Some states are changing the laws that govern community libraries

From National Public Radio:

When the Kentucky Legislature started mulling a bill that would tighten control over public libraries earlier this year, librarians across the state called their lawmakers pushing for its defeat.

In the past, legislators would at least have heard them out, says Jean Ruark, chair of the advocacy committee of the Kentucky Library Association. Not this time.

“It seemed as though our efforts fell on deaf ears. There was a big outcry about the passage of that and they did it anyway,” Ruark says.

At a time when public school libraries have increasingly become targets in the culture wars, some red states are going further, proposing legislation aimed at libraries serving the community as a whole. A few of the bills would open librarians up to legal liability over decisions they make.

While some of these bills have quietly died in committee, others have been signed into law, and librarians worry that the increasingly partisan climate is making them vulnerable to political pressure.

“We’re seeing more indirect efforts to control what’s available to the community or to put in laws that would direct how the library staff collects books,” says Deborah Caldwell Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

“A lot of this legislation is really concerning, largely because of the breadth and scope of it, but also because it removes local control from communities,” says Patrick Sweeney, executive director at EveryLibrary, an advocacy group that tracks the legislation.

The bill passed in Kentucky allows local library boards to be appointed by county officials. Sponsors argued that the move makes libraries, which are funded by local property taxes, more accountable to taxpayers.

But opponents say the legislation will undermine the independence of local librarians, which are supposed to serve the public as a whole.

“It’s giving all of this power to partisan elected officials in counties, and if their constituents start telling them they want to ban books, this would allow them to do it. This is incredibly dangerous,” says Kentucky state Rep. Patti Minter, a Democrat who opposed the bill.

Other states have reached further. In Iowa, a bill was proposed allowing city councils to overturn librarians’ decisions about what books to buy and where they’re displayed.

In Oklahoma, a bill was signed into law requiring public libraries to install filters on digital databases to prevent children from seeing obscene material. Anyone who deliberately flouts the law would face legal liability.

Most libraries already have filters in place, and Oklahoma state Rep. Todd Russ, a Republican, says he expects the bill to rarely if ever result in legal action.

“We’re trying to be good partners here, he says. “We’re not trying to create all these class action lawsuits. We want to work with them to help create good protection, common sense stuff.”

But other states, including Iowa and Idaho, have proposed similar bills, stripping away the legal immunity that librarians have traditionally enjoyed for the decisions they make.

Moreover, legal actions against librarians are not unheard of.

Link to the rest at National Public Radio

The bill passed in Kentucky allows local library boards to be appointed by county officials. Sponsors argued that the move makes libraries, which are funded by local property taxes, more accountable to taxpayers.

But opponents say the legislation will undermine the independence of local librarians, which are supposed to serve the public as a whole.

PG says if county officials are elected by the people in the county, are they not also tasked with serving the people in the county? And if the people of the county disagree with those county officials about libraries, decisions of local library boards the county or city elected officials appoint or anything else, presumably, they can replace those officials at the next election or, perhaps, if state law permits, even start a petition drive to recall the county or city officials they’re unhappy with and replace them with others the people choose.

Are local librarians elected by the people who use the libraries and/or pay taxes for staffing libraries and acquiring books “for the public as a whole?”

In PG’s perhaps biased observations, there are a lot of news items that talk about schools and other institutions that directly interact with children to be “safe spaces.”

While the definition of “safe spaces” is certainly up for dispute and may differ from place to place, but shouldn’t elected county or city officials ultimately carry the responsibilities for determining what the local community wants “safe spaces” to be and what should be in or not in “safe spaces”?

11 thoughts on “Some states are changing the laws that govern community libraries”

  1. The Golden Rule applies to most employees in and out of government: them that bring the gold, rule. About time the not-so-deep state aparatchiks get the message. They serve at the pleasure of their elected bosses, unless the same bosses pass a law saying otherwise.

    In this case they are passing a law emphasizing the fact that the voice that matters is the taxpayers, not the “outcry” of the librarians.

  2. PG rightly asks:

    PG says if county officials are elected by the people in the county, are they not also tasked with serving the people in the county? And if the people of the county disagree with those county officials about libraries, decisions of local library boards the county or city elected officials appoint or anything else, presumably, they can replace those officials at the next election or, perhaps, if state law permits, even start a petition drive to recall the county or city officials they’re unhappy with and replace them with others the people choose.

    This is a perfectly reasonable description of the way things are supposed to work in a democratic republic. The reality, though, is much less… compliant with that vision.

    Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether “dissatisfaction with library management by a county board member” whose job title doesn’t include “library” would ever be enough to throw an election result a different way, counties in the US are the key functional level for machine politics. One need only say “Cook County, Illinois” to get a glimpse of the problem, but it’s far from unique. The county I live in right now is gerrymandered to ensure multigenerational-by-one-family control of a seat on the County Board; and of the others I have lived in, most have been worse.

    Lurking underneath, though, is the more-fundamental problem: County officials only respond to those they hear from. Repeatedly (and usually with open checkbooks for the campaign funds). And who are already viewed as nonelected “community leaders”… which biases very strongly toward subgroups inimical to the broad-availability-to-everyone mission of public libraries.

    There’s other historical precedent in this country. During the 1940s and later, when there was substantial pressure to integrate schools actually making its way into real discussion on school boards, many of the more-segregated areas† moved from elected school boards to appointed-by-the-county-government school boards — followed shortly thereafter by burying that discussion. So I’m afraid that a lack of blind trust in county officials is a perfectly reasonable position… especially since county boards tend to be partisan positions, while school and library boards are not. (Which doesn’t keep membership anything other than partisan in reality.)

    † Most, but not all, in the Deep South. Remember, Brown was actually a consolidation of five different cases… one of them against the state Board of Education for the State of Delaware. And one of the truly worst offenders was Portland, Oregon, but that ugly story is for another time.

    • Two generations later, Portland is busy writing another ugly chapter of a different stripe. The future will judge them.

      Judging societies for their sins doesn’t stop at any specfic date and everybody gets a chance to feel superior to those that came before.

    • Any form of government with the slightest “taint” of democracy is going to be messy. Humans being humans, no organization will ever be omniscient nor omnibenevolent – so it is better to have them not be omnipotent. Providing for opposing power bases (whether it be rich elites or less wealthy voters) at least works to prevent it.

      • Yes. I neither trust county boards nor librarians nor the public to actually understand what should or not be in a library.

        • So…nothing?

          When people aren’t allowed to have at least a say on things that matter to them, they tend to zero them out.
          The solution is more cancelation?

          The country was designed to exist in a state of dynamic balance, ever changing, always adapting. As long as everybody gave the others elbow room, the system worked.

          More recently the system has been hijacked by absolutists who tolerate no dissent from their views and delight in forcing others to suffer their ways. A quest for stasis on *their* terms. No more adjustment.

          (Shut up, pay your taxes, and let your betters run the show.)

          Actions breed reactions and absolutists breed absolute resistance.

          Nothing good can come of this.

      • Opposing power bases would be nice. Even nicer would be effective listening, and that is what is pretty uniformly lacking at the county level in government across the country absent a platform or checkbook. I’d characterize Manhattan as a rotten borough, but everyone already knows that. (I know exactly what that means, having lived less than 1km from the boundaries of the Constituency of Aldeburgh when I was in England, in a town that reveled in that history of corruption. And had a notoriously dicey nuclear power plant.)

  3. It is true that “money talks – loudly”.
    However, SOME of the concerns are not about choices for adults, but what content children can be exposed to absent parental oversight.
    Concerns include: inappropriate language, explicit sexual content and the age of children accessing it, the truly depressing nature/themes of much of YA lit, and outside programs that delve into topics that MIGHT be considered Not A Library’s Business (sex, radical politics, one-sided presentations of so-called scientific content).
    You don’t have to be a Blue-Nosed Theocrat to object to use of public facilities using perhaps biased resources to discuss contentious topics, such as sexual identity and medical interventions to stunt children’s adult growth, for example.
    Now, groups that want to promote their agenda or viewpoint and influence young people are certainly within their rights to have those events hosted at like-minded facilities, and with the group bearing the cost of doing so. They can publicize events via flyers, ads, and word-of-mouth. Not appropriate for public facilities to use their premises to promote a single-sided view.
    Think I’m exaggerating or making a mountain out of a molehill? Check out this link to Reason.com (a relatively middle of the road Libertarian site) – a search with the terms “library” and “sex” brought up these linked articles. https://reason.com/search/library%20sex/
    Whacky decisions by publicly paid officials run the gamut, from Don’t Teach Anything But Abstinence-Only proponents, to Sure, Drag Queens With Truly Scary Face Paint Reading to Pre-schoolers is Not Only Good, But the Library Shouldn’t Do a Simple Background Check on the Performers (yes, several sex offenders have been uncovered among those Drag Queens – and, no, not all or even most – but, not checking is just dumb).
    Parents generally act in the actual best interests of their kids. Do SOME parents make decisions that seem overly authoritarian or too permissive? Sure. But, absent a violation of the law – actual abuse or neglect – parent’s rights are paramount.
    And, taxpayers have rights. If a program or library content is not within reasonable limits of community culture, then a public library shouldn’t be offering it. If you absolutely HAVE to have books/videos/content that falls so far out of that general acceptance range, you can start your own library or free book giveaway (the so-called Free Libraries can put whatever they want in those little boxes). Just don’t use public money to push your agenda.

  4. But opponents say the legislation will undermine the independence of local librarians, which are supposed to serve the public as a whole.

    Of course it will undermine librarians. That’s why they are doing it. They no longer trust the librarians.

    Makes one wonder how many librarians would trust the police to chart their own course. Should the police be free to operate as they choose without guidance from elected officials?

    Librarians aren’t special.

    • Funny thing: “the public as a whole” only includes those that share certain views in toto. Dissenters, even in part, aren’t part of the whole.

      Subhuman.
      A view reciprocated.
      No room for subtlety of compromise anymore.

      Can’t wait for 2030 to get here.

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