Public libraries caught in political book ban crossfire

  • Texas, Idaho and Missouri considering penalties for shelving certain books
  • Funding cuts could hurt libraries' ability to provide important services
  • Proponents want to limit kids' exposure to "violent" or "explicit" content 

(NewsNation) — Attempts to ban books aren’t unique to schools — state policies targeting books in public libraries have gained traction. 

Several states are considering cuts to library funding if they don’t remove handfuls of books — actions that would impact patrons who use their local library to check out books as well as those who rely on libraries’ myriad services.

In Llano County, Texas, a public library will remain open for now after a judge ruled they could not take books off the shelf earlier this month. Since the ruling, county leaders began considering shutting the library down entirely.

Meanwhile, in Idaho Gov. Brad Little vetoed a House bill in March that sought to prevent libraries from providing material that could be “harmful” to minors, or else risk being sued for $2,500. In Missouri, House Republicans paved the way to block funding to public libraries, reportedly in response to a Missouri Library Association lawsuit against government censorship. 

“Bleak” is a future where libraries are defunded and content is restricted, American Library Association President Lessa Pelayo-Lozada said. 

“From (age) zero to 100, everybody loses something when there is not a library in the community and the community as a whole loses out on what truly connects us and brings us together,” Pelayo-Lozada said.

Beyond a curated book selection, public libraries offer services like adult literacy programs, skill training, food pantries and can be a safe public space away from the elements. More than half of public library programs in the U.S. in 2019 (the most recent data available) serviced children, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Libraries also help bridge a digital divide for those without internet access in their homes. In 2019, libraries logged more than 224 million user sessions, according to the IMLS, and more than 90% of libraries retained services during the pandemic even when the buildings were closed.

Bookmobiles, or mobile libraries, delivered physical materials to patrons, oftentimes bringing internet service to remote areas the in process.

All of those services rely on some kind of funding. Although the breakdown of that revenue varies by district, U.S. public library funds mostly come from local sources, and the majority, two-thirds, of those funds pay for staff salaries and benefits.

“Libraries are a lifeline to social services and community resources,” Pelayo-Lozada said

Officials in Idaho and Missouri who advocated for restricting access to certain books in public libraries did not respond to NewsNation’s interview requests.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft was quoted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch defending his suggestion to block library funding.

“The proposed rule is not a ‘book ban,’” Ashcroft’s office said. “Put simply, refusing to subsidize a particular activity with public monies does not violate the First Amendment.”

The arguments from those in favor of pulling books from shelves range from accusations that some content is too pornographic, sexually explicit or violent. 

Attempts to restrict access to certain books or ban them altogether have picked up in the past several yearsPEN America reported 2,532 individual school book bans between July 2021 and June 2022.

In one example from 2021, a group of residents in Wyoming filed criminal complaints against public library officials who shelved books some considered obscene for children and young adults. Ultimately, no charges were filed.

These attempts to ban books often extend beyond libraries and can carry implications for other kinds of speech and expression, according to University of Southern California professor Ken Breisch.

“It seems like just sticking your thumb in the dike trying to stifle information from getting out there,” Breisch said.

Efforts to control speech go both ways, said Richard Burt, an English professor at the University of Florida. Burt pointed to the re-writing of Rohl Dahl and Dr. Seuss books, which were rewritten or shelved, citing potentially offensive language.

“Saying some word that offends you – that’s what literature does,” Burt said. “So much of literature will offend people for one reason or another.”

The most recent push to remove books efforts has impacted books about LGBTQ people and race, according to data collected by PEN America.

“It is a very vast and big world that we live in,” Pelayo-Lozada said. “(Reading) encourages our children to ask questions, to be curious, and to recognize the humanity of one another, regardless of whether or not they live and look the same way that they do.”


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