When an exiled Athenian philosopher brought an idea for a new building to one of Alexander the Great’s successors around 300 BC, the proposal met with almost immediate approval. When that building finally opened a few decades later, the Great Library at Alexandria helped to define the city as the center of knowledge and learning for centuries. Even that library was far from the first. Other libraries, dating back at least half a millennium, served as both engines of scholarship and commerce. Libraries go back to a time when their contents were inscribed in cuneiform on tablets of baked clay.
In the New World, the story of libraries usually turns to Benjamin Franklin. However, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana in Mexico opened almost a century before Franklin raised the funds to found the Library Company of Philadelphia. The first free public library in the United States was founded in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in 1833, and after that they proliferated across the nation. In town after town, city after city, the first two public structures were a public school and a public library. Those institutions aren’t just artifacts of civilization; they are its defining elements.
Now these institutions are under attack by Republicans. That includes a Missouri bill that removes all state funding for libraries, and the superintendent of a Virginia school district moving to eliminate school libraries completely. This is the second stage of the assault on information that Republicans opened with a wave of bills making it easier to ban books both in school libraries and public libraries. Because, just like Donald Trump, the Republican Party loves the poorly educated. Ignorance may not be bliss, but it certainly makes people easier to control.
In some sense, it’s understandable that a school superintendent might want the libraries gone. Even those who have no interest in restricting access to books understand that not only is maintaining a well-stocked school library an expense, it’s becoming much more expensive. Not because books are becoming pricier, but because having any books at all now represents an open legal risk to the district.
When someone who is not a parent of a child in the district, or even a resident of the district, can insist that a book be removed, and a demand for removal can be made without a stated cause. Those laws have very serious potential consequences, including fining school officials or librarians for every “violation,” avoiding those complications by just not having a library at all is a compelling solution. County officials undoubtedly feel the same about public libraries.
Here’s the Cincinnati Enquirer discussing books that have already been pulled from school libraries based on the wording of current Missouri law.
All eight of these books, according to C.K.-W., feature and present the perspective of an author or protagonist who is “non-white, LGBTQ+, or otherwise identifies as a minority.” All eight books received at least one complaint.
Get that? These books aren’t banned because they have sexual content. They’re not even banned for their content. These complaints went out because they had an author or character who was other than straight and white. And again, these complaints were made against multiple school districts by someone outside the district, someone who didn’t even bother to look, because six of the books weren’t even in most of these districts. That is all it took to get some of the books pulled and others put “under review.”
Here’s the ACLU discussing what it means if a school or library is found to be in violation of new laws against “sexual content” in books.
Librarians or other school officials could face up to a year in jail or a $2,000 fine for violating the policy.
That’s a year or $2,000 per complaint. At the same time, here’s the St. Louis Post-Dispatch looking at how school librarians are reacting to complaints insisting that hundreds of books be pulled.
Earlier this week, the Missouri Association of School Librarians said it was aware that some schools were “pre-emptively removing books” but advised its members not to do so.
That was in response to a “parents group” pre-arming people across the state with titles to complain about before the law even went into effect. Many libraries took it on themselves to remove these books before the first complaint came in. That’s understandable. Many other libraries chose to stand their ground, put books through the review process, and refuse to bend to piles of bulk-mailed complaints. That’s admirable, but it also puts everyone there at considerable risk.
And then there’s this:
Two students represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri sued Wentzville in federal court in February for banning library books including Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” which the school board then returned to shelves.
Schools are being charged with crimes for refusing to remove books. They’re being sued when they do remove books. How is it possible for schools to operate a library under these conditions?
Answer: It’s not. And that’s the point.
The actions Republican legislators are taking in Missouri, Florida, and states across the nation are certainly destructive to the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans, Black Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, and others. That is definitely one goal of this effort. But it’s not the only goal. It’s not even the main goal.
In all these actions, Republicans are using their culture war issues as a lever toward something that’s an even bigger plum for their regressive pie. Because let’s be clear about it: Republicans don’t actually give a damn about drag shows. They don’t care one flying f**k about whether schools have a book about two male penguins caring for a chick.
What they care about is how they can use these issues to enrage the public and to attack public institutions. It’s not about banning specific books, or limiting the content of certain classes. It’s about limiting the channels through which knowledge is transmitted to ones where Republicans can exert explicit, overt control.
As MSNBC reports, Republican Congressman Clay Higgins has already made this clear.
“Over time, American communities will build beautiful, church owned public-access libraries. I’m going to help these churches get funding. We will change the whole public library paradigm. The libraries regular Americans recall are gone.”
Here’s another incident that happened last month when “Christian” activist Kirk Cameron visited a public library in a community outside Nashville. Cameron asked for and got a room in which he and a list of other conservative activists could read from their books as part of a tour. Then Cameron and company stayed at the library for hours, disrupted access for everyone else, and used the library to film a series of commercials–demanding that others trying to use the library stay out of the way.
Afterward, the whole collection of conservatives took to social media platforms to attack the library staff as “rude.” The result was that the library director of a rural conservative community found himself fired. Not because he had shorted Cameron on anything he requested. He was fired because Cameron wanted to generate “buzz” for his tour and to drive the narrative that public libraries are liberal dens full of anti-Christian sentiment and sexualized content.
The goal isn’t to ban a particular book. The goal is to make both public libraries and public schools untenable. It’s the same reason that Republicans launched a war in school board meetings about masks or about vaccines. They want schools dead. Libraries, too. Kids (and adults) can access all the information that Fox News, their local evangelical church school, and their evangelical church library allow—and no more.
Republicans insist that “without the Second Amendment, the others don’t matter.” But it’s not guns that protect democracy. What really protects democracy was best defined in a 1789 letter:
A well informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny. – Thomas Jefferson
That well-informed citizenry doesn’t just happen. It takes public schools. It takes public libraries. It takes an openness of heart and mind that embraces new ideas, even if they are counter to your own beliefs.
In their efforts to tear down both public schools and public libraries, Republicans are causing direct harm to people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and in particular, trans kids. But the bigger goal is the destruction of public schools and public libraries.
The VisiGOPs are here to sack institutions that have defined civilization as long as there has been civilization, and which the Founders rightly identified as essential to the character of America. And somehow, they call that conservative.
Progressives scored a monumental victory in Wisconsin Tuesday night when Janet Protasiewicz flipped a pivotal seat on the state Supreme Court, and we've got plenty to say about it on this week's episode of The Downballot. Not only are the electoral implications deeply worrisome for Republicans, the court's new liberal majority has the chance to revive democracy in the Badger State by restoring abortion rights and striking down gerrymandered GOP maps. It truly is a new day—and one we've long awaited—in Wisconsin.
We're also delving into the fascinating politics of Alaska with our guest this week, former state Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. Jonathan recounts his unlikely journey to the state House after winning a huge upset while still in college before explaining how Democrats, independents, and even a few Republicans forged a remarkable cross-partisan governing coalition. We also get an on-the-ground view of what Mary Peltola's stunning special election victory last year looked like to Alaska Democrats.