Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

A shaking of the stacks: The Dayton Library conflict

Editor’s Note: Some interviews for this article were conducted prior to the Columbia County Superior Court’s Sept. 6 decision to temporarily block Proposition 2 from appearing on Nov. ballots. 

The city of Dayton, located in neighboring Columbia County, marks an epicenter of attacks against libraries that has recently rocked the nation. Jessica Ruffcorn, a local mother of two, has led the fight to remove certain books with content alleged to be “offensive” and “not age-appropriate” for children, and seeks to dissolve the Columbia County Rural Library District. The Dayton Public Library is the only library in the district. 

The books that Ruffcorn and her followers have targeted coincide with the books protested by the far right group known as Moms for Liberty, a national organization “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” Their activism involves speaking out in favor of policies restricting access to some books available at libraries.

Many of the challenged books have prevalent LBGTQ+ and racial justice themes. 

Then-director of the Dayton Library, Todd Vandenbark, and the library’s board of trustees refused to remove the books that Ruffcorn and her followers challenged. In response, Ruffcorn created a petition to dissolve the library. The petition received enough signatures to be added to the Nov. 7 ballots as Proposition 2. The Library’s board of directors unanimously voted on Aug. 2 to add the referendum to the ballot. 

Vandenbark has since resigned from his post, citing community criticism and threats as contributing factors in his decision.  

The future of the Dayton Public Library is still in limbo. On Sept. 11, Columbia County Superior Court Judge Julie Karl temporarily blocked Proposition 2. The temporary restraining order granted by Karl means that ballots with Proposition 2 cannot be printed for 14 days or until the date of the next hearing, scheduled for Sept. 20.

Librarians in Walla Walla and across the country are on alert. 

Elizabeth George, the Young People’s Librarian at the Walla Walla Public Library, is still in shock. 

“This would be the first library in the country to ever be closed because of book compliance, and for that to be happening in Washington State absolutely takes my breath away,” George said. 

Head of WWPL Support Services and Whitman alum, Alexis Rodegerdts ‘05, spoke to the many roles that public libraries play in supporting and shaping communities, emphasizing them as a place where young people can encounter a diversity of ideas, values and perspectives. 

“So many things about your life [are] curated and tailored to just support what you are interested in, and so it’s harder to encounter those differences,” Rodegerdts said. “The public library is one of those places where you can encounter those, and [that] helps people learn about themselves and learn about living in the world and it strengthens the community.”

According to the American Library Association (ALA), public libraries have a duty to ensure equal access to information and intellectual freedom, by working to bridge economic, technological and language divides. 

The Dayton Public Library offers services in line with the ALA’s statements on access, including job skills classes, state parks passes and craft supplies, as well as subscriptions to online databases.

Rodegerdts views the library as a valuable resource for her three children and encourages them to explore topics that might be initially difficult to discuss or understand. 

“As a mother … I am not afraid of what they might encounter in the library, because I feel like that’s just part of living and learning about the world when you encounter things that are maybe difficult or you disagree with and it would be an opportunity … for my children and I to have a discussion about values,” Rodegerdts said. 

The future of Proposition 2 will be decided during a Sept. 20 hearing with the Columbia County Superior Court. That hearing will determine whether or not it makes it on Columbia County ballots. 

If it does, the future of the library will be up to Columbia County voters on Nov. 7.

Amy Rosenberg is a trained librarian and member of the Dayton-based Political Action Committee Neighbors United for Progress, which was formed last year to push back against the attacks on the Dayton library. In an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting, Rosenberg shared that she, too, is wary. 

“If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere,” she said.

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