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The rising Republican movement to defund public libraries

Libraries bolster democracy. Republicans want to get rid of them.

A person holds a book in their hand while looking down at a long table full of books, shown from above.
A library in Missouri, where state lawmakers in 2022 made it illegal to provide students with “sexually explicit” material and later tried to eliminate state funding for public libraries.
Shane Keyser/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

Editor’s note, May 8: On May 5, the Missouri legislature passed a budget that included $4.5 million in funding for public libraries. The original story, published before the budget was passed, follows.

When Missouri’s House voted in late March to approve a state budget that would eliminate $4.5 million in funding for public libraries, local and national free speech advocates went into panic mode.

The Missouri Senate later restored the funding to the budget proposal in April. But full funding for the state’s libraries is still not guaranteed and librarians and patrons are concerned that libraries across the state are still under attack and subject to the whims of Republican lawmakers.

Nor is the threat unique to Missouri. While threats to defund or eliminate public libraries are still relatively uncommon, they’re on the rise. Lawmakers in Llano County, Texas, weighed closing public libraries this spring instead of following a court order to return banned books to the shelves. They finally backed down after community members protested. Last fall, voters in Michigan rejected funding for the Patmos Library in Jamestown Charter Township after librarians refused to ban the book Gender Queer: A Memoir, a graphic novel about the author’s journey with gender identity. Other states, including Louisiana, Iowa, Indiana, and Tennessee, have seen similar challenges to libraries.

In Missouri, the state’s spending proposals are now before the legislature’s joint committee, where negotiations have reached an impasse ahead of Friday’s budget deadline.

“Having free access to information is important in a democracy, so it has frightened a lot of people that our state would want to make that more difficult,” said Otter Bowman, the president of the Missouri Library Association and a staffer at the Daniel Boone Regional Library in Columbia, Missouri. “It’s disturbing that the House’s decision to defund our libraries has become this political message. It discounts the needs of library patrons all over the state. It’s a real concern that they took so lightly.”

And as fights over banning books or removing them from shelves continue, libraries could be an increasing target of lawmakers’ displeasure. Experts monitoring Republican efforts to shut down public libraries told Vox that the threat is often the last step in a series of escalations. Usually, lawmakers start with book bans. If the bans aren’t as effective as they’d hope, they escalate to threatening to defund local libraries. The threats tend to occur in states where lawmakers want to restrict health care for trans people, limit drag performances and curb how teachers discuss gender, sexuality, race, and history at school.

“This is part of a larger campaign that we call the ‘ed scare,’ which is a broad effort to heighten intimidation and anxiety around what can and cannot be taught and discussed in public spaces,” said Kasey Meehan, the director of the Freedom to Read project at PEN America. “These growing campaigns want to suppress certain ideas and content areas, so the defunding of libraries, book bans, the educational gag orders that affect higher education and K-12, and even anti-drag show legislation are all connected. They’re mechanisms in a larger campaign to control what is and isn’t allowed in public spaces.”

What’s behind the push to defund libraries

All eyes were on Missouri last month when the Republican-controlled House voted to withhold $4.5 million in funding from the state’s nearly $50 billion budget.

The decision was in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association, which challenges a state law passed last year that bans “explicit sexual material” from schools. According to the lawsuit, the law violates students’ First Amendment rights. Under the law, images in school materials that could be considered sexually explicit, like depictions of genitals, are prohibited. Librarians and other school officials who violate the law by allowing students to have access to the material would be charged with a misdemeanor and risk a $2,000 fine or up to a year in jail.

After the law took effect in August 2022, district officials ordered librarians and other school employees to remove hundreds of books from school libraries, including Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, many of which were authored by or had content related to people of color and/or the LGBTQ community.

In what is seen as retaliation to the ACLU’s lawsuit, House Republicans voted to strip library funding. At a budget meeting in March, Missouri state Rep. Cody Smith, the House budget committee chair who proposed cutting the funding, singled out the ACLU lawsuit, stating, “I don’t think we should subsidize the attempts to overturn laws that we also created,” according to PBS.

According to the ACLU, the lawsuit filed in March is not paid for with library funding from the state. “The house budget committee’s choice to retaliate against two private, volunteer-led organizations by punishing the patrons of Missouri’s public libraries is abhorrent,” the organization said in a statement. “As with every case when the ACLU represents someone, we are not charging our clients to challenge the unconstitutional book ban the legislature passed last year.”

Librarians and patrons in Missouri were quick to point out how harmful even the threat of defunding libraries is. “At first I was in disbelief and then my blood ran cold because I thought of the terrible impact this would have, particularly on smaller libraries, but for everyone across the board. It would have a chilling effect,” Bowman told Vox.

Missouri has 160 library districts, which split the state’s library funding. “The percentage of state funding in each district’s overall budget is much greater for rural libraries because they have smaller tax bases and don’t have as much coming in from other sources, when compared to urban districts in Missouri,” said Bowman. “Plus, they get matching funds from the federal government. If there is no state aid to match, then they don’t get federal funds. So they’d be penalized twice.” Any decrease in funding could also increase the already high turnover rate for library employees due to lower wages and force some locations to close on some days or run on limited capacity.

Advocates are using the moment to argue for the purpose of libraries.

“I think a lot of people who don’t understand the value of libraries haven’t been in one for a long time. It’s a lot more than just a place to check out books,” Bowman said. Libraries are a community hub where people can get assistance with a variety of services, including help with taxes during tax season, and computer and internet services.

Libraries host job fairs and provide job application assistance. The library also provides meeting rooms, study rooms, and in many cases serves as a heating and cooling center, and offers restrooms, for people who are unhoused. Traditional library services that the state could lose include literacy services for kids like summer reading programs and storytime events. “We are a real lifeline for a lot of people,” Bowman said.

According to data from the Missouri Secretary of State, at least 4.4 million Missourians have access to public library services, including wireless hotspots for checkout, notary services, faxing and printing, early literacy programs, homework assistance, and access to services designed for veterans and job seekers. To support all of these services, the state has consistently allocated more than $3.5 million each fiscal year since 2020.

Last month wasn’t the first time Missouri Republicans sought to restrict public libraries. Last fall, the House introduced a rule requiring public libraries to certify that they have policies to restrict “obscene” materials or face funding cuts. The lawmakers continue to insist that the purpose of the legislation is to give parents the power to control what their children access at libraries.

Librarians say that Republican concerns are unfounded. According to Bowman, most libraries already have policies in place to prevent sexually explicit materials from being a part of their collections, particularly when it comes to children’s sections. There are also already systems in place that allow the public to challenge books.

“It’s like there’s some sort of disconnect somewhere along the political spectrum, where people don’t understand the effect that they’re having on people’s lives,” said Bowman. “They’re pandering to a particular base that may or may not understand how libraries work. They’re making these sweeping decisions that make it difficult for people to live their lives.”

Ultimately, any measure to defund libraries could be deemed unlawful since Missouri’s constitution says the state must see to “the establishment and development of free public libraries and to accept the obligation of their support by the state and its subdivisions and municipalities in such manner as may be provided by law.”

Where does the fight against libraries end?

Attacks on libraries and their employees have only grown in the past few years and aren’t slowing down. Last month, county commissioners in Llano County, Texas, decided to eliminate a proposal to defund the county’s three libraries in response to a ruling from a federal judge who ordered banned books be returned to the shelves.

In St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, the St. Tammany Library Control Board recently voted to keep five challenged books on the shelves of the town’s libraries after months of disputes over titles including, I Am Jazz, a picture book about a transgender child, and Toni Morrison’s classic The Bluest Eye.

US Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana recently advocated for libraries to be replaced with “church-owned” alternatives. “Over time, American communities will build beautiful, church owned public-access libraries. I’m going to help these churches get funding,” he tweeted. “We will change the whole public library paradigm. The libraries regular Americans recall are gone. They’ve become liberal grooming centers.”

In Jamestown, Michigan, last year, residents voted against passing a millage which would have raised property taxes to fund the Patmos Public Library. The library had refused to remove titles with LGBTQ themes and without a new millage, the library is set to close sometime in mid-2024.

Last year, a library in Vinton, Iowa, temporarily closed its doors after most staff quit due to threats against LGBTQ employees. Residents in the town complained that the library didn’t have “quality” material on former President Donald Trump and that LGBTQ books were on display. Similarly, controversy erupted in Flathead County, Montana, at the ImagineIf library over two books with LGBTQ themes.

In Indiana, the Hamilton East Public Library’s board of trustees recently ordered a $300,000 review of the library’s books, forcing the library to almost empty its “Teen Zone” section as librarians reviewed hundreds of titles to make sure they were “age appropriate” according to the board’s definition.

Residents in Ada County, Idaho, recently tried to dissolve the local library system, though commissioners ultimately decided to not put the question of dissolving the library on the ballot.

In March, the Sumner County Library Board in Tennessee voted to fire a library director after accusations of “unkind treatment” toward evangelist Kirk Cameron at a conservative library event.

All of these incidents involve disputes over what Republicans deem inappropriate for children, though libraries usually have safeguards in place, according to Meehan. “The books being removed do not match any colloquial or legal definition of obscenity or porn or pornography,” Meehan said. “The rhetoric these lawmakers are using to describe these books is being deployed to alarm constituents and suggest that there is material in schools and libraries that is objectionable. These efforts undercut our democratic ideals.”

And in most of these cases, it was a local and international outpouring of support for libraries that pressured lawmakers to change course. “We’re seeing more ‘ed scare’ legislation at the state level and new ways that districts are changing book policies locally. But, at the same time, there’s a collective voice that’s growing and pushing back against the idea that these books are bad, harmful, pornographic, and obscene,” said Meehan. “The more we challenge those ideas, eventually, I hope it grows stronger than the campaign to suppress.”

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