The Movement To Defund Public Libraries Picks Up Steam

Conservative legislators, in the heat of a culture war, seem increasingly willing to starve library systems of funds

Entire libraries now rest on the censors’ chopping blocks.

In Llano County, Texas, about 90 minutes west of the state capital, commissioners called an emergency meeting April 13 to discuss closing the county’s three public libraries and firing staff. The move came two weeks after a federal court ordered the return of challenged books to its library shelves, noting that officials “removed the books at issue to prevent access to viewpoints and content to which they objected.”

Amid throngs of library supporters outside and inside the hearing room, the panel decided to keep the libraries open for now. But county Judge Ron Cunningham left open the possibility that the library system is at risk, citing the ongoing cost of litigation.

The Llano hearing is the latest–but far from only–attempt to punish libraries for stocking titles or hosting programs that feature people from LGBTQ or other marginalized communities. It comes as threats of violence continue to plague libraries and their workers.

At issue is more than access to all kinds of books. Closing a public library also eliminates access to the wide range of free resources many branches provide, including Internet and printing services, passport and voting registration, job search tools, tutoring, and high-school equivalency programs.

Nevertheless, Missouri Republicans led a charge to strip all funding from the state’s budget for its 160 public library districts. The vote came after a lawsuit over Missouri’s new restrictions on books in school libraries. The budget cuts now go to the state Senate for consideration. In Texas, a Republican proposal to defund libraries that host drag storytimes passed the state Senate and has moved on to the House.

In western Michigan, the Patmos Library limps along with private funds after losing the bulk of its budget in a brouhaha over LGBTQ books. A GoFundMe campaign, buoyed by a $50,000 donation from author Nora Roberts, temporarily kept it afloat. Voters rejected a tax plan last year that would have sustained money for the facility, amid heavy community lobbying from conservatives complaining about LGBTQ-themed books such as Gender Queer. Backers continue to seek funding to avoid closure next year.

At the federal level, U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, a Louisiana Republican, preached his vision for the future of public libraries. He tweeted in March that the U.S.’s entire system should close: “Over time, American communities will build beautiful, church owned public-access libraries. I’m going to help these churches get funding. We will change the whole public library paradigm.”

Back in Llano, the proceedings followed familiar patterns for censorship watchers, save perhaps for the refrains of “Amazing Grace” wafting through the hearing room as attendees awaited the library’s fate. The county panel listened to 15 speakers’ testimony, most of which supported the library.

“I’m in favor of keeping the library open. I’m here today to be the voice of all the people who could not come,” retired teacher Betty Little said, gesturing towards the grounds outdoors, where dozens held signs urging “Save Our Libraries.” “I’m the voice of all of those people out there … in our county we’re all not rich. We don’t all have access to things.”

Indeed, the American Library Association’s most recent polling found strong bipartisan opposition to book bans and significant overall support for school and public libraries. Nearly 90 percent of those polled, including majorities of self-identified Democrat, independent and Republican voters, said public libraries play an important role in communities.

A few speakers railed about available “filth.” One woman spent the bulk of her allotted two minutes reading charged passages from young-adult novels that are, in fact, not on the list of books ordered back on Llano library shelves. That list includes Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Maurice Sendak’s picture book In the Night Kitchen and Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings.

Cherry-picking passages for public testimony is a common tactic aspiring censors use at school board meetings and legislative hearings. It runs counter to legal as well as professional library standards, which require considering a book as a whole when assessing its content.

The prospect of Llano’s library closure attracted widespread condemnation from groups fighting censorship, including Unite Against Book Bans, Texas’ FReadom Fighters and PEN America. Texans for the Right to Read rallied supporters to write letters and testify at the April 13 hearing.

“Closing the library system would be a violation of the core tenets of a free and open society,” said Kasey Meehan, program director at PEN America’s Freedom to Read project. “It would send an alarming message that county officials should have the power to pick and choose what books people can read, and to shutter a public institution if they get any pushback.”


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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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