Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Two weeks after the Montana State Library Commission voted to split from the American Library Association over concerns of its president's identity as a “Marxist lesbian,” Missoula County is urging it to reconsider.

Commissioners on Thursday signed a letter to the State Library Commission expressing “deep disappointment” with its decision to leave the American Library Association.

They added that the “vitriolic comments from …. some (commission) board members … will cause further harm to Montanans who are already part of marginalized communities.”

Slaven Lee, executive director of the Missoula Public Library – one of the state's largest – said the state library commission's decision to leave the ALA was misguided and politically motivated.

“The state library has opted to leave the ALA because the current president identifies as a lesbian Marxist. They're disagreeing with her political beliefs and very public stance on her identity,” Lee said. “But the president of the ALA has very little impact on what the actual organization does. Library workers vote in a new president every year, so that president doesn't really have a lot of impact on the work the ALA does.”

Lee said the state library commission's decision to leave the ALA will have an outsized impact on rural and tribal libraries, and in areas where information about the outside world is already limited. The national organization also gives money to states to improve and expand their libraries and access to information.

The State Library Commission's decision to leave the ALA forfeits that revenue.

“For example, one tribal library received $10,000 from ALA through the State Library Commission for broadband access,” Lee said. “So that library wouldn't have access to that funding. It's literal access to information that will be disrupted by this decision.”

Fears of a Marxist lesbian

The State Library Commission earlier this month held a contentious public hearing before voting 5-1 to leave the American Library Association over concerns of its president's “Marxist lesbian” identity.

In doing so, Montana became the first state in the nation to split from the ALA.

“While not unprecedented, the last time that sort of action happened by a state was when states in the South were against desegregation of the (library) profession in the late 50s or 60s,” Lee said. “What we're hoping to do is make a statement as to why this undermines the profession, undermines equal access to information, and undermines freedom of speech, which is what public libraries stand for.”

Members of the Montana State Library Commission.
Members of the Montana State Library Commission.

In leaving the ALA, the Montana State Library Commission said its “oath of office and resulting duty to the Constitution forbids association with an organization led by a Marxist.” However, comments offered during the hearing also targeted the president's sexual identity.

The state commission includes Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, along with three members from Bozeman, one from Whitefish, one from Kalispell and one from Geraldine.

“Marxism stands in direct opposition to the principles of the Constitution of the United States,” said state library commission member Tom Burnett. “It's fair to discuss and learn about Marxism, but not to affiliate with Marxist-lead organizations.”

In the vote, library commission member Peggy Taylor of Whitefish abstained while Brian Rossmann of Bozeman stood alone in opposition to leave the ALA over fears of a Marxist lesbian.

“There has been quite a bit of testimony from the state library that there's a great deal of benefit that comes from belonging to the American Library Association,” Rossmann said. “I think it would be unfortunate for the state library to withdraw from the ALA and no longer be part of a national conversation about our profession.”

In its letter to the Montana Library Commission, Missoula County noted the role of public libraries. Along with access to information, they “serve as a venue for learning from the lived experiences of others and participating in the robust discussion of ideas and beliefs that may differ from our own.”

“I'm glad we're speaking out. This is ridiculous,” said Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “I'm also glad you (Lee) pointed out that there is precedent in this. The folks in this state (library commission) are walking in the proud footsteps of segregationists.”