(Daily Montanan) Three library advisors have resigned from the Kalispell library after workers found books shot with what police believe was a .22 caliber rifle in a book donation bin, the library director said this week.

The resignations of staff follow other recent high-profile controversies at the library, including one over books with LGBTQ themes, said Ashley Cummins, executive director of the Flathead County ImagineIF Library System.

ImagineIF has locations in Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Bigfork and Marion.

Last week, the Flathead Beacon reported the Kalispell library found five different books had been shot in two separate incidents in early August.

Staff have not received direct threats, and police determined the books likely were used as target practice and then mistakenly donated, Cummins said in an interview with the Daily Montanan on Tuesday.

However, she said the books were riddled with holes and raised concerns for employees about implied intimidation.

“We’re in a pretty emotionally charged environment, and there’s been a lot of public comment on both sides of the issue, and our staff deals with that every day and takes the brunt of those conversations,” Cummins said. “Between recent events, they felt like it was an escalation of the current situation, and it’s where they had to draw the line.”

Political conflict over banning books has been percolating across the U.S., and libraries have been on the front of a culture war over censorship. Last year, the American Library Association described “an unprecedented volume of challenges in the fall of 2021.”

Montana has seen other library controversy as well.

One debate in Flathead County reached the Governor’s Office earlier this year when the appointment of the new ImagineIF library director didn’t meet state standards. At the time, the state librarian said Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras requested meetings over the issue but ultimately didn’t take action.

Cummins said she knows other libraries are seeing conflict as well, but the incident that spurred resignations in Kalispell may be in its own category.

“I think the bullets were a little exceptional,” she said.

Citing an incident report dated August 3, Kalispell Police Department Investigations Capt. Ryan Bartholomew said the books, all fiction, don’t appear to be connected or political in nature.

He also said none of them are on the library’s list of banned or controversial titles. Cummins said the shot books included a random David Baldacci mystery, and Bartholomew said at least one other title was one of the Jason Bourne series.

If someone had called and threatened people at the library and then dropped off books, their actions might be considered intimidation, Bartholomew said. (He didn’t personally investigate the case but answered questions for an officer who was out of the office this week.)

“But there would have to be a bunch of other factors,” Bartholomew said.

At the library, those who resigned included staff with as many as six or seven years of experience there, Cummins said. The library counts 36 employees in all, she said, and she knows they are under stress.

“I really am trying to shelter my staff as much as I can,” Cummins said. “I can encourage them to focus on the good work we’re doing in the community and working to hopefully resolve the issues that have led to these events, and repair some relationships, and hope that they don’t have to deal with these types of things going forward.”

Going forward, Cummins said the library is adding security cameras and increasing safety protocols at all of its branches. The library system is also evaluating facilities for needed safety improvements, she said, and ideally, she would like to hire a full-time security officer.

She said libraries are in the spotlight across the country, and the conflict comes with the territory of providing free and open access to information. But she said staff stand firm in their professional dedication to their mission and ensuring a safe space for staff and library users.

This year, September 18 to 24 is Banned Books Week, and Cummins confirmed the shot books aren’t changing any activity by the library.

“We always try to celebrate Banned Books Week, and we’re hoping this year to use it as an educational opportunity for people that aren’t familiar with the history of books that have been banned or challenged and might be surprised by what they find out.”