COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — From her office next to the public computer terminals, Bette Ammon finds herself peering through a window to watch patrons moving through the Coeur d’Alene library’s nonfiction stacks.
Someone has been hiding books lately — specifically, those that explore politics through a progressive lens or criticize President Donald Trump. They wind up misfiled in out-of-the-way corners where readers will be sure not to find them.
“I am going to continue hiding these books in the most obscure places I can find to keep this propaganda out of the hands of young minds,” the mystery book relocator wrote in a note left for Ammon, the library director, in the facility’s comment box. “Your liberal angst gives me great pleasure.”
For decades, Coeur d’Alene has navigated a delicate political landscape in Northern Idaho, a conservative corner of the country where some have sought refuge from political and social changes elsewhere.
The incidents over this past year — including a missing book that was discovered only this week — were not the first time books have mysteriously disappeared. Thirty years ago, the library lost so many books on human rights to theft that they had to be placed in a locked cabinet. The latest works to be targeted cover a wide range of topics, from gun control and women’s suffrage to LGBTQ issues and how people of color fare in the criminal justice system. About half the books specifically deal with Trump.
While none of the books in the latest incidents appear to have been stolen, some have been hidden in ways that made it nearly impossible to find them when patrons wanted to check them out. They have been discovered inexplicably filed in the wrong sections, hidden behind a row of Stuart Woods novels, or shelved with the spine facing inward.
Ammon said she and other workers at the library have hunches about who might be hiding the books, but they have yet to catch anyone in the act. The perpetrator has some support in the community: After a local television station did a story about the missing books, one person called Ammon to praise whomever had hidden them, complaining that the library only carries books that represent a liberal point of view.
Ammon said she asked the caller to provide a list of books that should be in the stacks, and while the person failed to provide one, she suspects the library already has whatever might be on it.
“We serve the entire community,” Ammon said.
Behind a lock
The library’s first battle over missing books began in the 1980s, the fallout from a series of conflicts with a group of white supremacists who had settled in the region.
Over the decades, Coeur d’Alene had become a magnet for people looking for a lower cost of living or an outdoors lifestyle away from a major city. Many moved in from California, eager to escape the traffic, crime and smog.
One of them was Richard Butler, a former engineer at Lockheed Martin in California, who bought land north of Coeur d’Alene in the 1970s to build a compound for a white supremacist group known as the Aryan Nations. The group regularly distributed flyers, staged parades around town and held annual summits that brought in neo-Nazis from around the world.
City leaders led efforts to combat the racists, who responded with an intimidation campaign that included a series of bombings in the mid-1980s.
The city was awarded a Raoul Wallenberg Civic Courage Award in 1986 for its role in combating the hate group and used funds from that prize to establish a collection of human rights literature in the library. It included books about the Holocaust, the persecution of African Americans and the history of various religions.
Then the books started disappearing.
“It was just unconscionable,” said Kathleen Sayler, a longtime member of the library’s board of trustees. The library had a limited budget, Sayler said, and the director at the time decided that the best way to protect the books was to put a lock on the floor-to-ceiling glass cabinet where they were kept. They stayed there until Ammon took over the job in 2005 and decided they should be integrated into the rest of the library’s collection.
“My theory is, why do you have something if people can’t take it and read it?” she said.
The latest wave of book disappearances started in 2018. In August of that year, Ammon got the anonymous letter in the comment box.
The note helped the library staff make sense of a recent trend of strange book wanderings. Over the months, they found books moved from prominent displays to the wrong stacks or hidden behind rows of books against a back wall, near a pillar labeled “Teen Zone.”
Some dealt with social issues, such as “The Women’s Suffrage Movement.” One book, “Guns Down,” detailed a political strategy for defeating the National Rifle Association.
And the incidents have continued.
Last month, Melissa Searle said she was restocking the shelves and noticed another book misplaced: “Punishment Without Crime,” a book about how drawn-out misdemeanor prosecutions consign the poor and people of color to unpayable fines and lost jobs. It was supposed to be out front in a prominent display with other new titles but instead was in a random area of the nonfiction stacks. On Tuesday, Searle found “The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment” hidden behind other books on the bottom shelf of the fiction section.
Several books critical of Trump have recently been targeted, including “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents” and “Whose Boat Is This Boat?”
At times, because the books were missing, the library was forced to buy new copies. Later, after the missing ones were found, the library found itself with up to three copies of a few works, including “Under Fire: Reporting from the Front Lines of the Trump White House,” written by veteran correspondent April Ryan, one of the few African Americans on the White House beat.
Ammon said she and her employees have tried high-tech methods to contain the problem. The library cannot afford a full surveillance video system, but one staff member tried setting up an ordinary webcam. The overwhelming amount of footage made that untenable. Another staff member brought in a drone to fly over the top of the stacks to see if there were books hidden out of reach. Nothing was spotted.
Through it all, Ammon said, the library has managed to maintain the diversity of its shelves. In the nonfiction stacks, a book by Al Franken, the former Democratic senator, sits right next to one by Newt Gingrich, the former Republican congressman.
“The Dewey decimal system is a great equalizer,” Ammon said.
After author Rick Reilly learned that his book, “Commander in Cheat,” about Trump’s tendency to cheat on the golf course, had gone missing, Reilly announced that he was planning a visit to Coeur d’Alene to do an event.
He said he is going to bring 10 copies of his book to hide around the library for people to discover.