Amid a growing rift within libraries across the nation, a conservative library board in Wyoming has drawn attention after it fired its head librarian for allegedly not enforcing new rules that would uphold far-right values – the latest in the saga regarding book bans. A member of public was so outraged, he likened the move to Nazi Germany at the meeting.
Chelsea Butler, Chair of the Campbell County Library Board, stated, “We are the first library board in the country to disassociate from the American Library Association (ALA).” This decision was made in October, signifying their opposition towards what they deemed woke.
Tension and triumph
On Friday, the board, predominantly composed of conservatives, claimed another triumph. In a 4-1 vote, as reported by the Cowboy State Daily, the long-serving library director, Terri Lesley, was dismissed. This decision followed months of tension, stemming from Lesley’s resistance to implementing a vague new policy aimed at safeguarding children and adolescents from explicit content.
However, the board might have miscalculated the collective support for an individual who had long held the belief that a library’s primary purpose is to serve the community. The Wyoming Democratic Party’s tweet about the meeting likely contributed to the standing-room-only crowd that gathered on the 28th July. A video shows that the majority of attendees, perhaps excluding only 20 out of 250, rose in a standing ovation as Lesley exited the room.
During the event, a woman in the crowd exclaimed, “We love you, Terri!” Yet, there were signs of disagreement as some of Lesley’s supporters expressed their dissatisfaction with Butler, the board’s chair.
“I can’t remember the last time I was flipped off by a bunch of little gray-haired old ladies,” Butler later told The Daily Beast, adding that he could not discuss Lesley’s dismissal because personnel matters are handled in executive session.
Lesley’s tenure was marked by ongoing disagreements with the board, which was critical of her decisions in recent open meetings. The board’s newly introduced “Policy for Protecting Children from Harmful, Sexually Explicit Material” sparked controversy. In a statement read to the public, Lesley said: “For 25 years, this was my dream job. But the last two years, they’ve been pure hell.”
She added that the obscenity standards are “totally subjective”, and as a result she and her team felt they had little guidance in regards to any particular book. Lesley deemed this “lack of transparency” as not an accident. This policy, influenced by the far-right organisation MassResistance, led Lesley to suggest a structured challenge process for concerned citizens. This process required challengers to confirm they had read the disputed books.
A key dispute revolved around the responsibility for enforcing the policy. Lesley advocated for the board to specify particular books, while the board believed the library should self-regulate. The situation escalated during a meeting between Lesley and Butler, where she was asked to resign. When she declined, she was informed of her impending termination.
According to The Daily Beast, the board took the position that it was the library’s duty to police itself. It did not officially name a single book, but tasked Lesley with ensuring all of them conform.
“That puts the onus on the staff for violating the First Amendment instead of the leadership of the library,” Lesley replied. “They’re not personally responsible,” Bear said.
“I feel like we are personally responsible,” Lesley said. “We’re the ones doing it. We’re the ones physically doing it.”
“Well, if that’s the way you feel, then I feel like you should find another job,” Bear told her.
Support and opposition
Subsequently, an overflow crowd gathered for a public hearing regarding Lesley’s fate. In her resolute statement, Lesley expressed her commitment to her staff and community, despite the challenges she encountered. The board voted 4-1 in favour of her termination.
Lesley’s departure was met with a mix of applause, dissent, and emotional statements from the public.
One member of the public strongly expressed, “40 years ago or more, my father sat before this same board and spoke to him about Nazis burning books. My father was aware of it because he came from Nazi Germany when he was ten years old with his whole family. Now, Hitler burned them for one reason, somebody else burns them for another. But when you start outlawing books because of your personal, religious, and moral beliefs in this country, you’re going against the Constitution. You’re going against what we were founded for. And you’re personally an affront to myself and most of the people I know. This is a shitshow, and I’m embarrassed for this board.”
The former director spoke to CNN following the move and said much of the uproar surrounded any material that had LGBTQ+ references. She also mentioned that earlier in the year, a transgender magician held a reading programme, but subsequently had to cancel the event for safety reasons, because the “anti-library crowd, that has been at the commissioners meeting, started really protesting and the magician had received some death threats.”
Wyoming Democrats have since issued a statement saying that this was “just the beginning”. They added that these “extremists” will “keep taking your rights,” and urged voters to take heed of the ongoing issue.
In the midst of this controversy, the situation underscores the broader debate surrounding the role of libraries in shaping public discourse and the ongoing struggle over book content.