Tag Archives: libraries

They’re Coming For Those Subversive Librarians…

I regularly read Juanita Jean, The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Shop, to keep up with the governmental insanities we’ve come to expect in the Lone Star State and elsewhere. A recent post reported that a Texas county has joined the battle against those dangerous librarians who are threating…something or other.

Poor Llano County. Some federal judge has just ordered the county to return twelve (yes, count ’em, 12) children’s books to their public library shelves. It seems that the books offended the sensibilities of some adults who object to the racial and LGBT+ issues that are raised in them.

So rather than complying with the judge’s order, Llano County Commissioners are considering an old and accepted recourse: the equivalent of filling in the swimming pool.

Rather than bend to the Feds, the Llano County Commission is studying on nose-thumbing (and nose-cutting/face-spiteing) by closing all of their county libraries.

It’s a really great solution, see. No one can blame them for depriving their children of learning about racism and gender issues if no one in the county can learn about anything at all.

The Commisioners later backed down in the face of ferocious public pushback.

Texas isn’t alone. Republicans all over the country are moving against these purveyors of books with language or ideas that the GOP finds unacceptable. In Missouri, House Republicans recently voted to defund all of the state’s public libraries.  The Republican chair of the budget committee was quoted as saying  that cutting the aid was retaliation for an ACLU lawsuit to overturn a new state law banning sexually explicit material in school libraries.

Apparently,  books and libraries are  “woke.”

Librarians are reeling from the onslaught.In one instance reported by the Guardian, library personnel who had planned to launch a bookmobile in a bus that would visit various sites across town, including three schools, abandoned that plan when a law criminalizing anybody “who makes visually explicit materials available at a school” went into effect. They decided to keep the bookmobile away from schools, noting that violators of the new, nebulously worded law would face up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. As one of the librarians explained, “We are unsure on what someone can interpret as sexually explicit.”

The quotation reminded me of a passage in Nadine Strossin’s 1996 book, Defending Pornography. Since “porn” is in the eye of the beholder,  Strossin wrote “If it turns you on, it’s pornography. If it turns me on, it’s erotica.”

Throwing around and misusing vague labels, of course, is what those who have appropriated and misused the label “conservatives” love to do.

Conservative parent groups that formed to oppose masks during the pandemic, only to pivot to the fight against “critical race theory”, have now begun to focus on scrutinizing books, often by and about queer and Black people, and lobbying for their removal from library shelves. Politicians have hopped on the bandwagon, drafting legislation to supposedly protect children against indoctrination and predation, calling out books by name and making it impossible for the people who run schools and libraries to do their jobs. Fringe activists and government officials are taking to social media, holding meet ups, and riling up their bases with reports of indoctrination, propaganda and the supposedly pornographic materials that lurk on the bookshelves of public institutions.

The culture warriors out to terrorize Marian the Librarian are seeing considerable success. In an Urban Library Trauma study conducted in 2022, more than two-thirds of respondents reported encountering violent or aggressive behavior from patrons at their library.

Conservative parent groups such as Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education and Parents Defending Education aren’t the only ones invested in the fight against books by Black and LGBTQ+ authors. Rightwing extremist groups have also adopted the cause. Proud Boys have taken to storming into Drag Queen Story Hour events, for instance, causing serious fear for patrons and librarians.

Lest we give these censors the benefit of the doubt, thinking they are identifying mostly trashy books, it’s instructive to consult the AIA’s annual list of the most frequently challenged books. Among others, recent lists include Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

The list as a whole is revealing: challenges are overwhelmingly aimed at books by or about LGBTQ+ people, and books critical of racism. According to Google, the most censored books of all times are 1984, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, The Color Purple,The Great Gatsby, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and
Lord of the Flies.

Twentieth -century political philosopher Alexander Mieklejohn said it best: People afraid of an idea–any idea–are unfit for self-government. 

The Library And The Culture War

Over the years, I have come to admire two professions above most others: social workers and librarians. The social workers I’ve come to know are simply wonderful human beings–compassionate, caring and non-judgmental. (If we admire traits we personally lack, that would explain my awe about that “non-judgmental” thing…) The librarians I know are dedicated protectors of the First Amendment, and absolutely fearless defenders of our right as individuals to access whatever information interests us.

The traits of both professions are obviously anathema to the White Christian Nationalists who control today’s GOP . Those culture warriors are especially intent upon controlling what other people can read, and that single-minded devotion to cultural control brings them into fairly regular conflict with librarians and the mission of the nation’s libraries, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked by a recent headline from The Guardian: US library defunded after refusing to censor LGBTQ authors: ‘We will not ban the books.’

A small-town library is at risk of shutting down after residents of Jamestown, Michigan, voted to defund it rather than tolerate certain LGBTQ+-themed books.

Residents voted on Tuesday to block a renewal of funds tied to property taxes, Bridge Michigan reported.

 The vote leaves the library with funds through the first quarter of next year. Once a reserve fund is used up, it would be forced to close, Larry Walton, the library board’s president, told Bridge Michigan – harming not just readers but the community at large. Beyond books, residents visit the library for its wifi, he said, and it houses the very room where the vote took place.

“Our libraries are places to read, places to gather, places to socialize, places to study, places to learn. I mean, they’re the heart of every community,” Deborah Mikula, executive director of the Michigan Library Association, told the Guardian. “So how can you lose that?”

What was the library’s sin? It refused to remove materials about sexual orientation from its shelves–materials that the residents asserted were “grooming” children to adopt a “gay lifestyle.”

The controversy in Jamestown began with a complaint about a memoir by a nonbinary writer, but it soon spiraled into a campaign against Patmos Library itself. After a parent complained about Gender Queer: a Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, a graphic novel about the author’s experience coming out as nonbinary, dozens showed up at library board meetings, demanding the institution drop the book. (The book, which includes depictions of sex, was in the adult section of the library.) Complaints began to target other books with LGBTQ+ themes.

One library director resigned, telling Bridge she had been harassed and accused of indoctrinating kids; her successor, Matt Lawrence, also left the job. Though the library put Kobabe’s book behind the counter rather than on the shelves, the volumes remained available.

“We, the board, will not ban the books,” Walton told Associated Press on Thursday….

The library’s refusal to submit to the demands led to a campaign urging residents to vote against renewed funding for the library. A group calling itself Jamestown Conservatives handed out flyers condemning Gender Queer for showing “extremely graphic sexual illustrations of two people of the same gender”, criticizing a library director who “promoted the LGBTQ ideology” and calling for making the library “a safe and neutral place for our kids”. On Facebook, the group says it exists to “keep our children safe, and protect their purity, as well as to keep the nuclear family intact as God designed”.

I’m sure the person who wrote that had spoken to God personally about the threat. (That’s sarcasm. I admitted I’m judgmental…)

Apparently, libraries across the country are facing a surge in similar demands to ban books. The American Library Association has identified 729 challenges to “library, school and university materials and services” just in the last year–and an estimated 1,600 challenges or removals of individual books. That figure was up from 273 books the year before.

“We’re seeing what appears to be a campaign to remove books, particularly books dealing with LGBTQIA themes and books dealing with racism,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, head of the ALA’s office for intellectual freedom, told the Guardian last year.

There is certainly “grooming” going on, but those responsible aren’t trying to sell small children on the glories of homosexuality, or destroy what’s left of the nuclear family. The real “grooming” has been done by hate-mongers like Alex Jones, the late and non-lamented Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson and his fellow-travelers on Fox News–aided and abetted by fundamentalist churches and  various Rightwing organizations.

The GOP’s groomers play to the racism, misogyny and homophobia of their White Christian Nationalist base, encouraging them to direct their hysterical fear of cultural change at the nation’s libraries.

In this fight, my money is on the librarians.


Libraries and Social Justice

Recently I was asked to speak to a group of library science students about the connections between libraries and social justice. I hadn’t previously thought about those connections, but I did some thinking and some reading….Here are the highlights of the ensuing talk. (It was a bit long, even for a “Sunday Sermon” so I’ve edited it pretty heavily….)


There are some obvious ways in which libraries can serve the goals of social justice—ensuring that collections include sufficient information about the history of social justice struggles, the principles and philosophy, contemporary resources and the like.

Librarians can also advance social justice is by designing outreach services that meet the needs of underrepresented communities.

As important as these very practical activities are, I want to make a more theoretical argument for the role of libraries and librarians in promoting social justice.

The term social justice is inevitably defined in the context of a particular society, a particular form of governance. Take, for example, one of the many definitions of the term:

“… promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity.” It exists when “all people share a common humanity and therefore have a right to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources.” In conditions of social justice, people are “not be discriminated against, nor their welfare and well-being constrained or prejudiced on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliations, age, race, belief, disability, location, social class, socioeconomic circumstances, or other characteristic of background or group membership.”

Challenging injustice. Equitable treatment. Human rights. Discrimination. Each of those terms is subject to wide variations in meaning—all are “constructed,” which is to say understood differently by different societies in different times.

We are concerned, obviously, with social justice in the American framework. And American libraries—like American conceptions of social justice– are creatures of a particular approach to the age-old question: how shall people live together?

I would argue that libraries as we know them are important protectors of what I call “the American Idea.” Some years ago, I wrote an essay about the importance of libraries to democratic citizenship:

I spent six years as Executive Director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, and of all the lessons I learned during that time, the most profound was this: the future of western liberal democracy rests on the preservation of intellectual freedom. That preservation, of course, is the library’s mission.

If that statement seems extravagant, consider both the ideological basis of liberal democracy and the nature of contemporary threats to that tradition.

Our national history would have been impossible without the Enlightenment concept of the individual as a rights-bearing, autonomous being. That concept is integral to our legal system; it is the foundation upon which our forbears erected the Bill of Rights. The Founders envisioned the good society as one composed of morally independent citizens whose rights in certain important circumstances “trumped” both the dictates of the state and the desires of the majority.….The First Amendment is really an integrated whole, protecting our individual rights to receive and disseminate information and ideas, to consider arguments and theories, to form our own beliefs and craft our own consciences.  It answers the fundamental social question– who shall decide? — by vesting that authority in each individual, subject to and consistent with the equal rights of others.

Our whole experiment with democratic governance rests on that foundation.  Implicit in the First Amendment is the legal system’s concept of personal responsibility, the University’s commitment to academic freedom, the moral authority of the clergy, the independence of the media, and the legitimacy of the political process.

Those who oppose free expression rarely, if ever, see themselves in opposition to the western liberal democratic tradition.  Most of the people who want to ban the book or painting are simply acting on their belief in the nature of the public good. Censors see unrestrained freedom as a threat to the social fabric, while civil libertarians believe the greater danger consists in empowering the state to suppress “dangerous” or “offensive” ideas. Censors see no reason to protect expression of low value—no point in protecting the marketplace for the exchange of shoddy goods. They have enormous difficulty understanding the difference between protection of the principle of free speech and an implicit endorsement of the offensive material at hand. And they have little or no appreciation for the argument that once one hands over to the state the authority to decide which ideas have value, no ideas are safe.

I spent my years at the ACLU battling attempts to control what others might read, hear or download.  I attended a public meeting in Valparaiso, Indiana, where an angry proponent of an ordinance to “clean up” local video stores called me “a whore.” I was accused of abetting racism for upholding the right of the KKK to demonstrate at the Statehouse. I was criticized for failure to care about children when I objected to a proposal restricting minors’ access to library materials.  In each of these cases, and dozens of others, the people who wanted to suppress materials generally had the best of motives: they wanted to protect others from ideas they believed to be dangerous. To them, I appeared oblivious to the potential for evil. At best, they considered me a naïve First Amendment “purist;” at worst, a moral degenerate.……..People try to remove materials from library shelves or the corner video store because they find the materials offensive. They try to prevent Klan marches because they disagree strongly with the hateful message of the Klan. Their arguments are against these particular ideasThey are not generally trying to strengthen the power of the state, nor intending to circumscribe the exercise of personal moral autonomy. Civil libertarians see those outcomes as inevitable consequences of censorship, however, and so those are the issues we address. In a very real sense, it is a case of culture warriors talking past each other.

Here’s my basic proposition: civil liberties of every kind depend upon  and require intellectual freedom. Social justice, as conceived in our particular system, rests on fidelity to those other constitutional rights—especially the 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection of the laws. Social justice and civil liberties are inextricably connected, and both require intellectual freedom.

For evidence, let’s revisit—and consider the elements of– the definition of social justice I shared earlier:

“… promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity.” Libraries safeguard the history of battles against injustice, the works of philosophers who offered contending perspectives on what is just and unjust. By their nature, by housing any and all ideas, libraries celebrate intellectual diversity.

 Social justice exists when “all people share a common humanity and therefore have a right to equitable treatment” Libraries treat all patrons as self-directed persons with inalienable rights to access materials of their own choosing. Librarians thus model the attitude that all people share a common humanity, and they provide role models for the provision of equitable treatment.

 Social justice includes “support for human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources.” There are numerous ways in which libraries support human rights, beginning with the human right to access information. Libraries are also a community resource, an intellectual infrastructure that is made available to all members of the community.

 In conditions of social justice, people are “not be discriminated against, nor their welfare and well-being constrained or prejudiced on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliations, age, race, belief, disability, location, social class, socioeconomic circumstances, or other characteristic of background or group membership.” I’m not going to belabor this definition further, but I’ve never encountered a situation in which a librarian refused to help a patron based upon such criteria.

 I’ll just conclude by quoting an article by a librarian on the issue of libraries and social justice:

 Broadly speaking, social justice issues reflect movements that push for greater voice and more representation for underrepresented or underpowered communities. Because libraries and librarians are tasked to serve all communities, we are inherently involved with and must be aware of issues of social justice. Ideals near to the heart of social justice advocates are egalitarianism, balance of power, social advocacy, public service, and diversity awareness. All of these issues are reflected in the work that librarians do to serve our communities.