Dissolving library districts is a hot topic. Washington state bill could make it harder to do

By Courtney Flatt (Northwest News Network)
Feb. 17, 2024 7:25 p.m.
FILE - Young adult books at the Columbia County Library. Some people have requested to move the YA section into the adult section because of what they call "obscene" material in 100 of the around 800 books.

FILE - Young adult books at the Columbia County Library. Some people have requested to move the YA section into the adult section because of what they call "obscene" material in 100 of the around 800 books.

Courtney Flatt / Northwest News Network

A bill that would make it more difficult to dissolve a library in Washington state is quickly making its way through the state legislature.


Engrossed Senate Bill 5824 is a direct response to efforts last year to dissolve the Columbia County Rural Library District in southeastern Washington.

“The topic of dissolving libraries is suddenly becoming a thing. The statutes hadn’t been updated in over 40 years and they were kind of a patchwork,” said David Elliott, policy director for the Secretary of State at a public hearing.

The bill would increase the number of petition signatures needed for a measure to dissolve libraries to appear on the ballot from 10% to 25% of active voters. It also would allow all active voters in a rural library district to vote on the measure. Previously, no one living in a city or town could cast a vote.

These modernized standards would bring library dissolutions in line with any other recall standards, Elliott said.

“It ought to take as many signatures to destroy a library as it does to pull one of the officers,” Elliott said.

Four people spoke in favor of the bill. No one spoke against it.

Related: Rural Washington library could be nation’s first to dissolve after book challenges, reshelving requests

Speaking in support of the bill, Carolyn Logue, state librarian, said libraries provide more than just books, especially in smaller communities. Everything from broadband to cooling centers to Narcan distribution, she said. That’s why it’s important to make it harder to dissolve them, she said.

“(The bill) is the right move to make sure a single group or small group of individuals cannot come in and simply dissolve a library in a community,” Logue said. “It’s such a major resource for so many — and a lifeline.”

That lifeline extends beyond this small library in southeastern Washington, said Dayton library supporter Tanya Patton. People in town often refer to her as “The Library Lady.”

“This is not just a Columbia County issue. Censorship is on the rise across our country, and libraries in small, rural communities are especially vulnerable because of our population.”


Long saga over Columbia County Rural Library District

This is just the latest in a long saga for the Columbia County Rural Library District, which houses more than 30,000 books. The drama first started nearly two years ago when concerned citizens noted there were 11 books in the library they deemed to be pornographic or obscene. They asked that the library staff remove or reshelve the books.

The books featured themes of gender, sexuality, consent and race, said former library director Todd Vandenbark.

Vandenbark refused to move or reshelve the books.

"The simple reason that they were not, is that that would be a violation of the First Amendment rights of patrons who would want to see those titles and read those titles," he said in an earlier exclusive interview with Northwest News Network.

Since then, the library moved the young adult nonfiction section into the adult fiction section. Librarians also now allow parents to add permissions to their children’s library cards. They’d moved the “parenting section” to a larger bookcase that includes the “first conversations'' section, with books on puberty, consent, bodies and sex education. They also placed dividers around the young adult section.

However, those wishing to see the books removed completely still were not pleased. They successfully added a measure to dissolve the county’s rural library district to the November 2023 ballot.

Related: Washington state bill could change how rural communities can close a library

Some in the community said the ballot measure would have given the city an opportunity to open a different library that reflects the community’s values.

"Libraries have become almost sacred institutions, which allows somebody to get things into them and use them as a vehicle for displaying this kind of stuff and remaining beyond reproach in the minds of a lot of people," Dayton resident Seth Murdock said in an earlier interview. "It would take a lot for most people to criticize a library. But they've reached that point for me."

Eventually, efforts to dissolve the library district proved unsuccessful. The bipartisan, local political action committee, Neighbors United for Progress, sued to remove the measure from the 2023 fall ballot.

After weeks of debate in town and headlines around the state and country, Columbia County Superior Court Commissioner Julie Karl did just that, saying people "willfully and deliberately engaged in fraud" when they collected signatures to get the measure on the ballot.

More than that, though, the measure would have disenfranchised voters who lived in the city of Dayton. Only 1,076 active voters living in the county could have voted on the measure at the time, according to the county’s auditor.

Related: Judge temporarily blocks ballot proposition to dissolve a rural library in southeastern Washington

Now, some residents in Dayton have asked the city council to de-annex the city from the rural library district.

The bill to make it harder to dissolve libraries could pass out of the House Committee on State Government & Tribal Relations during an executive session at 1:30 p.m. next Tuesday.