Book Banners Are Now Trying to Close Public Libraries

Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast

When a judge ordered the Llano County, Texas, library system to return 17 banned books to its shelves, county commissioners debated a radical workaround: closing the entire library system.

The removal of 17 books was part of a nationwide campaign to purge libraries of specific books—many related to race, gender, or LGBTQ issues. Some librarians and readers have resisted those efforts, refusing book bans or filing lawsuits for the return of their books. In response, conservative officials have pushed to defund libraries outright, potentially forcing their closure.

Missouri’s GOP-controlled House of Representatives voted this month to eliminate all library funding from its budget. A Michigan library lost its funding last year after it refused to pull certain books with LGBTQ subject matter. And in Llano County, commissioners convened a Thursday-night meeting on whether to defund the library system rather than restock the 17 titles. The Llano libraries will remain open for now, after commissioners agreed not to vote on funding at the meeting. But the fight is far from over.

“It was shocking to me in what I consider its retaliatory nature. The whole thing, the whole incident,” Texas librarian Carolyn Foote told The Daily Beast. Foote, a co-founder of the anti-book-ban group FReadom Fighters, was among more than 100 people to gather outside the Llano County meeting on Thursday.

The Llano County dispute was years in the making. In December 2021, the county’s commissioners dissolved the library board and installed a new advisory board, members of which soon shared a list of “pornographic filth” that should be censored. Among the books ultimately targeted were tomes on race like Isabel Wilkerson’s acclaimed nonfiction work Caste, books on LGBTQ life like Tillie Walden’s memoir Spinning, and books about butts like I Broke My Butt! and Larry the Farting Snowman.

Seven Llano library patrons sued for the books’ return to shelves. A federal judge ruled in their favor, calling the books’ removal an infringement of free speech and instructing the library to return the books. Instead, Llano County commissioners announced the Thursday meeting to vote on whether to close the system’s three libraries.

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“To threaten to close an entire library system rather than develop policies so that you can decide which books you want in the library collection just seems like a vast overreach,” Foote said. “But recently I’ve been hearing that more and more in the vernacular: people speaking about book-banning. I heard someone in the Texas legislature on a panel saying, ‘We should just close the whole library.’”

K.A. Holt, a children’s book author from Texas, also joined the crowd outside the Thursday meeting, where she said she saw a broad coalition of library supporters, some of whom rely on the building for other services like internet access.

“Particularly in a place like rural Texas, having books in the library that represent people who are different than you are, and parts of the world that are different from yours, that little library is like an embassy to the rest of the world,” she said. “When you close something like that down, or when you try to ban books that are different from your view of the world, what you’re doing is siloing yourself off even more. That’s not what makes critical thinkers.”

Libraries in other states are facing similar challenges.

Kasey Meehan, program director at PEN America’s Freedom to Read program, described the attacks on libraries as part of a “red scare: a larger movement to chill speech and use threats of defunding, escalating all the way through actually defunding and closing libraries.”

The Patmos Library in Jamestown Township, Michigan has been fighting to keep its doors open after voters refused to renew its funding, following librarians’ refusal to remove the book Gender Queer. Multiple librarians quit the branch, citing harassment like being called “pedophiles,” “groomers,” or having patrons demand to know whether they were gay.

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The Patmos Library has since held two votes on whether to renew its funding, both of which have failed. (After the votes, the branch received large donations from a nearby Michigan family, and from author Nora Roberts.) Still, without a guaranteed budget, the library’s board is considering changing its policies on picking new books, MLive reported from a meeting last month.

And while Llano County and Patmos libraries face funding threats locally, all of Missouri’s public library funding is under fire, after the state’s House removed all library funds from a proposed budget this month.

Missouri House Budget Committee Chair Rep. Cody Smith justified the cuts by pointing to library groups’ opposition to a state law that banned sexually explicit material in school books from grades K-12. (Educators who violate the ban face up to one year in jail.)

Although the chair of Missouri’s Senate Appropriations Committee has signaled his intent to restore library funding when the budget reaches the state senate, other state laws could further crack down on Missouri library budgets. A new rule, scheduled to go into effect without a hearing next month, would block funding for libraries that allow minors to access books that are labeled as obscene, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

In Llano County, the libraries will remain funded, for now. During their Thursday meeting, commissioners decided not to vote on closing the library.

The county has not necessarily closed the book on debate, however. “The library will remain open. We will try this in the courts, not through social media or the news media,” Llano County Judge Ron Cunningham said on Thursday.

Foote said she was heartened to see a large crowd turn out in support of the Llano libraries—and that many readers don’t know their own branches are under threat.

“The majority of people oppose book banning,” she said. “It’s just that sometimes it’s the silent majority.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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