Tamara Butler, left, and Mary Ann Fournier stand by a display created for LGBTQ pride month inside the Rumford Public Library. The librarians have had to defend their monthly display choices after the LBGTQ display created controversy in the town and the interim town manager questioned whether librarians were making a political statement with the display. Butler is the library director and Fournier is the adult services librarian who created the display. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

RUMFORD — It had been months since the librarians in Rumford were challenged for displaying two gay-themed books on a table near the front door, and it was back to business as usual.

“I thought we had reconciled everything last year,” library director Tamara Butler said last week. “I thought it was over.”

But 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.

The controversy began last fall when local pastors challenged the inclusion of two books with gay themes in a display of frequently banned books. Tensions bubbled up again this spring when the interim town manager asked if the library had a policy for book displays and, in doing so, questioned whether librarians were making political statements with their displays on “‘town time and the town’s dime.”

In response, the library’s trustees adopted a policy affirming the librarians’ right to choose the books that go on display.

“It’s short and sweet,” said Jerry Cohen, a library trustee. “It shows that as a board we support what our staff does at the library. We don’t tolerate discrimination.”

Libraries across the country are increasingly facing challenges to free speech, particularly when it comes to materials about LGBTQ topics. The American Library Association’s annual list of frequently challenged and banned books now includes almost exclusively books with LGBTQ themes.

Last October a man in Orange City, Iowa, borrowed several books with LGBTQ themes and burned them in protest in a live Facebook video. In Illinois, more than 200 books – most about race – were removed this year from the Danville Correctional Facility. A drag queen story hour this month at a library in Fall River, Massachusetts, prompted protests that drew a police response.

“We’re seeing an upsurge in the past few years of challenges of materials with LGBTQ themes or displays with LGBTQ books,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the interim director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

Caldwell-Stone believes the growing number of challenges is a reflection of what is happening in the United States, where gay and transgender issues are discussed in the public arena like never before. There are now frequent and often emotional debates about transgender rights, and people are more openly identifying as non-binary or gender non-conforming. A gay presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, is among the top contenders for the Democratic nomination.

“We are clearly divided right now,” Caldwell-Stone said. “There are still ongoing efforts to police what people read and what they think about certain issues.”

Joanna Breen, chair of the intellectual freedom group at the Maine Library Association, said librarians in Maine aren’t often challenged over their book selections or display. Still, what happened in Rumford isn’t surprising, she said, and she doesn’t think it’s wrong for people to ask questions about how or why books are chosen and displayed.

“Part of a democracy and part of a community is having dialogues about these things. The most important thing is to have these conversations like the ones they had in Rumford,” said Breen, who is executive director of the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library. “We can’t have segments of communities deciding what is or isn’t appropriate. As a public library, our role isn’t to decide what is appropriate for other people. They need to decide for themselves.”

‘HUB OF OUR COMMUNITY’

The Rumford Public Library sits on a hill above the Androscoggin River in the River Valley of Oxford County. The two-story brick building dates to 1903 and was one of 2,500 libraries built with money from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

The library serves 3,500 people from Rumford and a few other nearby towns. It hosts talks by authors, courses for seniors and community meetings. Children gather downstairs for the Lego club and eat lunch together in the summer. Residents stop by to use computers, the photocopier, and a makers’ space that includes a 3D printer and craft supplies.

“We’re the central hub of our community,” said circulation director Christy Bates. “It’s pretty busy most of the time.”

When Butler was hired to run the library four years ago, she started setting up monthly displays on a table just inside the main entrance. Each month, a different staff member chooses a theme and designs the display with books, movies, props and other items to highlight the library’s collection.

The themes are often connected to a holiday, a season, or a topic such as the Vietnam War and animal rescue organizations. A display of hiking materials that featured a size 14 hiking boot with a flower coming out of it was particularly popular, with people marveling at the size of the boot.

“We try to be inclusive and make sure all members of the community are represented through our displays,” Butler said. “It’s a nice way to highlight items in our collection that people don’t even know we have.”

Each September, the display presents the most frequently banned and challenged books, a list compiled by the American Library Association. Rumford’s annual banned book display went largely unnoticed until last year, when three local pastors wrote a letter to the library questioning the appropriateness of including titles with LGBTQ themes and images in an area where children would see them. The books, which are again on display this month, were “Two Boys Kissing,” a young adult novel by David Levithan, and “My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness,” a graphic novel by Kabi Nagata.

“The library should not be promoting a far left political view that sees homosexuality as acceptable and to be promoted over and against a conservative and traditional view that sees homosexuality as wrong and to be avoided,” read the letter signed by pastors Dan Pearson, Justin Thacker and Nathan March. “I believe that there are many who hold this traditional view in our area who deserve not to have these other views which are offensive to them thrust in their face in a library that should be neutral in its political views.”

When that letter became public, it touched a nerve in the community and among the librarians.

“We don’t not put books out because the ideas might be considered controversial or dangerous,” Butler said. “Some people may feel that way and that is their right, but we don’t suppress ideas.”

More than 70 people packed into the room this month for a meeting of the library’s board of trustees to discuss the letter and display. The board meetings rarely have an audience, but trustee Carolyn Kennard saw the turnout as a good thing.

“It’s an issue we needed to discuss,” she said. “If they are upset, they should be able to come to the library and express their opinions on both sides.”

“The library stands for free speech,” added Cohen, a second-generation trustee. “Whether they’re for or against the display we have, we’d like to hear about it.”

Jerry Cohen arranges books that will be displayed for a benefit book sale at the Rumford Public Library. Cohen, a trustee of the library, said the trustees have adopted a new policy to clarify how the monthly displays at the library are chosen. “It shows that as a board we support what our staff does at the library,” he said. “We don’t tolerate discrimination.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Ultimately the trustees left the display in place and reaffirmed their support for free speech at the library.

March said last week that their intentions were misconstrued after the letter became public. All are supporters of the library and see it as a valuable resource for the community, he said, but they took issue with the imagery on the covers of the two books and were concerned it would offend some patrons. One book jacket shows two boys kissing; the other features an illustration of two nude women.

“I don’t think any of us were trying to push an anti-gay agenda. There were a couple of visually provocative images and we were asking if they’d reconsider that in the display,” said March, whose mother was a librarian. “I wasn’t asking for book banning.”

Mary Ann Fournier, the adult services librarian, prepares the June display each year to highlight LGBTQ Pride Month. She grew up in town and was surprised by the reaction to the books in the banned book display.

“I never thought, ever, that this would be something I would have to deal with,” she said. “This town, in general, can be forward-thinking, and it was proved to us by the amount of town support we’ve gotten and are still receiving.”

After the meeting, the librarians received hundreds of emails – from both locals and people far outside Rumford – expressing support for their work and congratulating them and the trustees for standing up for free speech.

“The whole meeting had a positive effect,” Butler said. “I think we sparked dialogue among people who live here who didn’t know there is a strong gay community in this area. We had some good results in connecting people.”

Two of the pastors who signed the letter are regular patrons of the library, and the staff enjoys seeing them when they visit, Fournier said. Pearson and Thacker did not respond to a reporter’s phone calls last week.

“Afterwards, people acted like it never happened and it was business as usual,” Fournier said.

QUESTIONS FROM TOWN MANAGER

In February, interim Town Manager Scott Cole began fielding calls from a Dixfield resident who was upset with a number of things at the library, including the monthly displays. Unable to explain to that person how the displays were compiled, Cole said he asked Butler for an explanation.

Scott Cole, the interim town manager in Rumford. Sun Journal file photo

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.”

Butler says she explained to Cole that the staff takes turns making the displays under her supervision, but the library did not have a specific policy for internal displays.

“It’s really considered part of a librarian’s job,” she said.

But Cole said he left that meeting with Butler without the clear answers he sought and decided to meet at the beginning of June with the library trustees to get more information. After his meeting with Butler, Cole said he had a conversation with a town resident during which he told the resident, “It seems like people put out whatever they want on the table and there’s no rhyme or reason for it.”

“The practice was what it was and it seemed pretty loose to me,” Cole said in an interview last week.

On May 23, Cole received a letter from the board of trustees that cited the town charter that charges the trustees with maintaining and operating the library.

“You do not have the authority to decide what materials should be displayed in the library, nor do you have the authority to direct employee duties,” the letter said.

In a letter to the trustees written the next day, Cole said, “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,” he wrote. “Why should library employees be treated differently? That is a question that must be asked.”

Cole did not anticipate the reaction from the librarians and residents who were ready to defend the library.

“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.”

TRUSTEES ADOPT POLICY

During a meeting with the trustees this month, Cole said he had concerns about “some ambiguity” related to the banned books and said the selection of ideas and materials for displays didn’t seem to have any relationship to a policy the trustees had adopted.

“It’s like a free-for-all. It just seemed like it was employees doing as they please, on town time and town dime,” Cole said during the meeting, according to the Rumford Falls Times.

A month before that meeting, the board of trustees had adopted its policy for exhibits and displays because of the repeated questions about the banned book display. The policy says that the library director must approve all materials that will be displayed, local organizations can request space for exhibits or displays, and all displays in the children’s library must be of interest to and appropriate for children.

“As the library endeavors to present a broad spectrum of ideas and a variety of viewpoints, materials exhibited do not necessarily represent the views or imply the endorsement of the library trustees, administration or staff,” the policy says.

Cole said he is satisfied that the trustees adopted a policy for the displays and has no lingering concerns about politics at the library.

“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.”

Butler also hopes people have moved on, but she knows there is always the possibility that people will bring up the same concerns again.

“We don’t know what will happen in September, but we will be addressing banned books again,” she said.

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