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Public Libraries Are the Next Battleground

First it was schools, now it is libraries. The book burners are upping their game. Meetings of library boards are the new school board meetings. And they are now just as contentious. As usual, a small number of conservatives want to ban books they haven't even read because they are afraid they are telling boys they can become girls and girls they can become boys. There is big trouble in libraryland.

For example, the Warren County, VA, Public Library board meetings typically drew zero attendees other than the board members. The last one drew 120 spectators, many of whom wanted to ban some books, at least from the childrens' section. Most involved LGBTQ+ people in one way or another. The county board of supervisors had just agreed to withhold 75% of the library's funding until the complaints from conservatives were addressed. Something had to be done since there was only enough money to continue operating through September unless the county relented. This puts the librarian in a real bind, especially since public libraries do more than lend books these days. They help job hunters and new English speakers, help grandma digitize family photos, and give kids a place to hang out, especially if it is hot outside and they have air conditioning. Shutting down does more than just keep people from checking out books.

The trend of politicizing public libraries is probably due to two factors. First, publishers see that there is a market for LGBTQ+ books at all levels and are publishing them. Libraries are noticing that patrons are checking them out, so they order more. Second, conservatives who have been policing school libraries have gotten wind of this development and begun to inspect books at public libraries and object to ones they don't like. In Warren County, someone even set up a website to rally residents to the cause of "cleaning up" the public library. Among other things, it said: "Right now, innocence is under attack at our local Samuels Library. Explicitly pornographic 'young adult' books, as well as books that promote fetishes such as the LGBTQ+ ideology have been found in the children's and young adults sections of the library." The site explained how to get a library card and how to file an objection to a book. In the month before that went up, seven objections were filed. After it went up, 590 were filed in a month targeting 134 different books. Each objection requires staffers to read the book objected to and follow a protocol checking them against library policies. Also, Potter Stewart, who couldn't define pornography but knew it when he saw it, isn't available as a consultant because he has been dead for 38 years. Is a young adult book about straightforward sex education with black-and-white line drawings of male and female anatomy pornography? What about a book that doesn't show any nudity or anatomy, but contains this cartoon? Is it pornographic?

Cartoon with boy and girl looking in their underpants

There is also a group of people who are defending the books conservatives want to ban. They say that some books speak to vulnerable children who are confused about their identities and don't understand their own feelings. They say that no one is forcing any child to read any book. If a parent is worried about what books a child is picking, then the parent can accompany the child to the library to oversee the books the child selects.

One of us (V) was a fanatic library user as a kid. He remembers that the card catalog had "l.c." in the lower right corner of cards for some books. That indicated "locked case." Books marked l.c. in the childrens' section were accessible to young patrons, but the kid had to explicitly ask the librarian to get the book, which they generally did. This system didn't ban books but also ensured, for better or worse, that no child ran into an l.c. book by accident. But if a child specifically wanted some l.c. book and had the nerve to ask for it, it was available. This might be a compromise even now, but nowadays, nobody wants compromise. Everyone wants to make a point.

It should be noted that most of the outrage and desire to ban books has come from the right. If people on the left wanted to balance things out, they could demand that copies of the Bible and all works about religion be placed in the fiction section. After all, that's how they do it at Costco:

The price tag on the Bible says $14.95/Fiction

That might divert some of the attention away from LGBTQ+ books. (V)

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