Attacks On The Nation’s Libraries Are About Class As Much As Censorship

If the more than 100 bills in state legislatures aiming to ban books fail, lawmakers want to cut library budgets — which could mean cuts to resources for America's most vulnerable.
A person holds a placard at a "Walkout 2 Learn" rally to protest Florida education policies outside Orlando City Hall on April 21.
A person holds a placard at a "Walkout 2 Learn" rally to protest Florida education policies outside Orlando City Hall on April 21.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

For at least a year now, Republican lawmakers across the country have targeted public libraries over their inclusion of queer and transgender authors and works that address any subject matter related to sexuality and racism.

One of the most recent examples of this includes the Missouri House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans, approving a budget that would eliminate $4.5 million in state funding for public libraries. The move, led by Missouri Rep. Cody Smith, who serves as House Budget Committee chair, reportedly came in response to the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filing a lawsuit on behalf of the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association that challenges a 2022 state law banning educators from “providing sexually explicit material” to students.

The problem with the recently enacted state law, a violation of which can result in up to a $2,000 fine or a year in jail, is that conservatives tend to inherently brand any material chronicling queerness or challenging the gender binary to be indecent.

That has resulted in nearly 300 books being removed from school libraries, according to EducationWeek.

Fortunately, lawmakers in Missouri’s state Senate say they plan to restore the $4.5 million library funding back into the budget proposal that was stripped out of the House version of the budget, but attacks on libraries elsewhere continue.

According to a database from EveryLibrary, more than 100 bills in state legislatures in at least 31 states with similar intentions of the Missouri House bill have been introduced this year. They seek to regulate the kinds of books and materials that are accessible to patrons. If all else fails, lawmakers try to cut the library budgets altogether.

Such was the case after a federal judge ordered the return of banned books to public library shelves in Llano County — prompting state officials in the rural Texas county to consider shutting down library services entirely.

The books in question included Isabel Wilkerson’s ”Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” Dawn McMillan’s “I Need a New Butt!” series, and another book for teens that correctly labeled the Ku Klux Klan as a terrorist group.

After a number of local residents showed up at the hearing last Thursday in protest, the choice was made to keep the libraries open. Sadly, the sensible choice is not always a guarantee.

Last year, voters in Michigan’s Jamestown Township rejected two separate tax proposals to fund its Patmos Library. The library received seven formal complaints to remove books containing LGBTQ and sexual content that were accessible in the young adult section. The requests were denied in October, and now, without funding intervention, the library is expected to close in 2024.

In addition to threatening the budgets of local libraries, conservative Christian groups and other conservative activists in states like Louisiana are working on taking over the boards of public libraries in order to have their way.

Others have turned to violence, issuing bomb threats to to libraries like the one located at the Hilton Central District Schools in New York.

In a statement defending librarians and libraries from the surge of threats, the president of the American Library Association condemned the “vocal minority” stoking “the flames of controversy around books.”

“Every day professional librarians sit down with parents to thoughtfully determine what reading material is best suited for their children’s needs,” ALA President Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada said.

“Now, many library workers face threats to their employment, their personal safety, and in some cases, threats of prosecution for providing books to youth that they and their parents want to read. Our nation cannot afford to lose the library workers who lift up their communities and safeguard our First Amendment freedom to read.”

Much as I rightly fault Republicans for their targeting of libraries, there are some Democrats threatening libraries — albeit for different reasons.

New York Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat in name anyway, introduced a budget proposal calling for tens of millions of dollars in cuts to the New York Public Library System earlier this year. The cuts, which would cause programs to be cut and library hours to be dramatically slashed, would impact the 200 locations across the city. Unsurprisingly, Adams can find all the money in the world for the NYPD but not for an institution providing critical services to millions of citizens.

Thankfully, this week the New York City Council’s progressive caucus will challenge those proposed cuts, but a Democratic mayor should know better than to threaten libraries with austerity, much less in this climate.

For several reasons, I don’t understand the celebration of Adams by some Democrats. Do not rally behind a person no better than Republicans on such an important institution like a public library. Do not look to him for guidance on anything — just ignore him and let him continue to hit the party circuit.

As a Black and gay author who writes about racism and sexuality, I deeply understand how important it is that my work and the works of those like me are not censored. This targeting of marginalized authors and subject matter is inherently bigoted, and yes, fascist, in its aim and methodologies in pursuit of it.

Even so, much as the attack on libraries nationwide is about censorship and discrimination, it is just as much as a class issue — and that is not being stressed enough at this moment.

Libraries empower people to think critically and to dream, but beyond their educational value, they also provide a litany of social services they cannot be understanded.

The role of the public library has expanded over time, often filling the gaps left by other government agencies.

They are places to find community fridges and assistance with food stamps for adults and youth alike.

They are havens for people that have nowhere to go — providing the unhoused and those suffering from substance abuse with critical on-site outreach and assistance.

Many locations provide access to accessible housing, medical care, sometimes even showers, haircuts and sewing machines to help stitch clothing.

They also provide much-needed access to the internet, child care, literacy assistance, small business and entrepreneurship courses, and passport services to community members.

For years, libraries have been a place people turn to for information to help them solve problems, and in America, it is increasingly harder to find shared spaces that don’t require money or a specific social status for access.

Librarians, most of whom are already grossly underpaid and plagued by underfunded libraries, have played the role of social worker, first responder, therapist and, in select cases, security guard for community residents. We needn’t further complicate their lives by toying with their budgets out of malice toward specific groups of people. Nor is it OK to eliminate their jobs out of stinginess and loyalty to already overinflated police budgets.

Libraries and librarians are a bedrock of communities and the coordinated effort against them from the right deserves greater, wider, and more organized scrutiny before it’s too late.

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