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Library funding becomes the 'nuclear option' as the battle over books escalates

Otter Bowman is one of many library staffers around Missouri scrambling to enact new policies around books selected for young readers. Libraries that don't comply risk losing state funding.
Anna Huffman
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Anna Huffman
Otter Bowman is one of many library staffers around Missouri scrambling to enact new policies around books selected for young readers. Libraries that don't comply risk losing state funding.

The decibel level is climbing as some 20 preschoolers sprawl out on an alphabet-pattern carpet for story hour.

One toddler, who's new to the group, is having a bit of a meltdown, so Otter Bowman, a library associate at the Daniel Boone Regional Library in Columbia, Mo., goes for the surest trick she has and starts talking about "Junior," the library's bookmobile. As usual, it gets the kids' attention and the gaggle settles down so Bowman can begin story hour.

"Hello! I'm Ducky Duckling," she reads. "When I feel happy, I say, 'Quack! Quack!' " The kids cackle and quack back.

But the happy face Bowman puts on for the kids belies a deep anxiety.

As president of the Missouri Library Association, she's currently in a bit of a panic over strict new rules that go into effect May 30 and could deny state funding to libraries over books deemed inappropriate for young readers. Missouri is one of a growing number of places where government funding is being deployed as the newest weapon in the fight over books.

Missouri latest to take aim at library funding

State lawmakers have been considering several bills that would have axed library funding. Those now appear unlikely to pass. But in the meantime, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft jumped in and decided to enact what's called an "administrative rule" — one that doesn't need legislative approval.

"I said I have to figure out how to do this, because by rule I can get it done much more quickly than if I wait on the legislature," says Ashcroft, a Republican who recently announced he's running for governor.

Under the new rule, public libraries will lose state funding, which ranges from 1% to 20% of their budget, if they violate the rules. Among the new requirements:

Libraries must have strict new policies barring them from giving minors books that their parents don't want them to read. Libraries also must keep any "age-inappropriate" books away from areas meant for young readers, and they must clearly publicize how they select books and how parents can challenge those choices. Also, all events at the library — including story hours — must be labeled with "age-appropriate designations" in all their promotions.

The move comes as books are being banned from libraries at rates not seen in decades; most of them have to do with LGBTQ themes or race and racism. But Ashcroft insists that tying library funding to book selection is not banning books.

"I think this is reasonable strings on dollars," he says. "We see that all the time with government funding. It happens with highways, it happens with schools. That is the way of the world."

It's unclear how exactly the Missouri rules would be enforced, or what happens, for example, if parents challenge a book they see as "age-inappropriate" but the library disagrees and keeps it.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, pictured in June 2022 at his office in Jefferson City, Mo. Ashcroft, a top Republican prospect for Missouri governor, is enacting a new rule blocking public funding for libraries that have books deemed "age-inappropriate" in collections for young readers, or that allow minors to have books that their parents disapprove of.
David A. Lieb / AP
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AP
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, pictured in June 2022 at his office in Jefferson City, Mo. Ashcroft, a top Republican prospect for Missouri governor, is enacting a new rule blocking public funding for libraries that have books deemed "age-inappropriate" in collections for young readers, or that allow minors to have books that their parents disapprove of.

Libraries scramble to comply, with their future on the line

"I really don't know how it would work," Ashcroft says. "I could potentially see maybe a parent sues my office and says, 'Hey, you're not allowed to fund them. They're not doing what they said they're doing.' But that would then be decided in a court of law."

The uncertainty, and the new reality libraries are suddenly facing has left many librarians, like Bowman, scared about their future.

"I think we're all just in shock," she says. "It's not clear-cut at all how in the world this is going to work, and there's so much that could go wrong."

Bowman has been scrambling with attorneys to figure out what exactly libraries need to do to comply, for example, with the new requirements for parental approval. The state is giving them a grace period of a few months to figure it out.

Attorneys for the libraries advise it's not possible to manage which individual parents are OK with which specific books, or to monitor what every kid is looking at or checking out. (Many libraries now have self-checkouts.) Instead, the attorneys say, libraries should reissue new library cards to all members with the disclaimer that if parents are not OK with their child having full access, they shouldn't allow their child to get a card.

Still, Bowman says, one misstep or one parent upset that their teen wandered into the adult section of the library could prove catastrophic.

"It's terrifying," she says with a sigh. "I could go home thinking, 'Oh my goodness, I just cost my library $160,000,' because that's the amount of state aid we would lose if we violated the rule."

Library critics say funding cuts give citizens the last word

Indeed, what started as skirmishes over individual book titles and escalated into threats of jail or fines now poses an existential threat to some libraries.

"Any proposal to defund the library is the nuclear option," says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. "It's an attack on education, it's an attack on the public good. And the idea is very much alive and gaining steam."

In Texas, a bill would defund public libraries that allow drag show story times for children.

And while Llano County, Texas, just dodged a bullet that would have defunded libraries there — following a flap over books deemed offensive — others were not so lucky.

In Jamestown Township, Mich., the Patmos Library is facing closure after voters shot down local funding. And in Arkansas, The Craighead County Library System saw its local funding cut in half after complaints about books and an LGBTQ exhibit.

"The citizens thought some material was too sexually explicit to be in the children's section — or even in the young adult section-- and the library board disagreed and kept the material where it was," says Arkansas state Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican who represents that area and supported the local cuts.

"That's why we vote," he says. "The citizens have the final say. That's the American way."

Sullivan dismisses some library complaints that funding is being used as a club to bully them into compliance.

"All elections send a message. You know, it's the will of the people," he says. "And if they're upset with how the government is spending their money, that's the recourse of the electorate."

Signs urged local voters to vote "no" and defund the Patmos Library in Jamestown Township, Mich., after some residents objected to books they thought were inappropriate for young readers. The "no" votes prevailed, and the library says without the tax dollars, it may have to close.
Tricia Kryda / Tricia Kryda
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Tricia Kryda
Signs urged local voters to vote "no" and defund the Patmos Library in Jamestown Township, Mich., after some residents objected to books they thought were inappropriate for young readers. The "no" votes prevailed, and the library says without the tax dollars, it may have to close.

"Where does it end?"

Meantime, the Craighead County libraries are fighting to survive. Jonesboro Library Director Vanessa Adams says she's considering closing branches and slashing book buys and staff as well as programming for kids and the elderly. Library hours also will likely have to be cut, she says, which would limit internet access for many people who don't have it at home.

"It's very frightening and very upsetting," she says. "You have to take drastic measures, and it's nothing I learned in library school."

Adams also worries the funding threats might be just the beginning.

Children's librarian Stacie Madkins looks at books for story time at the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library. Because of funding cuts, local libraries are slashing spending and staff. Some branches might have to close.
Chrissy Holbrook / Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library
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Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library
Children's librarian Stacie Madkins looks at books for story time at the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library. Because of funding cuts, local libraries are slashing spending and staff. Some branches might have to close.

So does Carol Dawe, cooperative director of the Lakeland Library Cooperative in Michigan, who's been working with the recently defunded Patmos library. She says she's already seeing the slippery slope.

"One of the board members said, 'Well, what about this book? It's about underage drinking, and underage drinking is illegal, so why would we have this book in the library?' " Dawe recalls. "And my question would be, 'Where does that end? And what are you doing next? Where does this end?' "

U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, a Republican from Louisiana, has a thought on that.

Higgins recently tweeted about the future of public libraries, saying libraries have become "grooming centers" and that he wants to change the "whole public library paradigm" and help get funding for "beautiful, church-owned public-access libraries." His office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

"I will tell you, I'm not supposed to swear on NPR, but that's some of the scariest s*** I ever heard," says Alexi Giannoulias, Democratic secretary of state in Illinois.

Library supporters launch a counteroffensive

After watching the threat of funding cuts being aimed at libraries that refuse to pull books from their shelves, Giannoulias decided to turn that same tactic around — and threaten libraries that do ban books.

Now, legislation headed to governor's desk would make state library grants available only to those that explicitly oppose book bans.

"This is our way of fighting back," he says. "In Chicago, they say, 'If they bring a knife, you bring a gun.' "

Connecticut lawmakers are considering something similar: A bill would award extra money to so-called sanctuary libraries that do not ban books.

Whether by carrot or stick, Illinois state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, a Democrat who sponsored the bill there, says "taxpayer dollars should not be supporting [those who are] caving to the mob" and banning books.

But others are less sanguine. Caldwell-Stone from the American Library Association says she "deeply appreciates" the sentiment and support but believes it's unwise for anyone to use funding as a lever to control which books do or don't end up on library shelves.

The better strategy, she says, is an electoral one. "We should just be out there defending the freedom to read," Caldwell-Stone says. "We just need to stand up and speak out at board meetings to make sure we know who we're electing to the board seats, and where elected officials stand on supporting civil liberties, the First Amendment, the right to read — and holding them to it."

Adams, the director of the Arkansas library whose funding was sliced in half, learned that lesson the hard way. When funding was on the ballot there, only 20% of voters showed up at the polls and the funding cut passed by just 48 votes.

"If that doesn't tell you how important it is to get out and vote, I don't know what does, because 48 votes cost us $2 million," Adams says.

Now, Adams is spending some of the limited money the library has left on a consultant to help with its public messaging. As she puts it, we need to remind people about the value of their local public library.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.