While negotiating the state budget last week, Missouri House Republicans voted to defund all of the state’s public libraries. As the proposal moves to the Missouri Senate, public librarians are worried about how the draconian move would hurt the communities they serve.
The attempt to completely defund public libraries actually began with Senate Bill 775, legislation that was intended to provide more rights to sexual assault survivors.
Republican state Sen. Rick Brattin hijacked the bill and included an amendment that banned educators from “providing sexually explicit material” to students. Like many similar proposals, the wording was broad and unclear. The bill became law, and just a few months later, conservative parents began using it to target books with LGBTQ themes, smearing books about gender or sexual identity as “pornography.”
The new law led to 300 books being removed from schools across the state between last August and November, according to PEN America.
In February, the ACLU of Missouri, the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that the ban violated the First Amendment.
Republicans decided to retaliate against MLA, a nonprofit organization of professional librarians, for joining the lawsuit. Their proposal: cut the $4.5 million allocated to public libraries each year.
“I don’t think we should subsidize that effort,” Republican House Budget Chairman Cody Smith said. “We are going to take out the funding and that is why.”
But neither professional organizations named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit receive state aid, which goes directly to the libraries, and the ACLU of Missouri is paying for the lawsuit.
“They’re choosing to punish librarians for exercising their right to question their government,” Katie Hill Earnhart, the executive director of the Cape Girardeau Public Library, told HuffPost.
“There’s job assistance, access to computers, passport applications, free tax help, warming and cooling centers for houseless folks. We’re doing way more than just checking out books.”
Books have become the target of conservatives’ ire over the last few years. As racial justice protests swept the nation after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Republicans whipped up fear among white parents over what their kids were learning about race in their classrooms. Over the last few months, conservative attention has shifted to books with LGBTQ characters and themes.
The Missouri state government is constitutionally required to provide aid to public libraries, so it’s unlikely that Republicans will successfully strip away all funding. But librarians are still worried there could still be drastic cuts that would require some libraries to curtail services or close their doors.
“I think it’s more of a political statement to completely zero it out, but there is a valid fear that there would still be a significant cut,” Otter Bowman, the president of the Missouri Library Association, told HuffPost. “There’s a greater sense of urgency that this could be real.”
The amount of funding each library receives from the state varies, but no library would be immune from defunding or drastic cuts.
“My library would’ve received around $26,000, which is about 20% of our buying budget,” Earnhart said. “We’d either have to find excess funds somewhere ... or we’d have to reduce the number of items we can buy.”
Earnhart said her library is lucky to have other funding sources — if the state pulls its funding, it won’t have to close its doors. Libraries in rural areas wouldn’t be as fortunate.
“They don’t have the tax base that cities do,” Bowman said. “Rural libraries would have to cut hours, and staffing and their collections — which are already minuscule.”
Libraries in these areas are often community hubs that offer a variety of resources to residents — not just “woke” children’s books, as conservatives tend to argue.
“There’s job assistance, access to computers, passport applications, free tax help, warming and cooling centers for houseless folks. We’re doing way more than just checking out books,” Bowman said.
Bowman said she’s concerned about the long-term impact of anti-library policies: The rush to pass new laws restricting what materials librarians can provide to patrons has led to a decline of people who even want to join the profession.
“We like to serve people and were obviously not in it for the money, but attacking us is making it really hard to keep people,” she said.
It’s unclear how the Republican-controlled Senate will vote on the budget. In the past, such extreme bills used to be seen as wishful thinking for far-right legislators. But in recent months, the culture wars have become top priorities for Republican lawmakers — defunding the entire public library system is now a mainstream proposal.
Across the state, librarians are ready for whatever comes next.
“If we’re gonna get cut,” Bowman said, “we’re not gonna go quietly.”