The proposed rebranded Montana State Library logo presented to commissioners on June 15, 2022.

Commissioners of the Montana State Library, which manages a variety of state records and information systems, are considering scuttling a nearly $300,000 rebranding project because of what they regard as the new logo’s visual proximity to the LGBTQ Pride flag.

The logo, designed by the Milwaukee-based firm Hoffman York, was unveiled to the library’s commissioners at a June 15 meeting after receiving a positive reception from library staff in early May. The presentation to the commission devolved into a critique and debate over a rainbow-esque part of the image.

“That is going to represent, from now on, what people see for us,” said Commissioner Tammy Hall, speaking at her first meeting after being appointed in March by Gov. Greg Gianforte. “I think a rainbow as to what we’re doing in the library is going to set off a firestorm.”

 “That is going to represent, from now on, what people see for us … I think a rainbow as to what we’re doing in the library is going to set off a firestorm.”

Montana State Library Commissioner Tammy Hall

Addie Palin, representing Hoffman York, told the commissioners the multicolor portion of the logo was inspired by a prism, an object that disperses a beam of light into its component colors. Over the course of a nearly year-long design process that solicited feedback from library staff and commissioners, Palin said, the prism was one of the images that gained the most traction.

“People really liked it for the way that it provided clarity,” she told the commissioners. “How the prism, like the library, is a vehicle for distributing information in a new and different way.”

Before Palin finished her prepared comments, Hall began asking whether the commission would get to vote on the logo, a proposal that seemed to flummox other commissioners.

“I think we can certainly take action to approve it if we want to,” said Commission Chair Kenning  Arlitsch, who has been a member since 2016. “The commission, as [Palin] said, was involved in helping to develop the brand. I understand what you’re saying about getting final approval for the brand. I don’t know if this — I just don’t know what to think about that.”

Other commissioners also said they were stuck on what they perceived as an allusion to an LGBTQ Pride flag. 

“I do have to agree with the rainbow,” said commissioner Robyn Scribner, appointed by Gianforte in June 2021, who clarified that she had “nothing against” the Pride flag. “But I do believe that Montanans possibly could see that, because I did. And I’m a regular Montanan, so I believe that — I think it can be seen that way.”

Library commissioner and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen did not mention a likeness to the Pride flag, but said the logo did not seem to represent the state of Montana and the information catalogs within the state library’s purview.

The Montana State Library in Helena. Credit: Montana State Library

“I’m looking at recognition,” Arntzen said. Referencing the famous “M” logo of the fast-food chain McDonald’s, she continued, “Will this be able to grow like those great golden arches and everybody can get a hamburger? I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Other commissioners quibbled with the association between the prism logo and a Pride flag, a symbol of LGBTQ empowerment and civil rights. 

“I don’t mind the colors of the prism because to me they don’t even represent a Pride flag,” said Commissioner Kristin Kerr, appointed by Gianforte in June 2021. “It’s much different than what the flag represents. And so, to me, the colors — I don’t go there in my mind. I’m not sensitive enough to that.”

Arlitsch agreed, calling the association with the Pride flag “a stretch.”

“A Pride flag has 11 colors in it. I just looked it up. And we’re talking about four colors here,” he said. “Maybe adjust the colors a little bit. I don’t know what the right answer is here, but I think it’s a leap to think that this is a political statement.”

The state library’s current logo is an abstract stack of books in muted blue and white. Hall suggested that the Hoffman York-designed logo be converted into a similar color gradient.

“You’re representing Montana, and if you put out a brand-new logo that used to be a certain color and all of a sudden it’s that,” Hall said, referencing the new logo, “you are setting us up for a very unnecessary battle politically.” With the library commission and staff preparing to advocate for funding during the upcoming legislative session, she said, the new logo is “a really bad idea.”

Kerr pushed back on the committee’s critiques and suggestions, reminding her fellow commissioners why they decided to hire a design firm.

“The reason we hired professionals is because we’re not the professionals,” she said. “We have so many different opinions about this right here. They cannot appease every single person. Nor are we going to appease every Montanan … I do think that the prism idea is a good one.”

After nearly an hour and a half of discussion, the commissioners agreed to schedule a meeting for early July to hear public comment on the logo and vote on whether to approve the image. That meeting date and time has not yet been published on the library’s website

The commission did not discuss how further design work might affect the project’s $298,000 price tag. The budget for the rebranding comes from the library’s private trust, funded by donors, and not taxpayer dollars allocated by the state Legislature. The commission has authority over the use of both the private and public funds.

The June deliberation about the new logo is not the first time the commission has recently waded into controversies related to the LGBTQ community. Earlier this year, the commission began drafting a Freedom to Read statement opposing censorship and book removals without due process after libraries around Montana considered taking books about LGBTQ people and characters off the shelves in response to public pressure. 

Around the same time, former State Library Commissioner Bruce Newell stepped down from his position in order to lend his direct support to Kalispell’s ImagineIF Library after a roiling saga involving censorship and library leadership. Newell’s seat on the commission was filled by Hall.

The commission is scheduled to consider the statement on censorship and make additional revisions at its August meeting.

Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.