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Public Libraries Face Threats to Funding and Collections as Book Bans Surge

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Dayna Williams-Capone, director of library services for the city of Victoria, Texas, has worked in public libraries for 25 years. In all of that time, she says, she never faced demands to remove books from her collection— until last year.

In 2021, a group of Victoria residents requested the library reevaluate 44 books for removal from its shelves. They argued many of the books, including LGBTQ children’s books Worm Loves Worm and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, were inappropriate for young people. Williams-Capone says her library staff reviewed the titles and determined the books would remain in the collection. Most dealt with LGBTQ identities, Williams-Capone says, and they felt it was important for their collection to contain material that reflected the diversity of Victoria.

But on August 1 of this year, that same group of residents, who could not be reached for comment, brought their concerns to the county commission. (The county does not fund the library, but does own the building it operates out of.) Commissioner Clint Ives tells TIME he was alarmed with the material they presented him and felt it was “pornographic.” He says he also took issue with the availability of “alternative lifestyle children’s books.” At the August 1 meeting, Ives said that he would support “an eviction notice to the city of Victoria, giving them 90 days to come to terms with this group [of concerned residents], or they can put their library somewhere else.”

Victoria Mayor Jeff Bauknight tells TIME that he has directed the library to revise its collection development policy stating that no “pornographic or obscene materials” can appear in the section of the library for ages 17 or below. If that policy isn’t in effect by October 1, he says, the city council might consider freezing the library’s budget to purchase any new materials.

The disagreement over Victoria Public Library’s collection is one of many similar conversations taking place across the country and reflects a new realm in the fights over book bans. Fierce debates over what reading and educational materials young people should be able to access are now extending beyond school libraries to public libraries. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association (ALA) and the executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation, says she’s seen groups that have already successfully convinced school boards to ban certain books move to demand public libraries remove those books as well—many of which deal with LGBTQ identities or have been labeled “critical race theory” materials, often incorrectly. In certain instances, Caldwell-Stone says they’ve also seen funding from local county commissions or city councils be used as a “lever to try and remove books and censor material.”

“They start out by talking about parents’ rights in education,” says Caldwell-Stone. “Now they’re saying they have a right to dictate what’s available in the community as a whole so that they don’t feel uncomfortable in the public library with their children.”

Public libraries serve a separate function than school libraries and are impacted by debates over book bans slightly differently. Public libraries serve as public forums, and courts have ruled that Americans have a First Amendment right to enter and use them. They’re meant to serve everyone in the community, unlike school libraries that are meant to serve students and implement policies for education. “If we’re serving everyone, we should have something for everyone. And so therein lies the rub,” says Nicolle Davies, the assistant commissioner of the Colorado State Library. “There’s a motto in public libraries that says, ‘If you have a good collection, there should be something to offend everyone.’”

But it’s been decades since public libraries have seen the type of the scrutiny they’re experiencing now. Public libraries are subject to local politics—often answering to locally-appointed boards—and have been particularly affected by the rise in “culture war” clashes as state-level politics increasingly focus on what students should be taught, what rights parents have to dictate their child’s education, and what materials are appropriate for minors. Caldwell-Stone says she’s seen a particular rise in efforts to remove books that deal with LGBTQ identity or race and African-American history.

“I feel like my profession is being called into question,” says Williams-Capone. “I’m serving the whole community— that’s the purpose of a public library.”

‘I cannot do my job under these circumstances’

Victoria Public Library is far from the only one around the country facing threats to its funding and autonomy.

In August, community members in Jamestown, Michigan, voted to defund the Patmos Public Library when its millage funding came up for election after an intense campaign by residents who accused the library of “grooming” children and promoting an “LGBTQ ideology,” according to the Washington Post. Deborah E. Mikula, the executive director of Michigan Library Association, tells TIME that of roughly 67,000 items in Patmos library’s collection, 90 of them had LGBTQ themes. She says some community members requested that those books be moved or labeled. The August millage vote eliminated 84% of the library’s annual budget, per NBC News—but the library will potentially be able to regain it with another vote in November.

“Censorship is not new,” Mikula says. “But we haven’t seen this volume of censorship efforts in 30 or more years.”

Read More: ‘Gender Queer’ Author ‘Relieved’ After Court Rules Book’s Sale Can’t Be Restricted in Virginia

In Bonners Ferry, Idaho, a group of Christian conservative community members have requested that the local public library preemptively ban around 400 mostly young adult books that deal with LGBTQ issues, sexual themes, or the occult that it does not currently contain in its collection, according to NBC News. The group has also reportedly worked to recall four of the five public library board members. According to a website titled “Library Board Recall,” the group states that its mission “is to protect children from explicit materials and grooming.” (An email requesting comment through the website went unanswered.)

Kimber Glidden, the library’s director, tells TIME that the situation has gotten so heated that she plans to leave her position on September 10th. She says that if she leaves, four of her six staff plan to depart with her. “I cannot do my job under these circumstances,” she says. She adds that in part because of the controversy surrounding the library, Idaho Counties Risk Management Program has declined to renew the library’s insurance coverage as of October 1.

In Mississippi on August 17, Madison County Library System announced it would begin operating with limited staffing and an abbreviated schedule due to lack of funding from the city of Ridgeland. In a statement to TIME, Tonja Johnson, the executive director of Madison County Library System, said that the funding issue “arose earlier this year and initially involved LGBTQ materials in the library,” and has since been resolved without removing any books from the collection. Gene McGee, mayor of Ridgeland, tells TIME that the “issue is not and was not about censorship of any books [or] material” and was instead about legal issues with the library’s renewal contact. A document he provided to TIME signed by both him and the president of the library system’s board of trustees says “libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues” including “matters dealing with all sexual orientation or religious preferences,” and that the city is “deeply concerned” that the Ridgeland public library “will continue to display or make available materials only in an age-appropriate manner.”

As the midterm elections approach, debates over culture issues and parental rights will likely only increase as politicians—particularly on the right— leverage the fights to rally their base. Public librarians, and the constituents they serve, may remain caught in the crosshairs.

“There is a diversity of people who live in this county,” says librarian Williams-Capone in Victoria, Texas. “Because of that, we need to be very aware of what all of these needs are. And we’ve developed collections that support those needs.”

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Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com