Dayton is a cute little town in Washington state’s southeastern corner that hovers near the region’s fabled wine industry.
I stayed there one New Year’s Eve while skiing at the nearby Bluewood resort and let me tell you, the social scene in downtown Dayton was deader than a doornail. Maybe everyone had gone to nearby Walla Walla to party.
Which is why I was curious when the Seattle Times recently ran a piece about the townspeople possibly voting its tiny library out of existence.
DAYTON, COLUMBIA COUNTY — Book battles are raging across the nation, but none have carried the kind of stakes as the one here in Dayton, a one-stoplight farming community in the southeastern corner of Washington.
For the county’s only library, the battle has turned, quite literally, existential: Voters will decide in November whether to shut it down.
The library, which has occupied the same modest brick building a block off Main Street for 86 years, is at risk not because of a lack of funding or a lack of demand for its services. Instead, it could shutter because of a yearlong dispute over the placement of, at first, one book, then a dozen and now well over 100, all dealing with gender, sexuality or race.
More than 100 books?
I’m curious what the annual book-buying budget is for this place. This area is deep red-state Washington, not freewheeling Seattle, so where is the audience that is demanding that many books of this kind on the local shelves?
It would be the first library in the country to close because of a dispute over what books are on the shelves, according to the American Library Association.
“That is the end of the library as we know it,” said Jay Ball, who owns a local auto shop and chairs the library’s board of directors. “It’s insane, it’s just insane.”
Library opponents late last month submitted enough signatures to get on the November ballot with their argument that the library makes books dealing with transgender issues, sexuality, consent, race and gender stereotypes too accessible to kids.
I figured that Todd Vandenbark, the library director who moved from Iowa to take the job only two years ago, might have had something to do with it. He took the job in February 2021; by September 2022, parents were noticing that certain books (called “sexually explicit” by one local newspaper) were on the shelves in the children’s section.
One interesting detail in the link in the above paragraph; the newspaper said the library had had budget cuts recently. Were these 100-plus controversial books new acquisitions or books that had always been there but were just getting noticed?
More from the Times:
The trouble started about a year ago in the library’s basement, which holds the kids and young adult books.
On display in the young adult section, next to “Geometry for Dummies” and underneath a series of Japanese “Demon Slayer” graphic novels, was a book called “What’s the T?” — described as “the no-nonsense guide to all things trans and/or nonbinary for teens.”
(Local homeschooling mom Jessica) Ruffcorn and a small group of parents objected. The book contains sexual content and “was not age appropriate,” she said in an email. (She declined an interview request.) The book is a firsthand account of coming out as transgender and offers explanations and advice on identity, sex and relationships.
The group’s concerns quickly spread to other books they found in the kids and young adult sections. They wanted the library to move about a dozen of them, including “Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race,” “This Book is Anti-Racist,” “Yes! No!: A First Conversation About Consent,” and “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir.”
The Seattle Times didn’t mention any religious connections to the controversy, which is interesting. Thus, I skipped over to Crosscut, an alternative Seattle-based publication that had gotten to the story several days earlier. It said in part:
This latest chapter for Columbia County Rural Library District started during Pride Month 2022, when several new books about LGBTQ+ topics were on display in different sections of the library. Someone took pictures of the displays, altered the photos to make it appear that all the books were located in the children’s section of the library and posted the false image on a Dayton community Facebook page. One of the books was Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, a graphic novel that contains sexually explicit images but was shelved in the adult section.
At an Aug. 15, 2022, library board meeting, two library patrons spoke during the public comment section of the meeting and voiced concerns over approximately six books, all dealing with race or LGBTQ+ topics. Todd Vandenbark, at the time the library district director, took notes from the meeting that show that one comment made about the book Our Skin by Megan Madison was that it would make the individual’s daughter “feel bad about being white.”
Yep, just use the most vapid second-hand quote out there to portray the opposition. Once again, there’s no need for the Times team to actually interview someone.
A series of meetings followed, but Vandenbark refused to remove what objectionable books there were in the children’s section to another part of the library. When he eventually resigned — over the stress of the job — his successor immediately relocated the offending books.
Unfortunately, the Crosscut piece links the library opponents to extremist and hate groups early in the article and gives very little space to any articulate person from the opposing point of view. Where were the local churches or pastors in this?
So I went to The Nation, a major voice in the cultural left, which got on the story well before Crosscut, and ran the longest — and best-researched — piece on the controversy. One paragraph stood out:
Dayton is in the heart of southeastern Washington’s farm country, nearly 300 miles from Seattle, 125 miles from Spokane, and 270 miles from Portland, Ore., making it about as far from the region’s big cities as it is possible to be. The little town’s Main Street is lined with old stores and cafes, including a drugstore that still has its original soda fountain. The overwhelming majority of its residents are white, and most are conservative; in recent elections, upwards of 70 percent of the county voted for GOP candidates.
I am curious why The Nation doesn’t add “Christian” to the description of the bulk of the city’s inhabitants, as that’s certainly true. Or is religion irrelevant here?
All the coverage I’ve read targets the conservatives as bizarre book-burners beholden to national groups that are pushing censorship or worse. No one asked why the now former library director didn’t simply move the offending books to another corner of the library nor why he couldn’t understand the objections that his critics had.
He saw the issue as censorship. They saw it as grooming. There was no meeting of the minds. But only one side of the argument was portrayed as stubborn and pig-headed. The original objection was where the offending books were placed. Vanderbark’s inability to understand the opposition only emboldened his critics to push further.
Jessica Ruffcorn especially comes in for withering criticism. From the Nation:
Ruffcorn’s actions have sparked a furor in Dayton, and even many conservatives there say she has gone too far. “I’m a conservative Christian. I’ve been in church leadership for 20 years,” says Tanya Patton, a special-education teacher who led the campaign to create the library district nearly 20 years ago. But, she says, “I support 100 percent the freedom to read. I believe passionately in libraries and the value of libraries.” In a town as small and remote as Dayton, the library provides benefits to its residents that would otherwise remain lacking. In the information age, libraries function as much more than places to borrow books — they provide access to computers, public space, and various social services.
Then whose signatures were on the petition to place a vote on the November ballot to dissolve the whole system? Three hundred were required. Who are these people and did anyone bother to interview them?
A journalism note: We’re talking about nearly a tenth of the local population.
Too many reporters drop-jumped into this area with preconceived notions of what the story was; they interviewed mostly people who agreed with Vandenbark and left, thinking they had gotten a fair sampling of viewpoints.
But just because you’re not interviewing these folks doesn’t mean they’re not out there. Maybe more of the blame should have gone toward a library director who fundamentally misread the community in which he worked and – when the heat got too hot – left the area for another job, leaving the citizens of Dayton to pick up the pieces.
FIRST IMAGE: Library photo from the Facebook page of Neighbors United for Progress, based in Dayton, Washington.