Legislation aims to deter book bans at public libraries by withholding grants

Chicago Tribune – March 8, 2023

Legislation aimed at discouraging public libraries from banning books has been introduced in the Democratic-controlled Illinois General Assembly amid largely partisan battles around the country over what books and school curricula are suitable for children.

The bill was initiated by Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, who joined a nationwide Democratic chorus criticizing officials, mostly in red states, for trying to get libraries to remove books, often because of LGBTQ content.

Giannoulias, whose office also serves as the state librarian, downplayed the role partisanship plays in his proposal, saying that many librarians “I’m sure are Republicans.”

“I have no idea, nor do I care,” said Giannoulias, who once sat on the board of the Chicago Public Library. “We view this as protecting our libraries. They’re under assault the likes of which they have never seen. They are being thrown into the mix of a political battle, and we’re trying to give them cover by helping them, by codifying this into legislation.”

The legislation, which has the backing of Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, would allow the secretary of state’s office to deny state grants to public libraries, including those in schools, that don’t adhere to the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which holds, among other things, that “materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

As an alternative, libraries could develop a written policy to “prohibit the practice of banning specific books or resources,” the bill states.

Some states controlled by Republicans have taken just the opposite approach. The Indiana Senate last week passed a measure that would make it easier for law enforcement to prosecute teachers if material deemed obscene ends up in possession of a minor. A similar measure was recently enacted in Missouri, leading educators to pull titles from school library shelves, according to published reports.

One opponent of the Illinois measure is State Rep. Dan Caulkins, a Decatur Republican who said the legislation takes away local control.

“Parents know best, school boards know best, library boards know best what their communities want and need,” said Caulkins, part of a far-right group of House Republicans informally known as the Eastern Bloc. “And for the state of Illinois again, here we go, the radical Democrats are pushing an agenda trying to force their woke ideology on more conservative parts of the state.”

The secretary of state’s office said libraries could only lose the grant funding if they pull books from their shelves due to “partisanship” or “discrimination.” Guidelines for what that means are still being developed. But the office would not interfere with a library’s selection process for books to include in its collection.

“If books are selected on a local level, we need to trust those librarians, respect the decisions they make and adhere to the guidelines that they already have in place,” Deputy Secretary of State Scott Burnham said in an email.

The measure is sponsored in the House by state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, a Democrat of Naperville, who said book bans have been particularly discriminatory against groups of people who are already marginalized in American society.

“Whether they’re part of the LGBTQ community or their race or ethnicity, those are the books that are being targeted by right-wingers to be banned,” she said. “We absolutely want to be doing everything possible to stand up for the librarians and stand up for the students and children and all library patrons to be able to access the materials that they should be able to access in a public library.”

Cynthia Robinson, executive director of the Illinois Library Association, said that while most libraries likely already have a process in place to hear complaints about books on their shelves, the bill will ensure that libraries will be prepared to handle such challenges.

“That is something that we think will be positive out of this legislation. It will get libraries to be prepared beforehand,” said Robinson. “If you don’t have a policy, you don’t have a process. And if you have that in place, then everybody who is involved will know what to expect, what the steps are, as opposed to just making it up as you go or treating things differently.”

During fiscal year 2022, the secretary of state’s office under Jesse White awarded over $62 million for 1,631 grants to Illinois libraries, an office spokesman said. In the previous fiscal year, nearly $68 million in grants was awarded, up from just over $36 million in fiscal year 2020.

By June 30, the end of fiscal year 2023, the secretary of state’s office estimates that it will have awarded more than 1,400 grants totaling close to $56 million.

If the measure becomes law, enforcement could be an issue. Giannoulias said his office performs regular audits of how its grant funding is used, although there are limited resources to monitor libraries.

“We’ll establish a more formal audit process if we need to,” Giannoulias said. “But for now, we do feel pretty confident about the audit process and the administrative rules.”

In 2021, nationally, there were 681 attempts at book bans involving more than 1,600 books, the most since the Chicago-based American Library Association began tracking the statistic about two decades ago, according to the secretary of state’s office, citing the association’s figure.

While research has shown that most book banning in recent years has occurred in states that lean Republican, like Florida, Texas and Tennessee, there were 67 attempts to ban books in Illinois in 2022, up from 41 the year before, according to the association’s data cited by Giannoulias’ office.

According to a report from PEN America, a New York-based literary advocacy group, “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe was the most frequently banned book nationwide, prohibited at 41 U.S. schools districts from July 2021 through June 2022, for its illustrations of sex acts in a nonfiction story about the author dealing with gender identity and relationships with family and friends.

In June of last year, the high school board in Downers Grove, which falls within Stava-Murray’s district, unanimously voted to keep “Gender Queer” in its libraries even after a group of parents and some members of the far-right Proud Boys group raised concerns over the book.

In west suburban Riverside, some people earlier this year unsuccessfully tried to get the book banned from the local library. But there was strong support for keeping the book available.

“I don’t believe there’s any reason to ban a book‚” said Courtney Greve Hack, a trustee for the Riverside Public Library. “I don’t believe in censorship, period. And I think that most people who are involved in libraries, whether they’re a staff member or an elected trustee, feel the same way.”

All told, the PEN report stated, local officials around the country banned more than 2,500 books by more than 1,200 authors, 290 illustrators and 18 translators from July 2021 through June 2022. These bans happened in 138 school districts in 32 states, according to the report.

While Illinois wasn’t close to being among the states with the most book bans, according to the report, Giannoulias said he’s heard from librarians “who have never felt so threatened and under attack.”

“As the state’s librarian, my job is to ensure that Illinois residents have access to reading and learning material at their local libraries,” he said.