Alfred—elf counsel—the name of kings and conquerors, the name of poets, authors, athletes, businessmen, and even comedians. Benny Hill was an Alfred; I could have been an Alfred. I almost was an Alfred. Instead, I’m a Nathan—a Nathan Alfred, but no one knows or even cares after middle school what your middle name is.
Nathan is Hebrew in origin, but I’m not Jewish—at least not culturally, who really knows about genetically unless you do one of those DNA tests and I’m not curious enough about the origins of my ancestors to take one. I’m more interested in what I’m doing while I’m here, which I suppose is a very Jewish stance, at least from a religious perspective. “He has given” or “He will give”—that’s what Nathan means. My mother always told me that it meant “Gift of God” or “Gift from God”—doesn’t really matter which one, the sentiment is similar. She said she wanted to be a mother so badly for so long that when I finally arrived it was as if God himself gifted me to her. The name that actually carries that meaning in Hebrew is Elnathan, which often gets anglicized into Nathaniel. I’m not a Nathaniel. I guess I’m not destined to be a gift—I’m preordained to give.
I know, I know. It sounds like a line of arrogant overly self-important crap. I’ve been accused of that many times throughout my life, but you go around as a kid with a narrative from your mother that you are a gift either from or of God and see if that doesn’t add a pinch of arrogance into how you carry yourself. Add to that a prophet in the bible named the same thing, a dude who spoke truth to power, who reprimanded a king for committing adultery, who anointed King Solomon himself and see how grandiose a childhood ego can inflate.
With grand childhood ego’s come grand childhood dreams. I always had in the back of my mind that I needed to rise to greatness. What else could a kid walking around with first and middle names with such high expectations think? As a middle-aged white guy who works in a low-level library job that isn’t very challenging or altogether interesting, I think I can definitively say I didn’t live up to those childhood dreams. The kid that I was would probably think my professional life is a nightmare.
Nightmares are funny things. The subconscious run amok weaving its own narratives that are seemingly designed to keep our conscious selves in check through the constant threat that whenever we close our eyes we don’t know what we’re in for. I don’t presume to know anything about anyone else’s nightmares, but for me, as a kid, I had the reoccurring falling nightmare—you may have heard of it before. For seemingly no reason the dreamer finds themselves falling endlessly through space, down a pit, off a cliff, or any number of other things. The surroundings seem real enough—maybe a little different, stilted, perhaps either hyper-real or surreal—no one can articulate it fully when they’re awake, and the feelings, the feelings are as real as they come. For me, at first, I was terrified. My body would twitch in response to my terror. I could feel it twitch but couldn’t do anything about it. After a while though, I became comfortable with the sensation of falling. My body would stop twitching. It was as if I embraced what was happening, even though it was scary.
Memories are a funny thing too. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel as though everyone around me has a better memory than I do. People seem to recall things from years ago with a clarity that I just can’t seem to muster. They speak with such conviction about something that happened a decade ago and I just can’t do that most of the time. It’s as if, for me, those things exist in a fog. Sometimes the fog parts, sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t know if it’s like that for other people and they just fill in the foggy parts with manufactured memory—yes, that’s apparently a thing we all do; some of us more than others I suspect—or if they truly remember every detail down to what shoes people were wearing. It took me a long time to figure out that if I wanted to remember anything with any sort of accuracy for any given period of time, I needed to write it down.
Things that happened before I started writing them down, particularly if they are traumatic, I sometimes call memmares. Memmares are the blending of the bits of memory from traumatic experiences with what may or may not be the subconsciously manufactured parts that you may or may not be aware are seeping into your recollections. Seneca said, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” Who’s to say the parts of our memory our subconscious has tampered with aren’t worse than they actually were? Regardless of if the trauma is amplified by our subconscious’ or not, the way we internalize our memories becomes our perceived reality of them. Pretty deep stuff.
Sometimes things that happen in our mundane lives remind us of past traumas. Last week it was seeing my manager timidly sitting as a witness in the corner of a little room while the Assistant Director had “a conversation” with me about a letter to the editor I wrote that caused a memory to rise to the surface.
Almost a decade ago now, before I started making a regular practice of writing stuff down, I stood toe to toe with someone in power. It ended up almost costing me everything.
If you’ve worked for any substantial amount of time, you’ve likely experienced a “changing of the guard” in one form or another. In my life before the library, I had a career as a retail operations manager. I was the store manager’s lever to make shit happen. We need some sales—lever. We need to control our expenses—lever. We need to prep for inventory overnight—lever. I need the quarterly NBT report right now—lever. We need to “performance” someone to customer—lever. Just like everywhere else in our modern society, there was a hierarchy. Loaders, cashiers, sales associates, sales specialists, department managers, assistant store managers, operations manager, store manager, district manager and their entourage, regional vice president and their entourage…you get the idea. The further up the list you move the more ass-kissing and deference to the levels above you is expected. Unfortunately for me, I’ve never been a good ass kisser and I feel deference should be earned, not expected, certainly not granted through implication. Our new district manager, the seventh one I’d worked for in ten years, was eager to make a name for himself.
The reality of business in an industry that is driven by capitalistic doctrine with little concern for ethical or moral implications of actions is that the easiest way to make a name for yourself is to see how far you can take exploiting your workforce. Just how far can you push your workers before they reach the top of the bell curve and production begins to dip in relation to investment? That’s the underlying question. That’s what our new district manager was going to experiment with.
As all decrees from on high, this one was etched into the stone of an electronic screen through the medium of email. It informed all store and operations managers in the district they were going to have to sit any full-time stocking crew members down and let them know that their position will no longer be full-time, that we will be moving to part-time stocking crews, doubling the number of people on them, but keeping the scheduled hours of the individuals between twenty and thirty-one hours per week. This would increase the overall number of hours worked by the stocking crew to put away our freight and save money by not having to pay full-time benefits. That last little bit was going to be hush-hush. The stocking crew in my store was six highly motivated and exceptionally effective individuals who consistently put everything we received away and still had time to work on extra projects. It consisted of hard-working fathers working to provide for their families and futures, young adults who were just starting to get a foothold in the world, and a couple of exceptional ladies who flat out made things happen, not of the numbers on the spreadsheet that was attached showing how much the district was going to save. To be clear, I’m as open to creating efficiencies that will save money as much as the next person, but when you have to screw over the people you have counted on for years to do it, there is something wrong.
I responded to the email with a simple, “I think this is a horrible idea.” The district manager was going to be in my store later that afternoon and I figured I would bend his ear about it then, but wanted to give him a heads up anyhow.
Power dynamics are interesting to me. Whatever made me assume I would do the ear-bending—likely my childhood ego poking its way around my adult brain—was wrong. I was the one who had his ear bent. I was told that it was a good thing that I wasn’t in the position to be making those kinds of decisions, that we were running a business, not a charity, and that if I wanted to keep my job I would get in there and let those hard-working people know that they would no longer be able to provide for their families the way they always had or have the security they hoped. Okay, okay, I recognize that much of that is likely my subconscious filling in the foggy bits. As ruthless as the maneuver was, in my retail career I rarely had a manager who wasn’t very careful with their word choice. Deep down, I know that wasn’t exactly what was said, but it was along those lines, nonetheless.
This wasn’t my first time breaking bad news to good people about their employment status. I once had to fire a man whose wife was undergoing cancer treatments because he lashed out at too many customers who had comparatively trivial problems. It’s hard to take someone throwing a tantrum about how you should have shims by the doors seriously when you know you have to pick up your wife from chemo in an hour and a half. I had to fire a man who was notified his wife died because he grabbed the nearest person he knew, who happened to be a coworker, and hugged her in his grief. The coworker didn’t want the hug and he was fired for violating our sexual harassment policy. I felt bad having to fire those people. I could empathize with them as good people who made mistakes, but ultimately it was their actions that caused their situation. That’s what I told myself to justify having to sit them down and tell them they were no longer employed. This situation was different. These people had done nothing wrong. They had shown up to work every day, done an excellent job, and then gone home. Now, I was supposed to turn their world upside down.
That’s exactly what I did. When the crew came in that night, I gathered them together and walked with them upstairs to the back offices where the store manager was waiting. The six of them took seats around the table in the room and the store manager read the pre-canned statement that was drafted by the HR department to let them know what was going to happen. I sat cowed in the corner being the silent witness in case the legal team needed another manager to make a statement.
Looking back on it, I should have quit when the district manager took me aside to give me the what-for. Instead, it took me about a year and a half longer.
In that year and a half, I was under increased scrutiny. Every project I was given seemed to have an additional layer of complexity to it. I like solving complex problems, so I didn’t think much of it. Then the timelines started getting shorter. I was being asked to complete more in less time, to the point of near impossibility, but I managed.
About six months after my tête-a-tête with the district manager about screwing over my stocking crew, I received a phone call from a peer whom I had formerly worked with that overheard the district manager joking about how my position would be open soon with his store manager. That’s when all the increased complexity and scrunched timelines started to make sense. They were trying to “performance” me out of position and unless I made mistakes the complexity would continue to increase and the timelines would continue to decrease. I started to get my affairs in order.
It took another three or four months for me to make a mistake. I was closing the store down, a task that has a lot of moving parts, but by this time I had been doing it at least three nights a week for ten years without issue, so I was pretty good at it. I was taking the bags of cash from each register that the cashiers had placed in the drop box and placing them in their places in the safe when I got a phone call that the back roll-up door between lumber and the main store wasn’t working—a situation that could cause me to have to hang out until the opener arrived at six in the morning if I couldn’t get it fixed. I finished fishing the cash bags out of the drop box and placing them in the safe, locked the safe, armed the cash office, and went to take care of the door.
After about fifteen minutes of screwing around with the door, I had it so that it would manually close and I could secure the building without having to shunt any of the alarm systems points—something we weren’t allowed to do by policy unless an assistant store manager or above was staying the night in the building—after a twelve-hour day, I definitely didn’t want to spend another six hours hanging out in the building to go home, get four hours of rest, and come back to work another closing shift. I finished checking the twenty-eight other doors in the building that needed to be secured every night, went up front, and left with my closing team.
Two days later, I was called into a meeting with the store manager and district manager. I was asked what happened that night and I told them. Then they asked why there was a bag left in the drop box. I didn’t know it that night, but the head cashier wasn’t done pulling all the registers when I got that phone call about the door. There was one return register left that they dropped into the drop box after I went to fix the door. Ironically, the drop box is almost as secure as the safe. Anyone who wanted to get into it would need to deactivate two alarms and have a master key to access it. I had done it, or more accurately failed to do it. I had slipped up, made a simple mistake, and now they were ready to pounce. I had no disciplinary actions on my record, but because my mistake of leaving a bag with sixty-three dollars and change in the drop box was so egregious I was put directly on a final documentation. One more incident, no matter how insignificant, could now be cause for my termination.
I made it another four months incident-free before I announced that I would be leaving in May to try my hand at something else. As soon as I turned in my documented intent, the projects magically became less complicated and the timelines more reasonable. As for me, the end was in sight.
I left there with two things, a vow to never again work for a company that didn’t fully align with my core values and beliefs because I would never again compromise them for the sake of an employer and one hell of a traumatic memory.
Eight years later, I work for the library. Sure, I make sixty percent less than I did managing anywhere between one-hundred-sixty and two-hundred-ten people who were trying to make forty-five-million dollars a year in sales for a giant store, but that’s to be expected. Until recently, I was under the impression that the library aligned with my core values and beliefs, one of which is the right for anyone to express their ideas and opinions freely and unadulterated, as long as they do so with the intent of respectful discourse and debate in mind. Another was that challenging ideas is okay, even a healthy exercise when done respectfully, but when you veer away from challenging the ideas of people into challenging people themselves, for who they are, you cross a line. I was willing to forgo monetary compensation for the peace of mind that I worked for an institution that aligned with what I believed. After the last few months, I’m not sure that was the right move.
This is the portion of the story where I move from memory into what I wrote down.
On October 24th at 10:54 a.m. a newly elected library board member put the following statement out on social media:
“Monday October 25 PRECISELY at 3:30 if you want to testify (and/or email the CLN director [insert director’s email], you may request that it be forwarded to the board). Post Falls Library conference room, 821 N Spokane St, Post Falls ID:
CLN library system (Kootenai minus CDA) needs help finding a moral compass! We are determining library programs policy, and so far the majority of the board thinks that controversial/sexual/immoral/illicit/sexual orientation programming for children should not be officially prohibited (we already have some lgbt story time for toddlers and lgbt/rainbow club for 11-18yo, and it seems drag queen story hour is just a matter of time).
Anyone who lives in Kootenai co. (minus CDA, which has a separate library) may come and testify. IMO, programs for children should be above reproach, the library should not be spending money forcibly taken from taxpayers to promote immorality/sexualize or warp our children; the board/competent adults have a responsibility to protect innocent children.”
Aside from the fact that the board member doesn’t even know what the geographic area of the library district she was elected to serve is, because it includes a portion of Shoshone county as well, or that it’s a library district, not a library system, she also has no idea what the content of the programs she is referring to is or even the actual names of the programs. She is also clouded by an understanding that the libraries are forcibly funded when they are actually funded through taxes that were voted on by the citizens of the area. That’s a weird stance for someone who helps decide what happens with that money to take. It’s like saying, hey robber dude, I know you stole this money, but I have no moral qualms about helping you decide how to spend it, and claiming you have the moral high ground.
I didn’t see the social media post until 4:00 p.m. and I immediately sent it to the director of the library district asking if they knew anything about it and if the item was actually on the agenda. Their reply was, “Oh my, no not on the agenda at all. Thank you for the heads up.”
Then I started contacting members in the community who the board member’s obvious agenda was going to directly affect. I let them know that the board member was organizing an effort to have people come and speak to the trustees about how they are immoral and how the library shouldn’t try to include programs and items for all people in the communities they serve.
The morning of October 25th was a tense one for me. I have a lot at stake regarding this issue both personally and professionally, so I asked my manager if I could take some personal time that afternoon to attend the board meeting as I would like to speak on the matter. A little while later she informed me that after consulting with the administrative team, I wouldn’t have to take personal time and I could attend the board meeting and sign up to speak on the topic.
I sat in my truck on my lunch break, on one of the few days I didn’t walk to work, and hastily prepared my statement. The public comment policy for the library states that public comments must be made by people who live in the library district, commenters must provide their address, and comments must be limited to five minutes. This is what I wrote:
Members of the Board, My name is Nathan Hansen. I live at [address redacted] in Post Falls, and in the interest of full disclosure, I am also an employee of the Community Library Network. But that’s not why I’m here this afternoon. Today I stand in front of you as the father of a sixteen-year-old transgendered person. Person, not an idea, not an agenda, a person. I’m here to articulate to the board the struggles that young adults like my child must endure. In just the last year, at the high school, my child has been picked on, bullied, physically pushed around, and called numerous insensitive names. They are allowed to safely use just one bathroom in the school, in the drama department at the far end of the enormous building. Participation in high school sports is out of the question. They have been cyberbullied to the point that they won’t allow their photograph to be taken anymore, not even for family portraits. Our home has been vandalized not once, not twice, but three times by antiLGBTQ people with three separate police reports filed. Area churches preach tolerance and love and then refer to my child as an abomination in the next breath. Last week a library board member insinuated that my child, and others like them, are immoral, sexualized, and warped on a public forum. These things are not hyperbole. From my child’s perspective, their school isn’t safe, their house isn’t safe, and a significant portion of the community views them as an abomination just because they exist. Now one of the last places that would accept them for who they are, the public library, is under threat. For just one moment place yourself into the situation of a sixteen-year-old having to brave those atrocities as an everyday part of your life just to exist as who you are. Not as part of a choice, because who would willingly go through all that as a choice, but because being less than your authentic self is something that is equally as terrifying. My child, and children like them, are required to have an extra dose of courage to get out of bed each morning and face a world that is often hostile toward their very existence. They are braver and stronger than anyone who is speaking to you about this issue here today, myself included. The library is a place where ideas get to exist with each other, even when they are in opposition. Karl Marx sits on the shelf next to Milton Freeman, Nietzsche next to Aquinas, the Bible next to the Bhagavad-Gita, Koran, Talmud, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It’s also one of the only places in the community where my kid gets to feel welcomed in the same spirit. The programs, books, and materials in question serve a purpose. They make it so kids like mine have someplace where they feel welcomed, respected, and accepted. Removing them entirely or moving them to different areas someone deems more appropriate, sends the wrong message to people who already feel like outsiders in the rest of the community for just being who they are. It says to my kid, “You are not welcomed, you are not a person to be valued” and they already get that message enough throughout other areas of their life. I understand that some people want their children protected from these “ideas,” but that’s not what libraries do. Libraries do not protect people from ideas, Libraries expose them to them, Libraries provide access to them, libraries encourage thoughtful engagement with them—and it doesn’t matter the age of the patron. It’s through that thoughtful engagement that well-considered personal views are formed around topics; that’s what libraries are there to help facilitate. I relate to the desire to protect your child from things you feel are harmful and I don’t begrudge the people who, through their viewpoint, are seeking to do that. I would like to have been there to protect my child from all the hateful words and actions that have been said to and committed against them just because they are transgendered in our community. I understand that words and ideas can cause harm, my family has felt the tip of that spear far too often, but it isn’t the place of the library to protect people from words and ideas. The armor to words and ideas that you find distasteful is hammered out at the dinner table, not in the stacks or through the programs of the library. The people who are asking you to do this aren’t just asking you to protect their kids from an idea, they are asking you to protect their kids from my kid. They are asking you to protect children from other children who are often already more fragile, vulnerable, and scared than they can even begin to comprehend. Don’t be fooled, they are pitting people vs. people, not people vs. ideas, not people vs. an agenda. The request to omit programs and materials that represent people like my child is an act of desperation driven by fear, not an act of compassion driven through it. In conclusion, if a resolution is made and a vote regarding this topic occurs, I would like to remind the members of the board that they have a duty to serve all members of the community, not just those who conform to their personal beliefs. By favoring the will of a few people who want to censor ideas and deny the validity of an entire group of people to exist and be represented in a public library, the board would be sending the message to children like mine that they are not welcomed at the library. You owe it to children like mine to ensure that they are represented and supported alongside every other representation of ideas, gender identities, and any other classification of people who exist. Thank you for your consideration.
Now you understand why I have a personal as well as a professional interest in the topic. I practiced my statement three times to make sure I could read it all in under five minutes, it was going to be rushed, but I timed it and came in at four minutes fifty-five seconds. I was ready.
I was among the first in the room and the second to sign their name on the list to speak. I took a seat and tried to steel my nerves. I’ve done a lot of public speaking, much of it in the last several years for the library, but for some reason, my nerves were on edge.
Other people started to file into the room, including several of my coworkers from around the district. Some of the people went and signed up to speak, some just found where to be in the room to listen. The large room, designed to hold eighty people that was supposed to be limited to twenty-five due to Covid restrictions, ended up being standing room only.
The board chair opened the meeting promptly at three-thirty. She acknowledged the many people in the room and the list of people who signed up to speak and then read this statement from the Public Comment Policy:
“The Community Library Network Board of Trustees operates under the Idaho Code Open Meeting Law. The Board will be pleased to take comments under advisement, although they will not be responding at the meeting. Public comment will be addressed at the next regularly scheduled Board meeting. Comments may be submitted in a written or oral presentation or both.
When addressing the Board, please follow the following guidelines: Sign in before speaking, giving name and address. The speaker may address only library-related topics at regular and special meetings; only budget related topics at budget hearings.”
This is where the board chair made alterations to the posted policy, as it states she had the discretion to do. She stated:
“A time limit of three minutes is allowed for each speaker. A person may speak only one time during the meeting. In cases of disagreement, the speaker must use grace and tact. No personal attacks will be tolerated.”
My hastily written and rehearsed statement, the one that if I rushed would fit in four minutes fifty-five seconds, now needed to fit into three minutes. I was pretty anxious already, but to have to edit my statement on the fly in the amount of time the first person would take to speak seemed impossible. So, I took a look at my first few paragraphs and tried to make some decisions. I knew I wrote it in haste, but what I had to say about the topic was important. I decided I would just read as much as I could in the three minutes and email the rest so the board members could read the rest for themselves. Whether they did or not, I may never know.
The first speaker was announced. His name was David. Somewhat unsurprisingly, David spewed a line of rhetoric about removing leftist and liberal board members, spouted off a few personal opinions about sexual perversions run rampant in the community—not really related to anything about the library, and ended with the declarative statement that “voters are paying attention.”
It wasn’t lost on me that in the Hebrew Bible King David was the boy shepherd who slew Goliath. He grew into the man Nathan reprimanded for committing adultery with Bathsheba. A pretty cringy story where David, standing on the roof of his palace, looked down and spied on Bathsheba bathing alone in her courtyard—today we would call that voyeurism. She was so beautiful and he was so horny that he gave into his lust and had her brought to him, unwillingly. He then proceeded to sleep with her—now we call that rape—and impregnated her. So, David tried to recall her husband, Uriah, from war. Because hell—why not? It’s good to be the King. Uriah was one of David’s elite soldiers, and being a loyal soldier, he didn’t want to leave his brothers in arms; however, he did as his King requested and returned. David urged him to go home, you see, he needed Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba so the baby might be passed off as his, but Uriah didn’t go home, instead, he slept among the servants of the King. The next day, the King tried again, getting Uriah drunk and sending him home to sleep with his wife, but Uriah was again found sleeping among the King’s servants. Ultimately, David sent Uriah back to the war. Then he ordered Uriah’s brothers in arms to abandon him in the heat of battle and the opposing army slaughtered him with arrows.
I wonder if the David who was speaking knew of the sexual perversions leading to outright rape and murder surrounding his namesake or if he just focused on the Goliath bit.
It was my turn to speak. I stood, walked up to the podium, and took out my iPad to read what I wrote. As I looked at the five board members who sat in front of me, and the throngs of people behind them, it occurred to me that no matter how many times you stand up and speak truth to those in power when they have control over things like your career, it never gets easier. Everyone else who signed up to speak had comparatively little at stake. I was putting the safety of my family at risk by having to publicly announce my address to a room full of radicalized transphobes and homophobes and I was putting my career at risk by speaking to the people who are in control of the institution I work for, against at least one of their stated stances. I started to read and heard my voice shaking. It took a couple of paragraphs to level out. I told myself the audience probably wouldn’t even notice. When I got to the part about a board member insinuating people like my child were immoral, sexualized, and warped I made sure to look at Trustee Ottosen. Her expression was a non-expression; I don’t even know if she was paying attention to what I was saying.
Three minutes goes so much faster than five. Soon the timer they set went off. I looked up to see the rest of the board and said, “I will send the remainder of my comments to the director to distribute to the board members. Thank you.” I walked out from behind the podium to applause from supporters in the audience and took my seat.
I could feel myself trembling and tried to redirect my thoughts to calm down. The next speaker distracted my brain enough from what I had just done to still myself.
Marianna—sea of bitterness—I had to look that one up. I don’t truly know what Marianna is like as a person, but when she stood up and said her statement she was pretty bitter. She talked about how finding books and magazines about sex when she was a child traumatized her.
I remember finding a box of my dad’s playboys and other nudie magazines in the basement with one of my brothers and cousin when I was eleven or twelve. I can relate to the feelings she expressed. Some of the things depicted in those magazines are unrealistic. They set expectations that no one should be held to and, at least for the era of publications we ran across, the women were exploited through hyper-feminizing them, and things were done to them that would not only be painful, but potentially harmful, and often dehumanizing. Life, love, and sex shouldn’t be like that. You shouldn’t do things to a person, you should do things with a person.
Marianna continued and explained how horrified she was to hear from a neighborhood friend who described how babies were conceived when she was fourteen. The only thing that ran through my mind at that point was how woefully underprepared she was by the adults in her life who couldn’t explain the most basic of biological functions to her in a way she could understand and who instead allowed her first exposure to the topic to be from a neighborhood friend of roughly the same age. No wonder she ended up confused and curious about her sexuality while being reluctant to ask her parents.
Marianna was genuinely concerned based on her personal experiences which weren’t that great. What she failed to recognize in the first place, was the material she was talking about isn’t housed in the library. Yes, you can find books about sex in the library, but they aren’t the potentially traumatizing tomes Marianna apparently engaged with or even the distastefully tantalizing glossy pages that pre-teens find in old cardboard boxes in their basements. Marianna was afraid of something that wasn’t even there.
Fear. That’s why everyone was there. David, Marianna, Julie, Wendy, Kara, Nina, Randy, and William were all there speaking because they were afraid their children, and children in the community, were going to be exposed to what they considered distasteful lifestyle choices. Jessica, Marci, Ralph, Jason, Jeanette, Kenny, Laura, Amanda, and I were all afraid of what excluding representation and support for a group of people who were just trying to exist as who they are would mean for our community.
As I sat there listening to the speakers, some of who were more articulate than others, I looked out across the crowd that had gathered to speak or listen to a topic that wasn’t even on the business agenda and reflected about what all this meant.
You may be wondering what the big deal even is. If members of a community want items removed from their public library, why shouldn’t the library consider removing them?
For those of you not well-versed in library land, I’ll give a very brief overview of why this is a big deal. Libraries have traditionally been huge proponents for preserving First Amendment rights. Part of ensuring those First Amendment rights are protected is making sure materials from all perspectives are available for members of a community to engage with. The American Library Association has gone so far as to release a Freedom to Read Statement that declares that right to be essential to our democracy. In that document, they address concerns of individuals who feel they or their children need to be protected against what others think may be bad for them with the response of, “Every silencing of a heresy, every enforcement of an orthodoxy, diminishes the toughness and resilience of our society and leaves it the less able to deal with controversy and difference…We believe that free communication is essential to the preservation of a free society and creative culture…The freedom to read is guaranteed by the Constitution.” The statement then makes seven affirmations. Don’t worry, I won’t read them all to you, just the first and sixth ones. The first one states, “It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority.” That statement right there is why you can still find Hitler’s Mein Kampf on library shelves. The sixth one says, “It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians, as guardians of the people’s freedom to read, to contest encroachments upon that freedom by individuals or groups seeking to impose their own standards or tastes upon the community at large; and by the government whenever it seeks to reduce or deny public access to public information.” The document is very powerfully written. If you have the time, you should give it a read.
I was the only library employee to speak to the board about the importance of maintaining the diversity of our programming and collection that day. I had hoped that my statement was powerful enough that I was done, but I was wrong.
I was unable to attend the next board meeting on November 18th to hear the responses from board members to the statements that were given on October 25th because I was working. Some people in the audience later told me they didn’t respond to individual statements from the previous meeting. However, they did discuss the draft of the programming policy.
One trustee, who is also a lawyer, discussed the legal responsibilities of a board member including preserving the right to intellectual freedom, the universal right to free expression, the library bill of rights, and the freedom to read statement. She then called out the board member who put out the social media post for being incendiary, inflammatory, and borderline defamatory by insinuating the other board members lacked a moral compass and that her viewpoint of discrimination is wrong and illegal.
Ms. Ottosen, the trustee who wrote the post, then responded that she believes taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to promote or encourage a sexual agenda in children, further indicating that she has no clue how the library works, what its mission is, or the traditions that have helped to preserve our democracy through good librarianship for generations. She then brought up that promoting sexual behavior is against God and is wrong. I think it’s interesting how pretty much every religious institution has taken a stance on the subject of sex, some even going so far as to encourage procreation to increase the number of members in their churches. If sexual behavior is against God and wrong then why would they promote it? She then threw out an erroneous statistic that 40% of young people between the ages 18 and 24 in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ due to programming and recruiting. I don’t think she meant the library was the sole programming and recruiting agent, but I would love to see 40% of that age demographic walk into a library—we’re lucky if we get 2-3% who come through the doors. I have children in between that age range and I can attest that, at least in the experiences I’ve had in interacting with my kids, their friends, sports teams, and even being a cub master and later merit badge counselor for the Boy Scouts, that 40% is a gross overestimation of the number of individuals who identify as LGBTQ. The number of individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ in that age range is greater than in other age ranges, but that is likely because our society has come far enough along in tolerance and acceptance that they feel more comfortable in coming out, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it by the actions of some individuals in our community. Ottosen wrapped up her statement by declaring that the library, by encouraging this behavior, is engaging in child abuse.
The trustee who is also a lawyer then pointed out that the library is not recruiting or endorsing alternate lifestyles, that the library was offering a safe place for marginalized members of society to gather, and by excluding a particular group, the library would then be endorsing all other groups.
The board chair then stepped in to clarify that libraries offer services and materials for all, that the library does not take a stand on moral or ethical agendas, that it merely provides the opportunity for the community to form choices by making information available. She later reaffirmed that minors have the right to intellectual freedom and parents should hold the authority to decide what they want their children to have access to.
Two days later on November 20th, protesters lined up in the night, outside the Post Falls library to protest the Rainbow Squad after-hours program.
I have mixed feelings about this. First, the protesters have a constitutional right to conduct their peaceful protest against the library program. As an advocate for First Amendment rights, I support their exercise of that right. I think it would have been more effective had the protest been done during regular library business hours, and in the daylight, so the general public could better understand their cause, but it’s their choice to hold the protest when and where they want. Where I take issue with the manner of the protest is that the only people who were going to be at the library for an after-hours program are the people coming to the program. This program was for LGBTQ+ people and their allies in our community. The people holding signs saying “Flee from Sexual Immorality,” “Sexual Immorality is an Abomination to God,” and “Obey God Not Men” are not going to sway the minds of people who have already asserted and own who they are. They were there to insult participants, not change minds or add to the discussion of the topic. They were only there to sow discord.
What makes their actions particularly concerning is they are adding to the trauma experienced by this group every day in our community. These were teenagers, not adults, and the protesters created a space where many participants questioned whether or not they were actually safe.
I was asked to preserve the video footage from that night in case anyone did an official request for it.
The Coeur d’Alene press wrote an article about the incident and reached out to Ottosen for her comment. She emailed them “Moral and responsible adults do not push or encourage sexual agendas on children, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual and it really is not the proper role of government to do so…[public libraries] shouldn’t be forcing taxpayer funding of satanic agendas that lead to the destruction of our nation.”
I support Trustee Ottosen exercising her right to free speech, but I think much of what she has put into the public sphere is wrong and fundamentally dangerous. I agree that sexual agendas shouldn’t be pushed on children, but that’s not what the library is doing by merely creating a safe space for teens who identify as a class of people who have been traditionally “othered” a safe place to exist. I find it particularly interesting that Ms. Ottosen commented on what “moral and responsible adults” don’t do to children, in this context, and doesn’t mention that they don’t intimidate, scare, or traumatize either. Sometimes what you don’t say means more than what you do.
The article spurred a slew of opinion pieces to be sent into the newspaper. Many highlighted support for the library in offering programs for all members of the community. A few spread the rhetoric of exclusion, discrimination, and bigotry. Several people sent in donations to help fund the Rainbow Squad program so it didn’t have to be funded by “forcibly taken” tax dollars.
The next Rainbow Squad program took place at the Hayden Library on November 20th. It was again met by protesters, organized by the Family Worship Center in Hayden, who were asked to stay 25 feet away from the entrance and to not restrict passage as they conducted their protest, per the board-approved library rules of conduct. The library even put up orange traffic cones and caution tape to mark the areas that needed to stay clear. Officers from the Kootenai County Sheriff’s office were present to help make sure things didn’t get out of hand, but they did. One protester continually ignored the request to stay 25 feet from the door and to not obstruct people’s passage, even after the sheriff’s deputy reminded him of the restrictions. They eventually ordered him out of the restricted area multiple times, and when he refused, they arrested him for trespassing. He was armed with a loaded handgun and knife.
What kind of person who is protesting a program for minors brings a loaded handgun and knife to tag along for the ride?
When asked for a comment for a Coeur d’Alene Press article, the library director said the libraries adhere to the principles of the First Amendment, emphasizing the importance of safe, civil discourse. She then went on to say, “If community members have concerns about the library’s programs or collections, they can submit comments or complaints to the Community Library Network administration.” The news article also points out that individuals can share concerns during the public comment portion of the trustee meetings. The director continued with her statement, “These methods are more productive than protesting at a private event for minors.”
Frankly, at this point, if you’re not terrified about the potential of what could have happened, you haven’t been paying attention. We have a trustee openly calling members of the public and fellow trustees immoral. Then she encouraged people to openly testify their transphobic and homophobic viewpoints in an effort to sway board members to form a policy that would exclude members of the community from having programs tailored toward their needs and books and materials that represented them. We had a protest directed at teenage program participants in Post Falls followed by several newspaper articles, nearly a dozen published opinion letters, and then another protest against teenage participants for a library program in Hayden where an armed man was arrested. That recap takes us through November 21st.
The division in the community is palpable, creating a tinder bed ready to be ignited and we have armed citizens engaged in the fray.
Like me, you may be wondering, where throughout all of this are the voices of the librarians? Where are the voices of the people who the American Library Association says should be the “guardians of the people’s freedom to read”?
I want to take a step back and review some of the last paragraph of the ALA’s Freedom to Read Statement. It says:
“…We here stake out a lofty claim for the value of the written word. We do so because we believe that it is possessed of enormous variety and usefulness, worthy of cherishing and keeping free. We realize that the application of these propositions may mean the dissemination of ideas and manners of expression that are repugnant to many persons. We do not state these propositions in the comfortable belief that what people read is unimportant. We believe rather that what people read is deeply important; that ideas can be dangerous; but that the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.”
This is the standard library professionals are supposed to be upholding. In nearly a month of back and forth about censoring books in the library and doing away with programs for a marginalized group, I am the only documented library employee to speak out in public discourse. The library district has nearly one hundred employees waiting for their leadership to speak out against the attempt to censor items in the library and programs for our patrons.
Not a single leadership member of the administrative team has spoken publicly against the effort to censor and discriminate. They’ve encouraged public comment to be sent to the board, but no outright denouncement for censorship or discrimination has entered the public conversation from them.
On December 15th another call went out on social media by radicalized transphobic and homophobic individuals to come to the board meeting on December 18th. I couldn’t be there because my wife and I were taking our youngest into Spokane to get their hormone treatments.
You see, there aren’t any doctors in north Idaho that specialize in helping transgender individuals explore medical treatments to help their bodies more closely reflect what their brains would be more comfortable being housed in. There are a few that might try to do their best, but none of them have the expertise in that particular area of medicine. Trans people here are relegated to travel across the state border into Washington state to find doctors who have enough trans patients to be considered an expert in that area of medicine. That means when our youngest child needs to go to the doctor, we have to take the day off of work, travel to a different state, visit a doctor that is usually outside of our insurance network, and incur higher medical care costs. In addition, we usually have to fight the insurance company to cover whatever is being done, because it’s illegal for them to discriminate or refuse to cover medically necessary transgender care, but they’ll try to deny it anyway.
Idaho isn’t a Trans friendly state. Our governor tried to resurrect a bill that would prevent transgender people born in the state from changing the gender marker on their birth certificates to match their gender identity. That ban would have only added fuel to a fire of hatred as passports and driver’s licenses will reflect what the birth certificate says. One wrong official looking at a trans woman’s passport who sees “male” on their identification with a person who looks female in front of them and that person’s life could quite literally be in danger. Our governor also signed a bill banning Trans student-athletes. The law now bars anyone identifying as transgendered from competing in any sport, be it a team sport or individual.
There was another crowd at the December 18th board meeting—standing room only again. This time, from what I’ve been told, the comments were harsher, more divisive, more inflammatory, less informationally accurate, and more opinion-based. Both sides of the issue were addressed by the speakers, but nearly twice as many came to speak in support of diversity.
On December 22nd Trustee Ottosen had an opinion piece published in the Coeur d’Alene Press titled, “LIBRARIES: It’s about agendas” it read:
“Why do legislatures legally prohibit/limit minors’ ability and access; to smoke/drink/inhalants/obscene material and performances;/firearms/sex/sex shops/vote/drive? Children have developing brains and value systems (i.e. can’t process or filter information like adults); that’s why they’re being targeted. It seems libraries/schools have been agendized to promote immorality. They should adhere to the basic values of Kootenai taxpayers for children, and Idaho statutes like 18:15. Seemingly, some are interested in smearing those they disagree with, not truth. Why was much of the Dec. 1 “Protesters” article about the new CLN trustees, when neither was involved with said demonstration? The author’s assertion that they “listed their political affiliation on the ballot” is a blatant lie; why didn’t anyone call the elections office for a copy of the May ballot? The article also quoted that people yelled at and intimidated the Rainbow Squad children. Did anyone try to verify this by interviewing demonstrators/officers present, or reviewing the police body cam footage? Hater? (Leftist go-to smear toward dissenters). I don’t hate people, but agendas that harm children. Civility for all, but no taxpayer-funded sexual agenda promotion to children. And how does moving books from one library section to another (children’s->adult: where they can still be readily found, but not accidentally by innocent children/against parent’s choice), qualify as book burning or censorship? Partisanship? Some are upset that the leftist agenda that has long predominated these non-partisan positions is being interrupted. Don’t responsible adults of any political affiliation have a duty to protect vulnerable children and uphold the law? RACHELLE OTTOSEN CLN trustee Rathdrum”
I know how hard it is to get your ideas across in less than two-hundred and fifty words, but the word salad that Trustee Ottosen threw together reads more like a haphazard social media post than a formal letter that belongs in a newspaper. Frankly, I was tired of sitting around after nearly two months of library leadership skirting the issue and not directly addressing what Trustee Ottosen was stirring up in the community. I took a day to mull her letter over and see if there would be a response from the library administration.
The morning of December 23rd, before I went into work, I wrote a three hundred and sixty word response. I went to work, where no official response went out from administration for a second day, came home and edited my response down to fit within the two hundred and fifty word requirement for the newspaper opinion page, and sent it off.
On December 24th I received an email from the editor of the paper saying it was a superb letter. Then I waited…and waited…and waited…and emailed the editor back on the 29th asking if it was going to be published. The editor responded later that day stating the letter was critically important and it would be published on December 31st. Nine days of fuel had built up between Trustee Ottosen’s letter and mine.
When my letter came out, I was approached by many of my coworkers about how I had articulated exactly what they felt. This is what it said.
LIBRARIES: Rights apply to all In response to Ms. Ottosen’s letter, “LIBRARIES: It’s about agendas.” It is about an agenda. The same agenda that generations of librarians have worked so hard to uphold, the protection of First Amendment rights from being trampled by those who would silence marginalized voices, dissenting opinions, and unpopular ideas; the protection of the freedom to read for all, regardless of age; and the assurance that all members of a community are represented in their public library. Ms. Ottosen’s stance runs counter to that mission. Contrary to Ms. Ottosen’s opinion, there is nothing in the Community Library Network’s children’s collection that sexualizes LGBTQ+ people. There are items in that collection that represent LGBTQ+ people. There’s a difference between representation and sexualization. Lies by omission are still lies; censorship through segregation is still censorship. Ms. Ottosen missed some things in the “Public Library Trustee Ethics Statement” which was adopted by the Idaho Commission for Libraries. First, trustees “shall not” be swayed by partisan interests. Second, “Trustees shall not engage in discrimination.” Third, and perhaps most important, “Trustees shall support the efforts of librarians in resisting censorship of library materials by groups or individuals.” Our community shouldn’t be held hostage by Ms. Ottosen and her supporters just because she didn’t understand the job description. Ms. Ottosen is encouraging censorship to infiltrate the institutions librarians are charged with stewarding. It is our duty, as librarians, to stand against that effort. NATHAN A. HANSEN Author of “Unintentional Librarian” Community Library Network employee Post Falls
Two-hundred-forty-nine words—the editor chose the title.
I received text messages in support of my letter from members of the community. I received Facebook messages thanking me for my letter from the Outreach Coordinator for the North Idaho Pride Alliance and others. I was even stopped by members in the community when I was in the grocery store thanking me for speaking out on the topic. The one thing I didn’t hear was any comments from anyone at the library who was in a leadership position.
Friday went by…nothing. Monday went by…nothing. Tuesday went by…the business manager asked if I was going to be working on Wednesday. That was weird. In the almost five years I’ve worked for the library, to my knowledge, she had never asked if I was going to be working. Equally as weird, she should have known, since I work the same schedule as her—Monday through Friday—and besides her and the Facilities personnel, I’m the only one there at eight in the morning. I knew something was going on and I suspected it was about my letter, but I didn’t know which way it was going to go.
In my previous career, if I had to bring someone in for disciplinary action, I would consult the schedule to see when they were working next. That’s what was floating around in my head.
I tossed and turned all night long wondering what was going to happen. I don’t usually sleep very well, to begin with, so I’m at least somewhat accustomed to a certain level of insomnia, but when your insomnia is fueled by actions you’re familiar with concerning being formally disciplined, insomnia becomes particularly insulting. I kept turning over a phrase in the library’s Personnel Manual, “Employees will enjoy full political and religious rights when not carrying out their work obligations.” That single phrase should shield me from any sort of action regarding my opinion letter. I wrote and submitted it on my own time.
Wednesday morning I was training one of my coworkers on how to do some of the basic functions of my job when the assistant director and my manager approached me to see if they could speak to me. I excused myself from my trainee and followed them down to the assistant director’s office.
The assistant director sat in her chair at her desk, my manager sat silently in the corner chair, and I sat in the chair by the door.
“I’d like to take a moment to have a conversation about your letter in the paper.”
I’ve never seen the assistant director’s face outside of a video conference call due to the pandemic. She’s only been here a few months and I’ve barely heard her voice. She has a voice that was made to sing lullabies, soft and gentle. I looked over to my manager, who sat timidly resigned in the corner. It was her sitting there like that, like someone who didn’t really want to be there but was there out of some spoken or unspoken professional obligation that took me back to the memory I had of the conversation with the stocking crew. I was rendered distracted and practically mute by the situation as the trauma of that day resurfaced. It’s as if it overlaid the scene and I had to look through it to experience what was happening in reality. I captured bits and pieces of what was being said, enough to respond with not much more than a few words, “yes,” “okay,” “I understand.”
I went back to my desk and resumed training my coworker while mulling over what the assistant director had said. The more I did, the more I realized that the issue of erosion of First Amendment rights to free speech was no longer only under threat by a trustee and a few radicalized individuals in our community, the very administration of the library was now attacking it—an administration made up of library professionals with master’s degrees who should know better. I cut what was supposed to be a full day training off at lunch, where I mulled over what was said, and came back and wrote the following email that was sent to the assistant director and copied to my manager.
Subject: From Our Meeting
[I addressed it to the assistant director’s first name but have redacted her name because she has not entered in the public discussion],
I just wanted to make sure I understand what you talked with me about this morning. Therefore, I am paraphrasing what I understood you to be saying. If I happened to not understand any part of what you were communicating correctly, please remedy my misunderstanding.
1). The administrative team would prefer that I not disclose any relevant personal relationship to the Community Library Network, including employment status, if I choose to exercise my First Amendment rights in relation to anything pertaining to operations of the Community Library Network or regarding elected Community Library Network board members.
2). If I choose to exercise my First Amendment rights, the administrative team is encouraging me to include a disclosure similar to one that states, “This letter does not reflect the views of/ I do not speak for the Community Library Network.”
3). I have been asked to fulfill the two aforementioned conditions even when engaging in public discussions, letters, or any other form of communication on my personal time (i.e. when not clocked in and engaged in direct service to the Community Library Network).
4). These recommendations and preferences were brought to my attention in regards to my letter to the editor that was penned and submitted, on my own time, on December 23rd and published in the Coeur d’Alene Press opinion section on Friday, December 31st, 2021.
5). I am under the assumption that no policy violation occurred in the exercise of my First Amendment rights regarding the publication of my aforementioned letter to the editor, written and submitted on my own time, and that the recommendations and preferences that you brought to my attention are just that, recommendations and preferences, and not backed by the board approved personnel policy. This is an assumption based on the fact that no disciplinary action was taken, so if I am wrong in this assumption, please correct me.
6). These recommendations and preferences were suggested in an effort to assuage the administrative team from being diverted from other duties to address concerns brought to their attention by other members of the public, board members, or others who may be voicing their concerns in regards to communications I put into the public sphere on my personal time.
7). The administrative team is addressing the concerns in the content of my letter to the editor published on December, 31st, 2021 in their own strategic manner, in an effort to navigate a precarious situation with a deftly maneuvered rudder.
Nathan A. Hansen
Sometimes, you have to pick the hill you’re willing to die on. As a writer, as a library employee, and as a freedom-loving person, standing up for others’ First Amendment rights, and also my own seems like a good one to fight and possibly die on.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from my letter. It’s been my observation that many people, not all but many, who work for libraries tend to be conflict adverse. I had neither any experience with the assistant director nor any indication about where she would fall on the conflict roulette wheel. I figured a few things could happen. One, the email could be ignored entirely. This didn’t seem likely given its loaded content. Two, I would receive a well-thought-out email response back clarifying points that I may have misunderstood. Three, I would receive a hastily written response in an attempt for her to smooth over a conversation that wasn’t well planned or received. Four, I would be called in for another conversation with the same premise of what the hastily written response would have been. Or Five, I would be called in for a well-planned conversation where the points of the letter would be cogently addressed. I truly had no idea which one to expect.
On my walk home that day, I couldn’t help but think about the conversation from that morning. To put it simply, the more I thought about it, the angrier I became. The meeting was rife with hypocrisy. An institution that holds First Amendment rights as a cornerstone of its foundational principles probably shouldn’t seek to limit or add caveats to the exercise of it. The Freedom to Read Statement from the ALA supports those rights. The ALA Statement on Censorship states, ALA strongly condemns acts of censorship and intimidation—two things that were, in effect, present in that meeting. The very policy of the institution I work for states that, “Employees will enjoy full political and religious rights when not carrying out their work obligations”—this was far from enjoying anything. Members of the public and trustees can use their First Amendment rights to advocate that everyone else’s First Amendment rights should be limited, but when I advocate for the preservation of those rights I get called into the assistant director’s office and told what their preferences and suggestions are for how I conduct the exercising of those rights. To me, that seems ludicrous.
Some of you may be saying to yourself, so they asked you to either not disclose you work for the library or to say this isn’t the opinion of the library in your statements, what’s the big deal? I’ll address that sentiment shortly.
I had another sleepless night.
The following morning, the assistant director came to my desk and asked if I had a moment to talk about my email. I did, so I followed her out of the back work area and down the hall to her office. She entered first and sat at her desk. I entered next and sat by the door, which I left open. It was just her and I this time, no witnesses sitting in corners.
“So, I just wanted to talk about your email.”
So far, so good.
“Do you have your email or do you want me to print one out for you?”
As if I didn’t know the contents of an email I wrote less than twenty-four hours ago. I could see she had it printed out and there were notes all over it in bold black ink. I responded, “That’s fine, I know what’s in it.”
She started. “So, point number one…I just want this to be a conversation…so point number one, where you say that we’re asking you not to disclose your relationship—that’s not really what we’re asking.”
“That’s why I sent it. Because I want to make sure it’s clarified,” was my response.
“You can void point number one.”
Admittedly, perhaps even understandably, I was a little on edge, and having the assistant director say that I could void point number one when it was a substantial portion of the conversation she had with me only the day before made me bristle. I reflexively stopped her and asked, “So, what do you mean void point number one?”
She went on. “Well, point number two, where you are,” and she read from the email. “If you ‘choose to exercise [your] First Amendment rights, [we’re] encouraging [you] to include a disclosure’…That is correct.”
Then her phone rang. She looked at the caller ID and she said she had to take the call. I was left sitting there for an entire minute to think about what she just said. You may think that’s not all that long, but in certain circumstances, a minute can encompass all the time the brain requires. Insanity has been rumored to occur in less time. My first point was dismissed, or more accurately, voided. My second point was confirmed, even though it is a violation of the First Amendment. This is where I’m going to expand on the, “what’s the big deal” question. You see, no less than the Supreme Court of the United States has addressed this issue. If you work for a private business, that business can ask you to restrict or put disclosures on your speech when it is in direct relation to their business. However, I don’t work for a private business. I work for a library district that is an extension of local government. The Supreme Court has taken the position that the First Amendment prevents government restrictions on speech. By the administration of a government entity asking me to include disclosures in my statements, they are telling me what to say; they are imposing a restriction. They can couch it in language like encouraging or suggesting, but by the mere fact that they, from a position of authority, are asking me to do something, the request can be taken as a requirement. It was as if the lights in the room shifted to put a red hue on everything.
She hung up and turned back toward me, not knowing what just went through my mind in the minute she was talking on the phone. “Essentially, what we’re asking, is…” she let out a big sigh, “as a courtesy, if you’re going to put something—publish something to, like, mainstream media, which would be a letter to the editor, that you do a disclosure or you just don’t include that you’re an employee.” She paused for a response.
I wanted to see where she was going to go with this, especially since we were only on point two and she was requesting something that is not only against a Supreme Court majority opinion, but against the very core ideas of the American Library Association and the policy of the library district, so I responded with a simple, “Okay.”
“But all of your…any other activity that you’re doing—posting or talking about things online or in other ways, you’re free to continue to do that and you don’t have to make the disclaimer or anything like that.”
It was the words, “free to continue to do that,” followed by “have to” that was the apparent magic word combination for my brain to turn this from a simple conversation into something more.
“So it’s only in an official media channels…that you’re asking me to avoid disclosing that I work for the library.”
“Or put a disclaimer.”
I nodded, “Or put a disclaimer.”
“Everything else, it doesn’t apply.”
“Because you are free to do what you want to do on your time—say what you want to say.”
“Well, I would argue that I’m free to do what I want to do on my own time and say what I want to say, even if it’s in the newspaper, but I understand where you’re coming from.”
“Yeah…I think…you know…” she let out another big sigh, “There is not a formal policy about this…um.”
I couldn’t take it any longer. This conversation wasn’t going to be led by the assistant director anymore. With that last statement, she had shown that she didn’t even know the policies she was in charge of helping to hold the library and its employees to.
“But there is. There’s a formal policy that states that I can exercise my right to free speech” I could hear my voice trembling, not out of fear or intimidation, but out of the sheer incredulity I felt, “outside of work hours, anytime I want. That’s right in our board-approved policy.”
“So, for me to take my two-hundred and fifty word limit, that I’m limited to in the newspaper, and erode part of that with a disclaimer that this is not the views of…whatever, is essentially the library telling me what I can and cannot publish. So, yeah, I…I…I do take issue with it. I think it is a direct violation of First Amendment rights, the rights librarians are supposed to be very sensitive to in upholding. There is nowhere in our policy that states that I cannot exercise my First Amendment rights on my own time. This is not only going outside of my inalienable constitutional rights, but it is going outside of our policy to ask me to do this.”
“Okay, I think where we’re coming from, is that this, as I mentioned to you earlier, this is a very delicate situation that we’re in and we’re simply asking you to do this as a courtesy to us as we manage this crisis situation.”
I needed her to say it. There was some part of my brain that needed to hear it, so I asked, “It is merely a request and not backed by policy, is that correct?”
She delivered. “At this time, yes. It will likely become a policy that is made, but that could be, like, six months out.”
Admittedly, this was unexpected. I thought back to all the times in my previous career where our legal team said over and over again, don’t offer more than you have to. This was why. She could have stopped at “At this time, yes.” Instead, she dropped the revelation that they were planning on making a policy that would officially limit my First Amendment rights. That revelation exacerbated an already tense situation.
“So, the library board is looking at creating a policy to stifle First Amendment, free speech, rights?”
“I wouldn’t say that, no…But can you understand where we’re coming from?”
I cut her off prematurely, not one of my better moments, but I couldn’t help myself. “I can, and frankly, I’m incredulous that library professionals have no backbone or willingness to stand up for these rights. It is what we are supposed to do. And to see the leadership of the institution that I’m involved with take absolutely no public stance on it, is just infuriating to me, especially when there are members of our community who are directly affected by it. To me, it looks like the administration is covering their ass and looking out for their personal careers and the benefits of themselves instead of the benefits of my community.”
Those were some pretty harsh words. I never imagined I would be saying them to a librarian. To her credit, the assistant director, although flustered, didn’t change the tone or tenor of her voice. I couldn’t say the same. When my sentence ended, while the assistant director was sitting there with a look of shock on her face trying to figure out where her conversation had either gone wrong or where it was headed—I’m not sure which—I heard the hard heals of the director coming down the hallway through the open door.
She materialized in the doorway, said, “I’m going to step in” and closed the door behind her.
Still standing, she took a breath and said, “I just want to clarify, this was really just asking as a courtesy, it is not a policy. And so, if you decline, that’s perfectly fine. This was something that a lot of libraries just have—that if you’re speaking as a library employee, you know, that you put a disclaimer. The other thing I need to tell you is that the board has asked me not to make a public statement—that they want to make the public statement—so, our board chair is working really hard on a public statement that the majority, not the full board, will approve. I have asked if I could do that and they’ve said that they would like to do that. And I get you can be very upset about that, I’m actually very upset about that, I would prefer to have written something two weeks ago, but I have been asked not to do that.”
There was so much my mind was unpacking as she said those words. The first shots fired at the First Amendment were by a library trustee and the trigger was pulled over two months ago. If the board truly wanted to release a statement, they had ample time to prepare one and get it to the media. From my perspective, one of two things was going on. Either the board wasn’t that interested in making a public statement or they lacked a sense of urgency in doing so. Either way, nothing happened for over two months. I understand that from a political standpoint the board wanted to be seen as taking action—but where was it? There is none. They are actively letting members of the community duke it out in the opinion section of the newspaper, in the library parking lot at teen programs, and in the conversations had over coffee all over the two counties they serve day after day, week after week, and eventually month after month—with no comment.
From an employee relations standpoint, the administration should have said something publicly a long time ago. They have nearly a hundred library employees waiting to find out what stance we are going to take publicly, and they’ve been waiting for over two months. There is a passage in the Analects of Confucius that says, “If the common people do not have confidence in their leaders, the community will not endure.” I’m sure at some point in those two months, the director wrestled with the ethics and the implications of the absence of action. She must have concluded that deferring for months on end—waiting for someone else to take action that still hasn’t come—was the correct course of action. Correct for whom?
Sometimes, as a leader, the best course of action is to do nothing. This isn’t one of those times. To me, her inaction didn’t show any sort of leadership at all. When issues of importance aren’t addressed by those in power, it’s the moral obligation of those who hold none to act. I acted.
I looked the director in the eye and said, “It was your choice not to do it [make a statement]. I don’t begrudge you that choice, but by pulling me in here yesterday and asking me to do something that is not in our policy, and directly violates my First Amendment rights, it is no better than a landowner using sharecropping as leverage against their sharecroppers to not exercise their rights.” A part of me regrets using that analogy and I stuttered through it in the heat of the moment, my brain no doubt telling me to let it go, but I used it and should own it. “It is ridiculous that I was pulled in here for something that is not a policy violation and asked to compromise my principles and stifle exercising my constitutional rights.”
“Nathan, I want to be clear, we are not…we talked very carefully about that. You absolutely have your First Amendment rights. What you do on social media, what you do…I mean, you can do, whatever. It’s just in a very public piece, when you sign it…Right now we’re essentially reprimanding a board member for signing something as a board trustee…And then, you know, then we have an employee that kind of did the counter-argument…I mean, what you wrote was great…You did call out a board member, you know, publicly—which she should be called out, but we’re also trying to have a long-term strategy.”
The meeting went on for another ten minutes. Ten minutes where I continued to see the red hue of the light get deeper. Both sides stayed relatively respectful, but I admit that when it came to calling them out for not speaking out about a trustee deliberately calling for censorship of library items, I had a few barbs on my hook. I called them out for not understanding the history of the area they now served. I called them out for a lack of leadership capital. I told them I shouldn’t have to waste a word count with disclaimers. They talked about how my letter confused people who thought my letter was the official stance of the library. I pointed out the letter was in the opinion section—anyone who didn’t recognize it as an opinion wasn’t going to care about a disclaimer. They conceded that disclosing my employment status was relevant to the topic. Then they told me that new policies and documents regarding how employees should deal with the press would be coming soon. I let them know I would follow all guidelines regarding the press while I was on work time. They informed me that policy changes may be coming that would address how to deal with the press on my personal time. That terrifies me. They said some stuff that has the potential to land them in some hot water; I said some stuff that I wouldn’t have said if I wasn’t so riled up.
I left the meeting incensed. I had hoped that when I stepped out of the office, the red hue would dissipate, but it didn’t. I did the responsible thing and went and found my manager and told her I was going to clock out and go for a walk. She told me, “Don’t worry about clocking out, just go take a break.” I knew it was going to be longer than a break, so I clocked out.
Many of history’s great thinkers were walkers. Thoreau said, “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” Darwin was a walker. Socrates and Aristotle were walkers who liked to talk while they stretched their sandal straps. Nietzche walked up to eight hours a day to clear and stimulate his mind. Kant walked to escape his thoughts. That’s why I was walking.
It had snowed a fresh six inches that morning and was still coming down, but I put on just over six miles in a north Idaho snowstorm before I made it back to the library with ice in my hair and beard. Iced over as I was, I was still pretty hot, but I was confident enough now that I wouldn’t be taking my frustrations out on my coworkers or patrons of the library.
I was sitting in the break room letting the ice thaw from my beard and eating a burrito before I clocked back into work when a coworker came in and thanked me for writing my letter. In that moment, that meant a lot.
I contemplated calling out the next day, Friday—I have over a hundred and eighty sick hours saved up—but I figured I just had to make it through one day and I’d be at the weekend. That was a familiar thought from the end of my previous career, looking forward to the days off, but a new experience for this one. I decided to go in.
I had another restless night.
To say the mood the next day was icy would be an accurate assessment. The assistant director and director walk by my desk at least a dozen times a day on their way to and from the business manager’s office. I still got the same “Hello,” “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” their first few passes, as always—and just like always, that was it.
Just before lunch, one of those etched in stone on an electronic screen emails showed up in my inbox. It was a revised version of a little reference sheet we use titled, “How to Interact with the Press.” I hesitated for just a moment before I clicked on it to see what the updates contained. I scanned the headings on the single page spread—“When a reporter calls/emails you,” “When a reporter unexpectedly shows up,” “When they go off-topic, or veer from your expertise,” “The four agreements,” “When giving an interview during work hours,” and then my eyes hit it “When you’re not at work.” That heading was new. This is what it says. “Employees are guaranteed free speech by the First Amendment. If an employee chooses to publicly speak about the library and indicate they are an employee of CLN, please include a disclaimer that the views or opinions are your own and do not represent the library.”
I’m not sure what to think of that. They did assert that employees have First Amendment rights, which they had without need of their employer notifying them, and they used the word “please,” not shall, will, have to, is required or any other authoritarian directive, so I guess I should take it as a win.
Just to be safe though; the views and opinions in this piece are the sole views and opinions of the author, Nathan Alfred Hansen. By expressing them, he is exercising his First Amendment rights. His views and opinions may not (in fact, if recent experiences indicate anything, probably don’t) represent those of the Community Library Network.
I ended up making it through the day with another couple of coworkers thanking me for sending my letter to the newspaper.
I’ve reached the point where nightmares would be welcomed. I haven’t slept for more than an hour at a time for a week now. I long to get lost in a dream where I’m endlessly falling and can embrace the sensation of just letting things go, but even those fail to materialize. Shortly after I close my eyes, I’m haunted by memories not nightmares. Memories of a former career that took a nosedive when I spoke up, recollections of the events of the past few days, and the understanding that the correlations between the two are unnerving. Then there are the possibilities that crop up; the possibility of a teen being shot by an armed protester because they were attending a library program, the possibility that it could be my kid. The fact that those protests are driven by a religious organization that will continue teaching the rhetoric of hate to children is an additional level of darkness that prevents me from rest. The thoughts, memories, and realizations keep me awake for hours, and then when I finally find sleep, it happens all over again. Not even the weekend arrests it.
I don’t really know what to do from here. Then again, I didn’t really know exactly what to do when I started documenting all this either. What I do know is it isn’t over yet. I was told an actual policy about free speech for employees is going to be in front of the board of trustees soon for review and they still haven’t made a decision on whether or not they will be censoring materials and programs at the library. There is too much that is left undone for me to let go.
According to the First book of Chronicles in the Bible, Nathan wrote the histories of both King David and King Solomon, and then his book was lost. For all I know, no one will even read what I’ve written here or even care. But I know this much, an Alfred…Alfred the Great, who’s reputation would have us believe was a knowledgeable, merciful, gracious, and level-headed man, wouldn’t have backed down from a fight he believed in; and neither will I.