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Flathead Library trustee compares Montana Library Association to Ku Klux Klan

by NICOLE GIRTEN Daily Montanan
| May 15, 2024 12:00 AM

Montana State Library Commissioner Carmen Cuthbertson on Friday compared the Montana Library Association to the Ku Klux Klan, claiming the organization sent an anonymous letter as part of boycotting a meeting.

Cuthbertson said an anonymous letter “doesn’t allow the commission to respond in any way” and is a “very cowardly way to communicate.”

“And frankly, puts me in mind of the Ku Klux Klan members who wore masks so they couldn’t be identified,” Cuthbertson said. “You’re engaging in similar behavior when you distribute anonymous letters.”

Cuthbertson made the comment at the commission’s meeting Friday in response to an MLA boycott of an annual informal get together with the commission and librarians during MLA’s annual conference in Butte in April. She said a handful of librarians who did go to the meeting gave the anonymous letter to the commission that said the MLA was boycotting the meeting.

MLA leadership says the organization did not send an anonymous letter to the commission. Cuthbertson did not respond to emailed questions and a request for a copy of the letter.

Several commissioners and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen agreed with Cuthbertson that the boycott was “childish” and the commission should reach out to the MLA to establish a path forward. But commissioners did not address Cuthbertson’s KKK comparison during the meeting.

MLA Board President Kelly Reisig said the organization did not send an anonymous letter to the commission during the meeting. In a statement, the organization denounced Cuthbertson’s comparison of the organization to the hate group, as well as another commissioner’s comment the boycott was “undemocratic.”

The State Library Commission administers grants, sets library standards for the state and certifies librarians. Montana Library Association is a statewide advocacy group for policies and resources for libraries and library professionals.

The association and the commission have held opposing views on recent issues before the commission, including the commission’s decision in December to remove requirements library directors for large municipalities have master’s degrees, as well as the commission’s decision to be the first state in the country to withdraw from the American Library Association.

Incoming President of MLA Sarah Widger said in an emailed statement Monday denounced the Cuthbertson’s comparison of the organization’s boycott to the KKK, saying they are “in no way comparable” to the “atrocities committed” by the hate group.

“Commissioner Cuthbertson’s statement shows a distinct misunderstanding and lack of respect for the thousands of victims of the KKK and their families,” Widger said.

During the meeting, Commissioner Tammy Hall commended Cuthbertson for her “courage” in speaking about the boycott, saying she felt it was “very rude.”

She said the informal meeting with librarians was her favorite part of her first two years on the commission, estimating there were between 100 and 150 librarians in attendance. She said this year there were just six.

“I was looking forward to this one, expecting some strong opinions, but still really looking forward to the opportunity to talk with the librarians,” Hall said.

Hall said it felt like she was in high school, with people looking inside the mostly empty room and giggling. She said she hopes next year MLA leadership “does not direct their folks to be so undemocratic in their opportunity to have a good discussion with people.”

In her statement, Widger pushed back on Hall’s comment the boycott was “undemocratic,” saying that is “categorically incorrect.”

“Boycotts are a form of nonviolent protest, and this boycott was MLA membership collectively saying, ‘We do not think you are listening to us, so we will not attend this session,’” she said. “I am personally proud to see such remarkable unity and passion for our work among our membership.”

Cuthbertson and Hall were both appointed to the commission by Gov. Greg Gianforte.

Cuthbertson is the co-chair of the Flathead County Library Board, formerly ImagineIF Libraries. Her appointment to the local board led to another trustee resigning as she had been a vocal in public comment and filed a book challenge to remove the book “Gender Queer” from the library, as reported by the Flathead Beacon.

Arntzen said she wanted to see a letter drafted from the commission to the MLA to both have a record of what happened and looking towards more open communication.

Commissioner Brian Rossmann said the MLA had previously been scheduled to speak with the commission during a meeting but they ran out of time, he suggested the commission put that meeting on their next agenda.

“Perhaps that could be the first step towards mending this relationship,” Rossman said.

Widger said she looks forward to reading the commission’s letter and attending their next meeting.

“The Commission stated that they will be looking to the future, and would like to mend the relationship with MLA, and in that, our interests are aligned,” she said.

The commission is scheduled to meet again on June 12.

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan, a nonprofit newsroom.