As book battles rage, WA Senate votes to make it harder to shut down a library

From The Seattle Times:

As battles over books and libraries continue to rage nationwide, the Washington Senate took a small step Wednesday to protect libraries across the state.

Senate Bill 5824, passed unanimously by the Senate on Wednesday, comes in response to an effort last year to close the only library in rural Columbia County. It would make such attempts more difficult, requiring more signatures to get proposed shutdowns on the ballot and then allowing a larger population of voters to decide a library’s fate.

The proposal now goes to the House.

The Columbia County Rural Library District in Dayton, a one-stoplight farming town, nearly became the first in the nation to shut down completely because of a dispute over what books are on the shelves.

The American Library Association documented nearly 1,300 attempts to censor books in libraries across the country in 2022, nearly double the number from 2021. In Washington, that has included parents in Walla Walla demanding books be removed from the high school library; the City Council in Liberty Lake, Spokane County, voting to take over library policy because of a fight over one book; and the Kent School District initially removing a book and then reversing itself because of concerns about its gender-related content.

In Dayton, a group of residents, upset over the placement of books dealing with gender, sexuality and race, led a campaign to shutter the library. They collected enough signatures to get a proposal on the ballot, and November’s election was shaping up to be existential for the small library.

Two quirks of state law, both dating to 1947, made the effort easier for the library’s opponents.

First, they needed the signatures of only 10% of the residents of unincorporated Columbia County to get their effort to dissolve the library district on the ballot. That amounted to only 107 signatures. If they had been trying to recall an elected official — a mayor or a county commissioner, for instance — they would have needed many more signatures.

Second, even though the library serves all of Columbia County, and all Columbia County residents pay taxes to fund it, because it was established as a rural library district, only residents who lived outside the city of Dayton would have been able to vote on the library’s continued existence. That would have excluded two-thirds of the county’s residents.

But shortly after the measure made it to the ballot, the effort to shut down the library came to a screeching halt. A Columbia County court commissioner ruled the effort was unconstitutional, because it excluded Dayton residents, even though their taxes funded the library.

“It doesn’t make sense to have people who live in the county be the only ones who vote on something that so much affects citizens of the city,” Court Commissioner Julie Karl said from the bench. “We did away with taxation without representation a long time ago.”

But the library’s opponents continue, arguing the library makes books dealing with transgender issues, sexuality, consent, race and gender stereotypes too accessible to kids.

At a Dayton City Council meeting this month, library opponents proposed an idea for the city to withdraw from the library district, which would drastically reduce its funding.

Initially the library complaints centered on one book, “What’s the T?: The Guide to all Things Trans and/or Nonbinary,” but they quickly spread to a dozen others and eventually well over 100 books.

All the contested books are found in “hundreds, if not thousands of libraries across the country,” according to the Washington Libraries Association.

The legislation passed by the Senate would require signatures from 25% of a library district’s voters to get an initiative on the ballot to dissolve a library. And, following Karl’s opinion, it would allow all voters within a library district to then vote on the library.

“It will close a loophole that organized groups are using in order to dissolve libraries, to ban books,” said Elise Severe, a Dayton resident who led the legal effort last year to save the library.

Link to the rest at The Seattle Times and thanks to C. for the tip.

As PG has mentioned before, he grew up in low-income rural areas and attended very small schools. (He was the valedictorian of his high school graduating class totaling 22 people, only two of whom managed to complete college. He can still remember and recite the names of every one of his elementary school classmates from Grade One through Grade 6 (and no, PG does not have anything approaching a photographic memory)).

Although he started working as an attorney almost 50 years ago, he can’t imagine groups of small-town people like those he knew hiring lawyers and going to court to fight over what’s on the shelves of the local library. But times change and sometimes people change as well.

3 thoughts on “As book battles rage, WA Senate votes to make it harder to shut down a library”

  1. But times change and sometimes people change as well.

    This is the crux of the matter. Fifty years ago, librarians would have had the good sense not to stock a book like What’s the T?, the blurb for which is as follows: “Discover what it means to be a young transgender and/or non-binary person in the twenty-first century in this candid and funny guide for teens from the bestselling author of This Book is Gay.

    That the Columbia County librarians were baiting their constituents when they acquired this book instead of something more serious is patently obvious, and I would be peeved if I were a resident of Columbia County.

    I would not, however, have tried to shut down the library entirely.

    • I can’t entirely agree, but then I’m an old-timer who grew up in the decadent metropolis 350km west-northwest of Columbia County back when it was a company town that made airplanes and had only one top-level-league professional sports team. Columbia County has a looooooooooooooooong history of being in the southeast (and I don’t just mean “part of the state”). It’s been losing population steadily for a century, and it’s, umm, demographically distinct from the state (one obvious example: 97% of the 4000 residents of Columbia County as of 2020 are white; for the other 38 counties, about a quarter of the 7.7 million residents aren’t, and that’s as to “single racial description selected” because Census reports are really poor about mixed-race ancestry; that’s a population disparity greater than California versus Wyoming).

      The problem is not whether the librarians made mistakes (I’m not familiar enough with the challenged book(s), and library-system recommendations or perhaps even patron requests that no one will now admit to, to judge). The problem is whether the alternative of censorship/withholding-on-account-of-loudest-voices would be worse — and I’ve lived through enough of the latter to have a pretty firm opinion that it is, indeed, worse. It’s usually an excuse for ignoring what “Establishment of Religion” means in context.

      There is no perfect here. And as anyone who has ever written a complex program from scratch will tell you, the perfect is probably unattainable and equally probably the enemy of the good enough.

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