Libraries brace for new law restricting ‘harmful’ library materials

In the months since Gov. Brad Little signed House Bill 710 — which opens libraries to lawsuits over materials deemed “harmful” to minors — Idaho librarians have been scrambling to understand, interpret and implement the controversial new law.

Library leaders across the state have rewritten agreements, consulted with legal counsel, and, in some cases, even placed limits on how and when minors can enter their buildings.

But with just days to go before the law takes effect on July 1, lingering concerns about the law’s lack of clarity — and fear of what may happen if the policy is abused — leave libraries bracing for impact.

Donnelly summer reading program

The background on HB 710

 HB 710 is the result of a multiyear effort to place tighter restrictions on library materials that are available to children. Republicans in the House and Senate overwhelmingly supported the bill and the governor signed it into law. The bill’s co-sponsor Sen. Cindy Carlson, R-Riggins, said: “This legislation creates a process that is fair for both sides. One side may want kids to have access to certain material and the other side does not.”

The new law establishes a statewide policy for reviewing materials that could be considered “harmful” to minors, including items with sexual content, nudity or homosexuality.

If a patron challenges an item, library officials have 60 days to remove or relocate it, after which the patron can file a lawsuit. A library that violates the law faces a mandatory $250 fine.

Similar proposals surfaced in previous legislative sessions (including two competing bills in 2023, one vetoed by Little).

This year, library officials across Idaho lobbied against HB 710, arguing it would compromise local control, place a hefty financial burden on institutions and raise questions about censorship. And many librarians questioned the need for the law at all.

Even as Little signed HB 710 in April, he wasn’t completely on board. According to a previous EdNews report, he said the law addressed “most, but not all” of his concerns with the bill he vetoed in 2023.

‘Everything feels hard now’

 Mary DeWalt, director of the Ada Community Library and vice president of the Idaho Library Association, says summer is usually the happiest and healthiest time for libraries.

With kids out of school, the library becomes a main source for education. Families and teachers turn to their local libraries to help prevent the “summer slide” and keep kids reading into the new school year.

Summer literacy programs are popular in nearly every community around the state.

Donnelly summer reading program

But this summer feels different, DeWalt told EdNews. Confusion, trepidation, hurt and fear circulate among top library staffers statewide as they attempt to move in accordance with HB 710.

DeWalt compared the July 1 deadline to the sword of Damocles — a constant, unavoidable threat hanging over librarians’ heads.

“Everything feels hard now,” she said.

Librarians from around the state echoed DeWalt.

Following the law, they say, is about more than adjusting policies.

Library officials are juggling summer reading programs with other objectives: meeting with legal counsel, reorganizing shelves and even planning renovations to create separate spaces for adult content.

And the adjustments look different depending on zip code.

For large libraries, the focus remains mostly on policy and interpretation. But for small institutions, like the Donnelly Public Library, space is of high concern.

Sitting at 1,024 square feet, the Donnelly library doesn’t have much room to play with, Director Sherry Scheline said.

“Donnelly is disproportionately impacted because we are so small,” she said. “We do not have the space to move a book from one side of the library to the other side of the library, it just doesn’t work that way.”

Plus, Donnelly’s annual operating budget is $74,000 — just 10% of the nearby McCall library district’s budget.

With no free space, and with no funding for renovations, Scheline had to make some drastic decisions.

As of July 1, all of the library’s materials will be considered “adult” items.

Parents who want their kids to participate in programming and spend time in the library will be offered a waiver with three options.

The first option allows parents to waive their HB 710 rights to allow their child to check out materials without a parent present. “I understand the librarians have not been afforded the opportunity to review every item in their inventory, and therefore are not responsible for the content of items that my child may check out,” the waiver reads. “I affirm that my signature on this clause permits my child to circulate materials that may or may not have adult themes.”

A second option allows children to be at the library without a parent present, but requires parental permission for the child to check out materials.

A third option requires children to have a parent with them in the library at all times.

The library is piloting the waiver system this summer. So far, all 50 parents who signed their child up for summer programming have chosen to waive their rights.

“Everyone wants equal access to the library,” Scheline said. “Our patrons are speaking by signing the waiver and patron application. … I’ve not gotten any negative feedback whatsoever.”

For many libraries, complaints about materials are rare

When asked about previous challenges to materials, librarians from North Idaho to the Treasure Valley said their collections had been questioned only a few times in the past decade.

Lewiston library director Lynn Johnson said she’s only seen one challenge in her 17 years experience working in libraries.

The request came from a minor, who wanted a book removed for allegedly racist content.

The question went before the library board, which ultimately decided to keep the book. The board determined the book provides information that would not be freely accessible elsewhere.

In the East Bonner Library District, interim director Vanessa Velez says administration handles two to three challenges per year.

The administration has never removed a book due to a challenge in her time at the library.

The Donnelly library has received only two complaints in its six years operating as a public library, Scheline says. Neither went through the official process — one started as a conversation with Scheline about a commonly challenged young adult novel, “Looking for Alaska.”

“We had a verbal discussion about it,” Scheline said. “She told me why she felt that way. The process was not furthered. I took the book and I relabeled the book and I put it in the adult section. There was no further discussion.”

Another patron spoke with Scheline about removing “Educated,” a memoir about a woman growing up in a survivalist Mormon family, due to negative depictions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Scheline encouraged the patron to follow the policies in place, but never received a request for reconsideration.

With an annual purchasing budget of $600, most of Donnelly’s collection was donated.

“The books that we have in our collection really reflect our population,” Scheline said. “The books that the Idaho state Legislature is fighting, that they keep bringing up, we just simply don’t have here. We just don’t have them.”

HB 710 strikes an emotional chord with librarians

Currently serving as interim director, Velez says she considered not applying for East Bonner’s directorship position and leaving public librarianship altogether following the passage of HB 710.

“This is criminalizing my profession,” Velez said. “It’s depressing and disheartening.”

Velez has spent the summer budgeting for legal fees, researching cost of renovation, and rewriting her library’s policies to match the “vague” language of the law.

“In addition to being against the principles of a public library, I think it’s a waste of time,” Velez said. “Literally the amount of hours that have been spent trying to figure out how to comply with the law, but also, taxpayer money. Our time is taxpayer funded.”

Johnson, Lewiston’s library director, is in the same boat. She’s spending the summer developing new policies that take the heat off her frontline staff.

Hiring staff is already a hardship, she said. Now, she believes HB 710 could exacerbate the issue.

“I won’t say people don’t feel insulted,” Johnson said. “No youth librarian comes to work and says to themselves, ‘I’m here to hurt children.’ We all come with a service attitude, wanting to do the best for everybody in our communities. … But by being required to potentially censor … that goes against what we’re trained to do.”

HB 710 will take full effect on July 1. Contact your local librarian for more information about changes near you.

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber, a former reporter with Ed News that focused on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley.

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