we won’t bankrupt any library here in Idaho,” Crane said.

Crane said the legislation was inspired by last year’s House Bill 314, which after passing both houses last year made its way to Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s desk. The bill would have prohibited libraries from providing “harmful materials” to minors, and it would have allowed parents to sue libraries for $2,500 for a violation of the bill.

But in April, the governor vetoed it.

In a letter to the Legislature addressing his decision to veto, Little said the bill’s ambiguity would hurt Idaho libraries—particularly those in rural areas with limited resources. 

“I support the sponsors’ intent of this bill to keep truly inappropriate materials out of the hands of minors,” he said in the letter. “This is an effort I know everyone in the Idaho Legislature supports. I encourage all Idahoans who have questions about any library materials to become familiar with the local policies of their fully elected library or school trustee board and engage directly with the officials who oversee them.”

The Idaho House of Representatives later narrowly failed to override the governor’s veto by just one vote, the Idaho Capital Sun previously reported.

Last week, House Bill 384 was sent back to the House State Affairs Committee on Thursday, and Crane and Sen. Geoff Schroeder, R-Mountain Home, said they are working on a compromise, Boise State Public Radio reported.

On Monday, Crane declined to comment on the details of the draft legislation, but he told the Idaho Capital Sun that it is not targeting librarians.

“(Librarians) will be fine,” he said. “The draft that Sen. Schroeder and I have together combined, it takes what I have in place, and it enhances it with extra layers that they’ll be fine.”

 Demoralizing, stressful: Idaho librarians describe impact of legislation in survey

This month, the Idaho Library Association sent an informal survey to its 260 members statewide, seeking opinions from Idaho librarians on the recent library-related legislation.

The survey results, obtained by the Sun, show that of the 130 participants in the survey, many librarians expressed feelings of stress, anxiety and uncertainty. Many said they are contemplating the possibility of relocating from Idaho and leaving their library professions behind.

One librarian said in the survey they would “absolutely look for a new job” if House Bill 384 were to pass.

Another librarian, with 20 years of library experience, said for the first time they find work less enjoyable because of library-related legislation.

A third librarian said during the last legislative session they asked their doctor to be put on antidepressant medication.

A fourth librarian said they “feel hunted” by the Idaho Legislature.

Other findings from Idaho Library Association survey show:

  • 60% of respondents said they are considering leaving library work as a result of legislative action focused on libraries.
  • 60% of respondents said they are considering leaving Idaho because of actions of the Idaho Legislature in the last year.
  • 77% of respondents said they know library workers who have left their jobs to find other work because of library-related legislation in Idaho.
  • 80% of respondents said they know library workers thinking of leaving their jobs in libraries because of actions of the Legislature.

Crane, on Monday, said that he understands some of the stress librarians receive, because he also receives negative messages related to the legislation.

“I see the legislation as a protection for kids and for the libraries themselves,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. I don’t think anybody should be threatening others on either side. I’m sorry that’s happening to them, but that’s not anybody’s intention.”

In addition to a decrease in morale and librarians considering leaving their jobs, some librarians are concerned about potential legal and financial troubles that would arise should Idaho’s Legislature create regulations on content that is deemed “harmful to minors.”

Library legislation could cause legal, financial stress as ICRMP reduces coverage

Erin Kennedy is the intellectual freedom chair for the Idaho Library Association based in Boise. Having spent part of her childhood in Cascade, where she would spend her teen years at Cascade Public Library, Kennedy said rural libraries would still be most impacted by fines in library-related legislation.

“It’s a very small, one-room library,” she said of the Cascade library. “Any amount of money is harmful to those libraries that don’t have a budget to purchase books. It might only be $250 for one book plus $1,000 in legal fees, but that’s still a significant impact to our smaller, rural libraries.”

While Kennedy said she appreciates that legislators are proposing to reduce the fines, Kennedy said the legislation does not speak to outside costs of hiring legal representation for each time a library does not relocate an item.

Like Kennedy, Ada Community Library director, Mary DeWalt, told the Idaho Capital Sun that she is concerned about paying for legal representation because of how library-related legislation is impacting her library’s insurance policies.

According to changes outlined by the Idaho County Risk Management Program, or ICRMP, which provides insurance and risk management services to various Idaho libraries and public institutions, coverage for “allegations of materials accessed through a library, claimed to be harmful to a minor” has been scaled back.

This means that if a patron were to file a tort claim against the library under allegations of providing items “harmful to a minor,” legal representation through the insurance program would no longer be available.

DeWalt cited an instance in 2020 when ICRMP provided a lawyer after a person filed a tort claim against the library regarding its COVID-19 operations. The case went to court, and the program assigned an attorney to support the library throughout the proceedings.

While DeWalt appreciated ICRMP’s assistance during that incident, she expressed concern for almost all Idaho library districts and city libraries without the legal representation the program would offer in case of a tort claim.

“We would have to hire an attorney on the side to represent us, which, as you can imagine, would potentially get very expensive,” she said.

Without access to this coverage, DeWalt and her library colleagues are exploring alternative options. However, she noted that securing coverage for just one item might be expensive, as most insurance companies typically don’t cover individual situations like that.

Review policies for materials are already in place, librarians say

Among concerns with financial and legal costs of this legislation becoming Idaho law, Idaho librarians say that they have policies in place to ensure youth are accessing appropriate material.

Librarians interviewed by the Sun described selecting books for their inventory as a rigorous process that includes responding to book requests from the public, while also making purchase decisions based on reviews and recommendations from publishers and book lists. Librarians also shelve books in locations that indicate the level of difficulty and maturity of their content.

At the Buhl Public Library and some Boise libraries, youth cannot hold their own library card by themselves until they are 18, otherwise a parent is responsible for making that card. At both libraries, parents can put restrictions on their child’s card, such as preventing their children from checking out video games or movies. Parents also receive notices of what their children are checking out.

Meanwhile at The Community Library based in Ketchum, youth above the age of 14 are allowed to obtain their own library cards, according to its director Jenny Davidson.

Davidson said that in the past 10 years that she’s worked at The Community Library, she said it has circulated more than one million books, with 142,000 checkouts of books in 2023 alone. And yet, the library has never received a formal request to remove a specific book from the library.

“That tells me that there is not a problem,” Davidson said in a phone interview. “That tells me that this is a problem that is being manufactured.”

Librarians say Idaho legislation targets LGBTQ+ community

Hanson and Kennedy said that bills like House Bill 384 that define “sexual conduct” as something that includes “any act of homosexuality,” is vague and targets LGBTQ+ youth.

According to the American Library Association, books with LGBTQ+ characters or those which parents claim are “sexually explicit” rank among the most frequently challenged. And Idaho libraries are no exception to the growing national trend of book challenges.

In recent years, conservative groups have scrutinized Idaho libraries for programs or literature connected to the LGBTQ+ community. Instances include religious protesters in North Idaho objecting to a library program for LGBTQ+ teens; Mass Resistance, a national anti-LGBTQ+ group, protesting a drag story time event at a Pocatello library; and the Idaho Liberty Dogs, a far-right group, protesting books on sex education in the Meridian Library District.

“The way the bill is written, children who are LGBTQ+ or have families with LGBTQ+ members will be disproportionately affected,” Kennedy said. “That is a big segment of our community that’s not seeing themselves reflected at the library. And in fact, they’re being told that their identities are not appropriate.”

Kennedy said that libraries serve as safe havens for individuals from all backgrounds. Whether someone is facing homelessness, lacks a place to go after school, needs assistance with job applications, or lacks internet access, Idaho libraries are there to support them.

“None of us want to see pornography in the library,” Kennedy said. “But we want our patrons to feel safe, happy and to know that their kids are safe and happy. But we do have to keep in mind that we serve a really diverse population and what one person may find appropriate for their child may not be the same for another family.”