Opinion | Missouri lawmakers preserved library budget — but the culture war attacks keep coming

Tuesday, June 13, 2023
This guest commentary appeared in The Kansas City Star on June 4, 2023.
Reason prevailed in Jefferson City. Missouri legislators last month preserved $4.5 million in funding for public libraries in the state’s 2023-24 budget, overturning an initial attempt by the state House of Representatives to eliminate the annual appropriation.

This money is crucial, particularly for the rural libraries and their communities that are most reliant on state support. Among other things, up to 1.2 million people across the state stood to lose access to reliable internet without it. While approval of the budget is welcome, and the Kansas City Public Library is very thankful, the constitutionally mandated funding should have been assured from the start.

This underscores our concern, shared nationally, about increasing attacks on public libraries — driven in many instances by government officials elected to support their most essential institutions.

With the ink in Missouri’s new budget barely dry, a new administrative rule drawn up by Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is set to take effect. It will require state-funded libraries to adopt policies on age-appropriateness while facilitating challenges of books and other materials by parents.

A public comment period late last year drew some 20,000 responses, overwhelmingly opposing the measure. But no public hearing was held, and the regulation goes into the books May 30.

The rule is vague — what are the parameters for the libraries’ policies, and who’ll decide if they pass muster —and it’s altogether unnecessary. The measure prohibits the use of public funds to purchase materials that constitute “child pornography” or are “pornographic for minors” or “obscene.” But those kinds of materials are already illegal. Moreover, the Kansas City Public Library doesn’t carry them.

Of course, parents will apply their own interpretations of pornography to books and other items that don’t fit in their cultural comfort zones and inevitably mount challenges.

Collections already address age appropriateness

Collection policies at the Kansas City Public Library already address age appropriateness. Beyond that, in our policies and historical practices, we have always welcomed and encouraged parental engagement in the selection of books that their children read. But let’s be clear about the consequences of such legislative action. Libraries, long a bastion of inclusiveness, may find their collections less inclusive, as those ensuing challenges are most likely to target LGBTQ and Black subject matter, titles and authors.

A similar chill was cast last August, when Missouri enacted a new state law, S.B. 775, targeting school libraries. Approved by the legislature, it subjects educators to jail and fines for what are deemed to be objectionable images in books in their schools’ collections. Public schools, fearful of prosecution, subsequently removed hundreds of books.

The threatened budget cut arose from that episode, a response by the Missouri House to a legal challenge of S.B. 775 by two state library associations.

So, here libraries are, swept into America’s culture wars. Amid the involvement of organized censorship groups, the American Library Association documented a record-breaking 1,269 demands to remove materials from school and public libraries last year. State governments, including Missouri’s, are too often lending cover and encouragement.

ALA Challenged Books Statistics Chart

The unfortunate suggestion is that libraries and librarians are unconcerned with patron welfare, especially children’s welfare, and are exposing them to inappropriate materials. Nothing — repeat, nothing — could be further from the truth. And yet, with the harsh rhetoric accompanying these restrictive efforts has come a rise in violence, threats and other acts of intimidation against librarians across the country.

Individuals who’ve committed their lives to bringing the joy of reading to children, teens and entire communities deserve better.

Libraries aren’t only a source of books and other invaluable literary and educational resources. They also provide crucial computer and internet access. They offer technology training and assistance in job seeking and small-business operation. They’re a conduit to vital social services.

Libraries adhere to a national Library Bill of Rights maintaining, in part, that materials “should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” Also, that libraries “should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”

According to the most recent survey findings by the Pew Research Center, nearly 4 in 5 adult Americans see libraries as a trusted source of information. Almost 2 in 3 say libraries help them grow as people.

Optimistically, this budget outcome is a reflection of that vast public sentiment, a recognition of the indispensability of libraries and librarians to their communities. Deep concerns remain. The challenges are many. But Missouri’s lawmakers have given us hope.

Pete Browne is president of the Kansas City Public Library Board of Trustees.
Learn more: kclibrary.org/FreeToRead