In “The Sum of Us,” an eye-opening book about racial inequity, Heather McGhee describes how Southern cities ordered to integrate public swimming pools in the early 1960s responded by shutting them down altogether. Of course, when officials in Montgomery, Ala., or St. Louis drained the community pools and filled them with dirt, white families lost out too. Everyone paid the price for intolerance.
Today a similarly cramped attitude threatens to deprive some communities of their public libraries. In Meridian, Idaho, a group of aggrieved residents has mounted a petition to dissolve that city’s 100-year-old public library district because it won’t purge its shelves of books the group finds offensive. Never mind that everyone in Meridian would also miss out on homework help, tax assistance, playtime for toddlers, and the other community programs the library provides. For the vigilantes who see “smut” and “the woke mob” in books about gender or race identities, that’s just the price to pay.
“It’s hard to image what it would be like to not have those spaces and opportunities,” said Chelsea Major, a coordinator for the Meridian Library Alliance, founded just days ago to mobilize support for the embattled branch. “Not everyone wants to read the same books, but we want the freedom to make those decisions for ourselves and our families.” A public hearing is set for March 20 before county commissioners, who will decide whether to put the question of dissolution before the voters.
Threats to public libraries are not new. But previous disputes were mostly budgetary, driven by small-government types who chafed at paying taxes for someone else’s reading pleasure. Now the attacks are ideological, as a toxic mix of anti-vaxxers, transphobic conspiracy theorists, and right-wing extremists have found common cause. The Meridian library, for example, has been targeted by a group calling itself Idaho Liberty Dogs. When they’re not trying to ban books, the same group proselytizes against abortion rights, mask mandates, immigrants, and the overhyped scourge of critical race theory.
Idaho, unfortunately, is not an outlier. In western Michigan last year, voters defunded the Patmos Library in Jamestown Township after it refused to remove LGBTQ-themed books from its young adult shelves. The library faced closure until private citizens donated enough to keep the doors open. In Kansas, the elected commissioners of St. Marys, a city about 27 miles from Topeka, threatened to not renew the library’s lease unless it agreed to remove “sexual or racially or socially divisive material” from circulation. Several libraries across the country received bomb threats during the commemorative “banned books week” last year, and small-town librarians are resigning amid terrifying personal attacks. School libraries have it even worse, with librarians being labeled “groomers” for allowing teenagers to read books about gender difference.
And let’s not be so smug as to think such fires can’t ignite in the Athens of America. “It’s not like it doesn’t happen here,” said Michael Colford, director of library services at the Boston Public Library. But protests against mask mandates, for examples, or drag queen story hours have been fairly limited, he said. (The drag story hours have been more aggressively targeted in other Massachusetts communities, such as Taunton and Fall River.) Colford credits the strong relationships between library staff and community members, especially at the branches, for keeping support of the library high.
People in a moral panic about books often wear the cloak of “parental rights” or “personal freedom,” but they seem to forget they have the freedom to avoid offensive books — or to protect their children from them — by staying away. “That one person’s discomfort should drive the reading decisions of an entire community is pernicious,” said John Chrastka, director of the advocacy group EveryLibrary. Chrastka, whose organization is active in 37 states, says attacks on “difficult” books with race or gender themes are stand-ins for attacks on disfavored populations. “It’s not just the right to read that’s at stake,” he said in an interview. “It’s the right to have the dignity of your story protected.”
Amen. These attacks on libraries are part of a larger trend of anti-intellectualism that has been gaining steam in America for years. They are often fueled by misinformation, rumor, and social media campaigns that are uninterested in the facts. How ironic, then, that libraries — the place one goes to be well informed, to understand the world, to know the truth of things — are the targets of such vitriol.
Or maybe it’s not ironic at all.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.