On eve of Banned Books Week, St. Louis-area libraries become battlegrounds in culture war

Jane Henderson October 1, 2023
Secretary of state testifies on Illinois’ recent effort to prohibit book bans

On eve of Banned Books Week, St. Louis-area libraries become battlegrounds in culture war

Missouri has opened its door wide to book challenges, including in St. Charles County. There, protesters at meetings have called sex education books “gross” while others speak against censorship efforts.

On the flip side, Illinois has passed a law to defend libraries. But that doesn’t mean book advocates aren’t on alert there, too.

In Collinsville, increasing numbers of people attend board meetings in the Mississippi Valley Library District. In September, more than 35 people, some wearing shirts proclaiming “United Against Hate” and “Ally,” crammed into a small space and many cheered loudly when patrons spoke in favor of keeping the library’s offerings diverse.
Concern had risen over incidents involving new trustees who were backed by a political conservative in the April election:

Even though the library director had the bookmarks put back on view, such efforts to challenge library displays or “other materials” make up about 13% of reported censorship attempts in libraries across U.S., according to the American Library Association.
Such examples aren’t necessarily successful or official challenges, but some people call them efforts at ”shadow” or informal book banning — and they are likely a lot more common than readers know.

In Missouri, a spokeswoman for the St. Charles City-County Library said branches would not have displays for Banned Book Week.

Book challenges rise

The ALA has counted censorship attempts for 20 years, saying it likely hears about only a small portion of book challenges. But the attempts are rising and more successful — especially in school libraries — than ever, say the ALA and Pen America.

2023 is on track to top last year’s record for book challenges, the ALA says, and Pen America counts Missouri as No. 3 in number of books removed from school shelves. The state, like Florida and Texas, has a law against explicit images without literary merit. Missouri’s 2022 law, which threatens jail time for school teachers and librarians, is believed to encourage schools to err on the side of safety.

The rise in challenges has been linked to conservative groups such as Moms for Liberty, whose website lists chapters in St. Louis County and St. Charles County. Moms for Liberty is on the “hate map” of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit focusing on civil rights, because many of the challenged books are by Black authors or feature Black or LGBTQ subjects.

In Florida, an analysis by the Tampa Bay Times found that some 600 of 1,100 formal complaints since July 2022 came from just two people, one a man who founded the Florida chapter of No Left Turn in Education. The newspaper says, “The data illustrates how a tiny minority of activists across the state can overwhelm school districts while shaping the national conversation over what books belong on school library shelves.”

EveryLibrary Institute commissioned a public opinion poll this summer by a nonpartisan research firm. It found that 75% of American voters opposed book bans (it had a margin of error of 3.4%).

The ALA highlights its annual Banned Books Week from Oct. 1-7, with actor LeVar Burton as honorary chair of this year’s event, titled “Let Freedom Read.” It helps American residents understand threats of censorship and book challenges, both explicit and “shadow,” and offers ideas on how to fight to keep library collections open to diverse information.

The ALA quotes Burton as saying “the ability to read and access books is a fundamental right and a necessity for life-long success. ... Public advocacy campaigns like Banned Books Week are essential to helping people understand the scope of book censorship and what they can do to fight it.”

At its June convention, one ALA panel summarized efforts to challenge books: “Research shows that the movement to ban books is pushed by advocacy groups, using inflammatory language such as ‘grooming’ ‘pedophile’ and ‘pornography’ publicly, and then submitting lists with hundreds of books for censorship. Many of these groups espouse ‘Christian nationalist political views,’ or declare a mission to reform public schools.”

In St. Charles County, parent Mandi Morris believes that attacks on that area’s library are often from people who haven’t read a book “but heard there was a dirty part.”

Although challenges against books “get so loud,” she said, she believes most people in St. Charles County don’t support book bans. She supports libraries and schools by attending meetings and by writing emails to teachers and librarians, letting them know she’s willing to advocate on their behalf.

A little free library box sits in her family’s front yard: “We’re trying to be advocates for book reading.”

The ALA says “all library users have the First Amendment right to borrow, read, view and listen to library resources” and that parents can limit what their own children read — but not what other families’ kids read.

Library worries

“To me, it’s a good sign that more people want to keep track of what’s going on,” says Margie Wright, who has been involved for more than 30 years with a friends group supporting the Mississippi Valley Library District, which has a library in Fairmont City in addition to the larger one in Collinsville. The district serves about 33,000 residents.

At the September meeting, the retired reading instructor said she supports the new Illinois law that requires its state libraries to have policies against book banning. The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, says libraries can lose state funds if they ban books.

“People who object to things often haven’t read them,” Wright says. She experienced complaints when she was a school librarian before becoming a reading teacher. “We’re usually dealing with hearsay and lack of knowledge.”

Another resident, Traci Vanek, says she’s “very happy that people are coming to the library board meetings. I’ve been (Facebook) posting for a while that the only way we’re going to keep this board in check is to come to the meetings.”

Vanek, who has four children, has lived in Collinsville for 27 years. She says she believes vice president Ginny York’s statements against LGBTQ “role models” in May and President Jeanne Lomax’s position against “social agendas” have motivated more residents to attend the library trustee meetings.

“I want to make sure we have a library that is inclusive for all,” she says.

For the September meeting, resident Cynthia Klein-Webb asked about reports she’d heard that rainbow “Libraries Transform” bookmarks had been removed. No trustee answered her question.

She also submitted a letter to the board expressing support for the library and its staff and her hope that the building will remain a “refuge” for all people. Klein-Webb said library trustees should understand ALA guidelines and shouldn’t highlight their specific “religious and political beliefs.”

Library director Kyla Waltermire said in an interview that she expected the library to have a display for Banned Books Week. But she acknowledged that her library does not actually own copies of some of the most challenged books: “Gender Queer,” “Not All Boys Are Blue” and “This Book Is Gay.” Another challenged book is recorded as lost, she said. In Illinois, libraries throughout the state share requested books not owned by a patron’s home library. But some observers believe having to request and wait for a book may deter teen readers.

The Illinois secretary of state told a U.S. Senate Judiciary committee in September that libraries have become “thunderdomes” of conflict. Five libraries in northern Illinois reported bomb threats recently. Earlier this year, Waltermire and the library were sent mail with an anonymous swastika and a symbol of pedophilia. She filed police reports.

What is ‘neutral’?

Book challenges often accuse titles of being too sexually explicit, too violent or containing LGBTQ content. And, as some critics say, books usually aren’t “banned” but challenged.

In Collinsville, library board president Jeanne Lomax says she wants the library district to be “neutral.” She says it should not push any sort of “social, religious or political agenda.”

But she removed the rainbow “Libraries Transform” bookmarks because it was “a clear message they are pushing that LGBT agenda.”

“You don’t see any religious bookmarks,” she said.

The Libraries Transform bookmarks, based on a patron’s photograph, included sentences such as “Because books show us every color of the rainbow” and “Because hands-on learning builds stronger brains.”

Her children are grown, but Lomax says some library books aren’t age appropriate and “normalize sexual activity.”

“I think our children are losing their innocence at such an early age,” she says. “I don’t think it’s the library’s job to do Pride month,” she adds.

But she also says she doesn’t care what adults check out for their own kids. “I’m for free will.”

She has been supported at board meetings by some residents, although they were quieter in September than the advocates for diverse books.

But how does a library, which carries material for all patrons, remain “neutral”?

Lisa Gilbert, a lecturer in the education department at Washington University, teaches a “Gender and Education” class. She says “neutrality” is likely impossible: “The absence of a book is a political decision just like the presence of a book is a political decision.”

She also says “we cannot be neutral about the foundational values of our democracies.” As a diverse nation with citizens who have different viewpoints, the “freedom to explore our viewpoints together is fundamental to our democracy. If we don’t have that, our democracy is threatened.”

Classrooms and libraries help readers gain empathy for others and express their faith in students by having books about tough topics on their shelves, Gilbert says. It shows a “vote of confidence” in a young person, she says:

“It says we believe you can think about hard topics and come up with your own viewpoints on them. And that we are willing to sit by your side as you do that.”