eAina Williams-Capone, Director of Library Services for the City of Victoria, Texas, has worked in public libraries for 25 years. In all that time, she says, she’s never faced requests to remove books from her collection — until last year.
In 2021, a group of Victorians asked the library to re-evaluate 44 books for removal from the shelves. They argued many of the booksincluding LGBTQ children’s books A worm loves a worm and Uncle Bobby’s wedding, were inappropriate for young people. Williams-Capone says her library staff reviewed the titles and decided the books would remain in the collection. Most dealt with LGBTQ identitiessays Williams-Capone, and they feel it is important that their collection contains material that reflects the diversity of Victoria.
But on Aug. 1 of this year, the same group of residents, who could not be reached for comment, brought their concerns to the county commission. (The county doesn’t fund the library, but owns the building it operates from.) Commissioner Clint Ives told TIME he was disturbed by the material he was presented with and found it “pornographic.” He says he is also concerned about the availability of “alternative lifestyle children’s books”. At the Aug. 1 meeting, Ives said he would support “an eviction notice to the City of Victoria, giving them 90 days to come to an agreement with this group [of concerned residents]or they can put their library somewhere else.’
Victoria Mayor Jeff Bauknight tells TIME he has ordered the library to review its collection development policy, saying no “pornographic or obscene material” can appear in the library’s 17-and-older section. a little. If that policy doesn’t go into effect by Oct. 1, he says, the city council could consider freezing the library’s budget for purchasing new materials.
The dispute over the Public Library of Victoria’s collection is one of many similar conversations taking place across the country and reflects a new realm in book ban battles. There are currently heated debates about what reading and educational materials young people should have access to going beyond school libraries to public libraries. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association (ALA) and executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation, says she’s seen groups that have already successfully convinced school boards to ban certain books begin to require publicity, libraries are also removing these books—many of which deal with LGBTQ identities or have been labeled “critical race theory” materials., often incorrectly. In some cases, Caldwell-Stone says, they’ve also seen funding from local county commissions or city councils used as “leverage to try to remove books and censored material.”
“They start by talking about parents’ rights in education,” says Caldwell-Stone. “Now they’re saying they have the right to dictate what’s available in the community at large so they don’t feel uncomfortable in the public library with their kids.”
Public libraries serve a separate function from school libraries and are affected by the book ban debates somewhat differently. Public libraries serve as public forums, and courts have ruled that Americans have a First Amendment right to enter and use them. They are designed to serve everyone in the community, unlike school libraries, which are designed to serve students and implement education policies. “If we serve everyone, we should have something for everyone. And that’s the problem,” said Nicole Davis, assistant commissioner of the Colorado State Library. “There’s a motto in public libraries that goes, ‘If you have a good collection, there should be something that offends everyone.’
But it’s been decades since public libraries have seen the kind of scrutiny they’re experiencing now. Public libraries are subject to local politics—often answering to locally appointed boards of directors—and are particularly affected by the rise of “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 material is 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,” Williams-Capone says. “I serve the whole community – that’s what a public library is all about.”
“I can’t do my job under these circumstances”
Victoria’s public library is far from alone in the country facing threats to its funding and autonomy.
In August, community members in Jamestown, Michigan voted to defund the Patmos Public Library when its funding went up for election after an intense campaign by residents who accused the library of “grooming” children and promoting “LGBTQ ideology.” , according to Washington Publish. Deborah E. Mikula, executive director of the Michigan Library Association, tells TIME that of the roughly 67,000 items in the Patmos library’s collection, 90 of them have LGBTQ themes. She says some community members have requested that these books be moved or labeled. The August vote eliminated 84 percent of the library’s annual budget, on NBC News— but the library could potentially get it back with another vote in November.
“Censorship is not new,” says Mikula. “But we haven’t seen this level of censorship effort in 30 years or more.”
In Bonners Ferry, Idaho, a group of members of the Christian conservative community asked the local public library to preemptively ban about 400 books, mostly for young adults, that deal with LGBTQ issues, sexual themes or the occult, that it does not currently have in its collection, according to NBC News. The group also reportedly worked to recall four of the five public library board members. According to a website titled “Library Board Reminder,” the group says its mission is “to protect children from explicit material and design.” (An email seeking comment through the website went unanswered.)
Kimber Glidden, the library’s director, tells TIME the situation is so heated that she plans to leave her post on September 10. She says that if she leaves, four of her six employees plan to go with her. “I can’t do my job under these circumstances,” she says. She adds that, in part because of the controversy surrounding the library, the Idaho Counties Risk Management Program has declined to renew the library’s insurance coverage as of Oct. 1.
In Mississippi, on August 17, the Madison County Library System announced that it will begin operating with reduced staff and reduced hours due to a lack of funding from the City of Ridgeland. In a statement to TIME, Tonya Johnson, executive director of the Madison County Library System, said the funding issue “came up earlier this year and originally involved LGBTQ materials in the library” and has since been resolved without removing any books from the collection. . . Gene McGee, mayor of Ridgeland, told TIME that “the issue is not and is not about censorship of any books [or] material” and instead was about legal issues with the renewal library contact. A document he provided to TIME, signed by both him and the president of the library system’s board of trustees, said that “libraries should provide materials and information representing all viewpoints on current and historical issues,” including “issues related to any sexual orientation or religious preference,” and that the city is “deeply concerned” that the Ridgeland Public Library “will continue to exhibit or make available materials only in an age-appropriate manner.”
As the midterm elections approach, debates over cultural issues and parental rights are likely to only intensify as politicians — especially on the right — use the battles to rally their base. Public libraries and the constituents they serve may remain in the crosshairs.
“There’s a diversity of people who live in this county,” says librarian Williams-Capone of Victoria, Texas. “That’s why we have to be very aware of what all these needs are. And we have developed collections that support these needs.”
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