The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Have we forgotten what a public library is for?

The Patmos Library on Aug. 11 in Jamestown, Mich. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

Deborah E. Mikula is executive director of the Michigan Library Association. Loren Khogali is executive director of the ACLU of Michigan.

Imagine a town without a library.

In August, people in Jamestown, Mich., just outside Grand Rapids, signaled with their votes that they would rather defund — and possibly shutter — their only public library than keep books with LGBTQ themes on the shelves.

The impact of such a vote is deeply concerning. And the place from which it stems — a small but vocal minority trying to dictate what others can and cannot read — is even more troubling.

A Mich. library refused to remove an LGBTQ book. The town defunded it.

Libraries fill a role central to any functioning democracy: upholding the rights of citizens to read, to seek information, to speak freely. As champions of access, librarians are committed to curating collections that allow everyone who enters the library to see themselves in the books and resources the library provides. It is especially crucial to serve people who belong to traditionally marginalized groups — such as the LGBTQ community — which have historically been underrepresented in the publishing industry.

Distressingly, the episode in Jamestown is not an isolated incident.

Across the United States, there has been a rising tide of efforts to undermine fundamental tenets of the First Amendment by suppressing intellectual inquiry and the right to read. As of August, the American Library Association (ALA) had documented 681 challenges to books this year, involving 1,651 different titles; in all of 2021, the ALA listed 729 challenges, directed at 1,597 books. Most of those challenges targeted non-White or LGBTQ authors or subjects. And because the ALA relies on media accounts and reports from libraries, the actual number of challenges is probably far higher, the library association believes.

A chilling indicator of just how extreme these would-be censors can be is found in their willingness to go far beyond accepted norms — political or social — to get what they want. In Jamestown, the library director resigned earlier this year because of online harassment she had been subjected to by a small, well-coordinated group. The interim director who replaced her also resigned, citing harassment.

Azar Nafisi: Book bans signal the dangerous direction society is moving

Describing an “alarming increase in acts of aggression toward library workers and patrons,” the ALA in June issued a statement condemning “violence, threats of violence and other acts of intimidation increasingly taking place in America’s libraries.”

This is what the censors refuse to grasp: Librarians are not trying to force your children to read material you don’t want them to read. They are fulfilling their role as information professionals tasked with upholding the constitutional promise of access to information for all.

Fortunately, the vast majority of Americans understand this. A March survey by Hart Research Associates and North Star Opinion Research on behalf of the ALA found that 71 percent of voters “oppose efforts to have books removed from their local public libraries,” adding: “Most voters and parents hold librarians in high regard, have confidence in their libraries to make good decisions about what books to include in their collections, and agree that libraries in their communities do a good job offering books that represent a variety of viewpoints.”

Also encouraging is the nationwide support library board members in Jamestown received for refusing to compromise their ethical principles and, frankly, their humanity.

A GoFundMe campaign, started soon after the aforementioned vote, has already exceeded its goal of raising $245,000, an amount equal to the library’s annual budget. This outpouring of donations is a heartening indicator of the value Americans place in protecting First Amendment rights. But funding a local library through crowdsourcing is not sustainable in the long term.

Alexandra Petri: All these book bans are like something out of, uh… ‘Goodnight Moon’?

It is important to note the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court on this topic. In 1982, the court determined that removing books from a school library because certain people simply disliked the ideas contained in those books violated the First Amendment rights of students. Simply put, if a board decides to remove materials from a library’s collection based on subject matter, they are putting the library at risk of lawsuits alleging unconstitutionality.

Thankfully, library board members in Jamestown have refused to succumb to the intimidation. Rather than remove the roughly 90 books with LGBTQ themes from a collection that numbers some 67,000 items, they have decided to provide their community with a second chance to do the right thing, by putting the funding question in front of voters again this November.

It is up to all of us who support free speech to resist book banning. Attend meetings and voice support for intellectual freedom and inclusion. Write letters to your local news organization supporting officials who refuse to concede to censors. Run for local office. Join and become active in groups supporting the First Amendment.

The way to combat vocal attacks on free speech is with even more free speech. Otherwise, the censors win. And we all lose.