February 4, 2020
New bill threatens to jail Missouri librarians over “age-inappropriate” content
by Alyea Canada
Remember when that library in China got caught burning books deemed subversive by the government? Well, Missouri has decided to throw its hat into the dystopian ring with a bill threatening to jail library employees who loan “inappropriate” books to children. (I was going to say Missouri one-upped the other library, but really both situations are bonkers to be hearing about in the year 2020. Or maybe not, I suppose Ray Bradbury tried to warn us.)
Anyway, Ivan Pereira over at ABC News reported on a bill introduced by Missouri House Representative Ben Baker, called the “Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act.” This bill requires a board comprised of “five adult residents of the public library’s geographical area” to review whether any books contain “age-inappropriate” sexual material through a community hearing and remove the offending books. Here “age-inappropriate” is defined as:
any description or representation, in any form, of nudity, sexuality, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse, that:
(a) Taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest of minors;
(b) Is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community with respect to what is appropriate material for minors; and
(c) Taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors
If libraries don’t comply, they will lose their funding, and if specific librarians don’t comply, they face a misdemeanor charge and a $500 fine or up to a year in county jail. Yeah, seriously. So here’s the thing, you may be asking yourself “Isn’t this the point of a librarian?” And the answer is yes, yes it is. As Cynthia Dudenhoffer, the president of the Missouri Library Association, told Pereria, “Librarians take that stuff very seriously… It’s not like we buy things willy-nilly.”
In fact, each of the 365 branches in the Missouri library system has protocols to determine what books are available to young patrons and determining which materials are appropriate for younger readers is part of the librarians’ training. These libraries all receive feedback from readers regarding questionable material and they will remove or move books based on this feedback. A panel of five random adults from “any village, town, city, county, library district, or other area with established boundaries in which a library is established or for which a library is established to provide library services” has none of these things.
Austin Huguelet at the Springfield News-Leader was told by Baker that the bill “grew out of concerns with ‘drag queen story hours’ at public libraries.” Huguelet goes on to say that Baker believes this bill will “give parents who disagree with library programming a way to change things.” Okay, but actually these parents have a way to tell the library if they don’t like programming. They could tell a librarian. Moreover, programming isn’t even mentioned in the bill so that’s a moot point. Really the goal here is eliminating LGBT+ books from the library. Because allowing LGBT+ children or children with LGBT+ parents to see themselves in books is the worst thing for their wellbeing. I’ve been to a couple of drag queen story hours (DQSH) in Brooklyn and they are an absolute delight. The kids love it and the drag queens read children’s books because it is a children’s event. I’ve also found that it’s a pretty self-selecting crowd at DQSH with conservative parents opting to skip it, as you can do with any event.
Here’s the thing though, queer people exist and representation through books or events like DQSH are important to help them feel seen and/or to learn more about themselves. Similarly, it helps straight people to understand more about queer lives. We love to wax poetic about how books allow you to embody other experiences and travel to faraway lands, and libraries are often at the center of these discussions. Books are also pricey and for many children (and adults) the library is the only way to access them. Plus, librarians know the needs of community they’re serving so maybe just trust them on this one. Finally, if you can, consider donating to your local public library.
Alyea Canada is an editor at Melville House.