“We’ve Had Death Threats, Bomb Threats”

Rural libraries, often a lifeline, now face efforts to ban books and restrict funding

s.e. smith May 17, 2023

This is the first in a series on rural libraries. Sign up for our newsletter to receive updates.

At an October 2021 meeting of the Orange County, Fla., School Board, a man approached the lectern to read aloud from a library book he said was “concerning” to see in circulation.

The book, Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir Gender Queer, was quickly becoming the most-challenged book in America on the basis of its LGBTQ content and “sexually explicit” scenes. After reading a vivid passage, the man was expelled from the meeting by a flustered board, with board member Teresa Jacobs saying, “We will look into it.”

Not only did the county soon remove the book from the shelves, but the state also launched an investigation into who purchased it. The controversy hurtled into protests, book challenges, and censorship that made national headlines, spreading across urban, suburban and rural regions in Florida and mirrored across the country.

In the rural township of Jamestown, Mich., for instance, a battle over Gender Queer led to a ballot measure denying renewed funding for the local Patmos Library. Campaigners had suggested the library was “grooming” young residents. The library, which offers not only books but other resources such as free broadband in a community of less than 10,000, now intends to close by January 2025.

“It’s never just one book,” says Stephana Ferrell, Director of Research and Insight at the Florida Freedom to Read Project, an organization fighting book challenges across the state that launched in response to the Orange County case

Challenges on the rise

A challenge is any attempt to censor library materials, resources or programming, through a formal complaint or verbal request to library staff, typically because the complainant believes a target is age-inappropriate, contains explicit or prurient material, or includes offensive language. While most challenges do not result in a ban, where a book is removed from circulation, their numbers are escalating dramatically.

According to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, members reported 357 challenges in 2019, rising to 728 in 2021, and 1,271 in 2022. Many of these challenges targeted multiple books, adding up to 2,571 unique titles in 2022, including books libraries didn’t even own. The use of mass targeting lists is “not a community conversation about a particular book,” notes Caldwell-Stone.

School and library board meetings are traditionally sleepy affairs that elicit little public comment. But today these are the meetings that determine whose stories have a place on public bookshelves, as social conservatives attempt to limit access to information they deem controversial, such as material about LGBTQ people, racial justice and sexual education.

Public libraries are overseen by boards or boards of trustees, depending on region, which focus their work on high-level governance at the library. School libraries, on the other hand, are typically within the purview of the school board, which addresses a variety of issues around education. Depending on local government structure, members may be appointed by city council members or elected directly by the public.

The exact responsibilities of these boards can vary, but typically include making decisions and recommendations about budgeting, major capital projects and library leadership. In the case of some public library boards, their role may be solely advisory, and city or town officials may have final say on matters such as budgets and hiring decisions. Library and school boards may also play a role in collaborating with library leadership and staff on critical policies, such as the reconsideration policy—the guidance used when a book is challenged. These policies are meant to ensure there is a consistent and fair process for handling complaints.

“You need to make sure before anything ever happens that your policies are all up to date,” says Connie Behe, now deputy director for the public library system in Pierce County, Wash. Behe has 14 years of library administrative experience, including 12 in a more rural county. “Don’t be afraid of people petitioning the government,” she says. “Have the board be prepared for what would happen.”

During the reconsideration process, Caldwell-Stone stresses, boards have an obligation to defend the First Amendment and the right of patrons to access information, even if members of the public, the board or staff personally find that information distasteful. Ferrell says that in Florida and elsewhere, some individuals and boards have sidestepped these policies, pulling books from the shelves immediately in response to challenges and ignoring official processes.

These decisions have very real consequences for library customers, particularly children and teens who don’t have other routes to access these resources. “These should be spaces where the queer kids, the brown kids, the Black kids have somebody looking out for them,” says former librarian Kelly Jensen. Instead, books that represent their identities and those of their families and loved ones are getting removed from shelves.

Libraries are essential

While the focus in conversations about censorship has been on books, libraries offer expansive additional resources to their communities. All of these services can be threatened with campaigns to reduce or eliminate library funding, Behe says.

U.S. library collections include film and television shows, magazines and periodicals, subscriptions to academic and news databases, and even games and tool libraries. Libraries often host events and conduct programming—perhaps most controversially, some host drag storytime, but many offer free help with tax preparation, educational events, live music, readings and other offerings. They may also maintain community rooms the public can use to plan and hold activities and events ranging from quilting circles to political campaign meetings.

In rural communities, school and public libraries offer a lifeline to the outside world, sometimes literally in the case of areas struggling with broadband coverage where the library is the only place to access the internet. According to American Libraries, one-third of public library buildings serve communities of under 2,500 people. As a community hub, the library might be a place to job search, locate a doctor, apply to colleges or access service manuals for farm equipment. It can also be a place for discovery as library staff assist patrons with locating resources, such as books on sexual health for young adults who are not accessing adequate sex education in school.

“It’s easy to underestimate the amount of exposure and relationship building you need to do … to keep you and staff humanized,” says Behe.

All of the roles libraries play are under threat as attacks on school and public libraries escalate, perhaps most spectacularly in Missouri, where the state house (but not the Senate) recently voted to defund all public libraries in the midst of turmoil over challenged books. Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has also proposed an administrative rule that would “protect minors” by restricting funding in libraries that do not comply with censorship demands.

Censorship issues aren’t always as obvious as a flashy challenge at a public meeting. “We’ve heard of death threats, bomb threats, simply for having gay books, [or] when a program is proposed about race and racism,” says Caldwell-Stone. Sometimes, library staff may engage in “quiet” or “silent” censorship, explains Jensen the former librarian, now an editor at Book Riot, a literary publication that has covered books and publishing since 2011 (I appeared in an anthology edited by Jensen in 2018). Fearing controversy, she explains, librarians and staff simply don’t order certain books, or those books quietly disappear from shelves. Library boards and staff may also face harassment, a particular issue in rural areas, where small communities make it easier to show up at a place of business, harangue someone in the grocery store, or apply pressure to friends and family. 

A library board may aggressively defend staff and freedom of speech. It can also do the opposite, with organizations such as Moms for Liberty, a conservative “parental rights” organization, running campaigns to get members seated on boards and commissions to drive book bans. Founded in 2021, the organization uses more than 200 regional chapters to coordinate book banning campaigns. One of the founders, Bridget Ziegler, has ties to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has appeared at the organization’s events and received the “Liberty Sword” commendation at a Tampa event in 2022.

“When commissioners or a board start micromanaging, they can start impacting [library operations],” says Behe. This is particularly true in the case of a board that doesn’t understand the First Amendment obligations of government agencies, and the need to engage with challenges thoughtfully.

“We have seen the very conservative right-wing folks realizing how important these small down-ballot or off-season elections are,” says Jensen, whose own books have been targeted for challenges.

People trying to fight censorship should likewise consider running for their local boards, says Amanda Litman, co-founder and co-executive director of Run for Something, an organization that helps young progressives run for down-ballot races.  

“These boards listen to the community”

When the state interferes with these processes, it can be challenging for boards and commissions to serve their communities. More than 100 bills undermining free speech at libraries have been filed across the United States in the current legislative session. In Iowa, a bill making it easier to ban “sexually explicit books” while restricting access to comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education just passed. North Dakota’s governor just signed a ban on “explicit” material in public libraries, while the Texas House just passed another.

When boards fight back, they may be punished as local elected officials limit the scope of their authority, as in Liberty Lake, Wash., where City Council members proposed giving themselves veto powers over the library’s board of trustees.  

“These boards listen to what the community is saying,” says Jensen, noting that anti-censorship organizing can be frustrating when members of the community do not show up for relevant meetings or send correspondence to local officials. “The right has figured out that if few people are showing up to these elections, they can fill the ballot.”

Groups such as Florida Freedom to Read rely on local teams to organize turnout for meetings where specific book challenges, funding or policies are being discussed. It’s complicated by challenges that come from outside the community, or rely on pre-populated lists that may include hundreds of books from organizations such as Moms for Liberty. An April 2023 PEN America report found a growing trend of mass removals in response to such lists, because “school districts respond to vague legislation by removing large numbers of books prior to any formal review.” These kinds of bulk challenges are designed to strip library shelves en masse while overwhelming staff with review of challenged titles.

The landscape for book banning is moving quickly: Less than an hour after my interview with Ferrell of Florida Freedom to Read, news broke that Florida was expanding the scope of its “don’t say LGBTQ” law to all grades, not just K-3, a move that could force school librarians to once again modify their collections in response to right-wing pressure, not patron needs.  

Library boards are just one component of the fight against censorship, but they are an important one. A strong, well-informed board can defend the First Amendment and serve the interests of the community. But community members need to be prepared to show up for meetings and run for office if they want to see the library board they want in the world.  

This is the first in a series on rural libraries. Sign up for our newsletter to receive updates.

s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a National Magazine Award-winning essayist and journalist based in Northern California. (Illustration by Michaela Oteri)

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