They've come for abortion, for LGBTQ+ equality, for civil rights, for voting rights, for public education, now the GOP is coming to destroy your county library branch.
In early November, an email from a citizen dropped into the inbox of Judge Ron Cunningham, the silver-haired head chair of the governing body of Llano County in Texas’s picturesque Hill Country. The subject line read “Pornographic Filth at the Llano Public Libraries.”
“It came to my attention a few weeks ago that pornographic filth has been discovered at the Llano library,” wrote Bonnie Wallace, a 54-year-old local church volunteer. “I’m not advocating for any book to be censored but to be RELOCATED to the ADULT section. … It is the only way I can think of to prohibit censorship of books I do agree with, mainly the Bible, if more radicals come to town and want to use the fact that we censored these books against us.”
Wallace had attached an Excel spreadsheet of about 60 books she found objectionable, including those about transgender teens, sex education and race, including such notable works as “Between the World and Me,” by author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, an exploration of the country’s history written as a letter to his adolescent son. Not long after, the county’s chief librarian sent the list to Suzette Baker, head of one of the library’s three branches.
“She told me to look at pulling the books off the shelf and possibly putting them behind the counter. I told them that was censorship,” Baker said.
Wallace’s list was the opening salvo in a censorship battle that is unlikely to end well for proponents of free speech in this county of 21,000 nestled in rolling hills of mesquite trees and cactus northwest of Austin.
Leaders have taken works as seemingly innocuous as the popular children’s picture book “In the Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak off the shelves, closed library board meetings to the public and named Wallace the vice chair of a new library board stacked with conservative appointees — some of whom did not even have library cards.
With these actions, Llano joins a growing number of communities across America where conservatives have mounted challenges to books and other content related to race, sex, gender and other subjects they deem inappropriate. A movement that started in schools has rapidly expanded to public libraries, accounting for 37 percent of book challenges last year, according to the American Library Association. Conservative activists in several states, including Texas, Montana and Louisiana have joined forces with like-minded officials to dissolve libraries’ governing bodies, rewrite or delete censorship protections, and remove books outside of official challenge procedures.
“The danger is that we start to have information and books that only address one viewpoint that are okayed by just one certain group,” said Mary Woodward, president-elect of the Texas Library Association.
“We lose that diversity of thought and diversity of ideas libraries are known for — and only represent one viewpoint that is the loudest,” said Woodward, noting that there have been an estimated 17 challenges leveled at public libraries in Texas recently and that she expects many more.
Leila Green Little, a parent and board member of the Llano County Library System Foundation, said her anti-censorship group obtained dozens of emails from country officials that reveal the outsize influence a small but vocal group of conservative Christian and tea party activists wielded over the county commissioners to reshape the library system to their own ideals.
In one of the emails, which were obtained through a public records request and shared with The Washington Post, Cunningham seemed to question whether public libraries were even necessary.
“The board also needs to recognize that the county is not mandated by law to provide a public library,” Cunningham wrote to Wallace in January.
Indeed, here in Kentucky, the latest GOP-controlled state legislative session has handed complete control of non-partisan county library boards solely to elected, partisan county judge-executives, who would determine board members. And any project more than $1 million would require Kentucky's county fiscal courts, who could simply block all new library projects.
We're now officially in the era of "Do we really need libraries when Google is available?"
And uneducated populace is easier to control, of course. That's the point.