Public Libraries Face Threats to Funding as Book Bans Surge

Dayna Capone, director for library services, is a 25-year veteran of public libraries. In all of that time, she says, she never faced demands to remove books from her collection— until last year.

A group of Victoria residents asked the library to reevaluate 44 books that were being removed from their shelves in 2021. They argued many of the books, including LGBTQ children’s books Worms Love WormAnd Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, were inappropriate for young people. Williams-Capone claims that the title were reviewed by her library staff and decided to keep them in their collection. Williams-Capone explains that most of the books dealt with LGBTQ identity and it was essential for them to have material that represented Victoria’s diversity.

However, on August 1, the residents raised their concerns with the county commission. The library is not funded by the county, but the property it occupies does. Commissioner Clint Ives tells TIME he was alarmed with the material they presented him and felt it was “pornographic.” He says he also took issue with the availability of “alternative lifestyle children’s books.” At the August 1 meeting, Ives said that he would support “an eviction notice to the city of Victoria, giving them 90 days to come to terms with this group [of concerned residents], or they can put their library somewhere else.”

Victoria Mayor Jeff Bauknight tells TIME that he has directed the library to revise its collection development policy stating that no “pornographic or obscene materials” can appear in the section of the library for ages 17 or below. If that policy isn’t in effect by October 1, he says, the city council might consider freezing the library’s budget to purchase any new materials.

The disagreement over Victoria Public Library’s collection is one of many similar conversations taking place across the country and reflects a new realm in the fights over book bans. The fierce debate over the content of educational and reading materials that young people should have access to is now expanding beyond schools to include public libraries. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association (ALA) and the executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation, says she’s seen groups that have already successfully convinced school boards to ban certain books move to demand public libraries remove those books as well—many of which deal with LGBTQ identities or have been labeled “critical race theory” materials, often incorrectly. In certain instances, Caldwell-Stone says they’ve also seen funding from local county commissions or city councils be used as a “lever to try and remove books and censor material.”

“They start out by talking about parents’ rights in education,” says Caldwell-Stone. “Now they’re saying they have a right to dictate what’s available in the community as a whole so that they don’t feel uncomfortable in the public library with their children.”

The function of public libraries is different from school libraries. They are also affected by the debates about book bans in a slightly different way. The public library serves as a forum for the community and courts have held that Americans are entitled to use and enter them under the First Amendment. They’re meant to serve everyone in the community, unlike school libraries that are meant to serve students and implement policies for education. “If we’re serving everyone, we should have something for everyone. And so therein lies the rub,” says Nicolle Davies, the assistant commissioner of the Colorado State Library. “There’s a motto in public libraries that says, ‘If you have a good collection, there should be something to offend everyone.’”

But it’s been decades since public libraries have seen the type of the scrutiny they’re experiencing now. Public libraries are subject to local politics—often answering to locally-appointed boards—and have been particularly affected by the rise in “culture war” clashes as state-level politics increasingly focus on what students should be taught, what rights parents have to dictate their child’s education, and what materials are appropriate for minors. Caldwell-Stone says she’s seen a particular rise in efforts to remove books that deal with LGBTQ identity or race and African-American history.

“I feel like my profession is being called into question,” says Williams-Capone. “I’m serving the whole community— that’s the purpose of a public library.”

‘I cannot do my job under these circumstances’

Victoria Public Library may not be the only library facing financial and autonomous threats in this country.

In August, community members in Jamestown, Michigan, voted to defund the Patmos Public Library when its millage funding came up for election after an intense campaign by residents who accused the library of “grooming” children and promoting an “LGBTQ ideology,” according to the Washington Post. Deborah E. Mikula, the executive director of Michigan Library Association, tells TIME that of roughly 67,000 items in Patmos library’s collection, 90 of them had LGBTQ themes. Some community members asked that the books be labeled or moved. The August millage vote eliminated 84% of the library’s annual budget, per NBC News—but the library will potentially be able to regain it with another vote in November.

“Censorship is not new,” Mikula says. “But we haven’t seen this volume of censorship efforts in 30 or more years.”

Continue reading: ‘Gender Queer’ Author ‘Relieved’ After Court Rules Book’s Sale Can’t Be Restricted in Virginia

According to NBC News, a group representing the Christian conservative faith in Idaho has asked that Bonners Ferry’s local library ban 400 books that are mostly young adult and deal with LGBTQ topics, the occult, or sexual themes. Four of the five members on the public library board were also reported to have been recalled by this group. According to a website titled “Library Board Recall,” the group states that its mission “is to protect children from explicit materials and grooming.” (An email requesting comment through the website went unanswered.)

Kimber Glidden, the library’s director, tells TIME that the situation has gotten so heated that she plans to leave her position on September 10th. According to her, she will take four of her six employees with her when she departs. “I cannot do my job under these circumstances,” she says. She adds that in part because of the controversy surrounding the library, Idaho Counties Risk Management Program has declined to renew the library’s insurance coverage as of October 1.

Madison County Library System, Mississippi, announced on August 17 that they would be operating without sufficient staffing. The city of Ridgeland had not provided funding so the schedule was shortened. In a statement to TIME, Tonja Johnson, the executive director of Madison County Library System, said that the funding issue “arose earlier this year and initially involved LGBTQ materials in the library,” and has since been resolved without removing any books from the collection. (The Ridgeland Mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request comment.)

As the midterm elections approach, debates over culture issues and parental rights will likely only increase as politicians—particularly on the right— leverage the fights to rally their base. The public librarians and their constituents may continue to be in the spotlight.

“There is a diversity of people who live in this county,” says librarian Williams-Capone in Victoria, Texas. “Because of that, we need to be very aware of what all of these needs are. And we’ve developed collections that support those needs.”

Here are more must-read stories from TIME

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