Bad Takes: Texas' attacks on libraries are attacks on valuable public institutions

Recent religiously motivated campaigns in the Lone Star State seek to ban books and saddle libraries with onerous censorship regimes.

click to enlarge Librarians are in the crosshairs as Texas conservatives look to turn back the clock by banning books. - Shutterstock / wavebreakmedia
Shutterstock / wavebreakmedia
Librarians are in the crosshairs as Texas conservatives look to turn back the clock by banning books.

Editor's Note: Bad Takes is a column of opinion and analysis.

In 1850, when the British Parliament proposed one of the first public library systems, private booksellers shat a collective brick. Aside from limited experiments in imperial Rome, most all the great libraries since antiquity were reserved for aristocrats, their advisors, religious orders or paid subscribers.

"Who would continue to purchase books when people could simply check books out for free?" went the humbug. But the social reformers won the day, and 175 years later, millions of lending libraries have popped up around the globe, whether for students or the general public. Happily, reports of the demise of the book publishing industry remain greatly exaggerated. 

Whether one resides in the suburbs, the city or rural America, whether right-of-center or left-of-center, one of the last items safe majorities of our fellow citizens want put on the budgetary chopping block are libraries. More than 170 million Americans are registered borrowers, the highest number ever, and when the American Library Association (ALA) surveyed voters and parents in 2022, 9 out of 10 believed public libraries held an important place in their communities. 

That's why the last several years in Texas have felt like a blast from the regressive past. Religiously motivated campaigns seek to scandalize and ban literarily significant books. Lawmakers have also tried to saddle school libraries and even independent bookstores with onerous censorship regimes.

And now librarians themselves are under fire.

Spring Branch Independent School District in Greater Houston, which serves 35,000 students, will eliminate all certified librarian positions next year, pleading a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall. Half the librarians at the similarly sized Keller ISD outside Fort Worth, won't have jobs next year. Closer to home, San Antonio ISD, which boasts 45,000 students, gave 27 librarians the axe.

And at the largest school district in Texas, Houston ISD, the state-installed superintendent repurposed dozens of libraries into dual-use disciplinary centers. Most of the schools among those targeted for reform "will lose their traditional libraries and librarians," as Houston Public Media reported.

If we can't teach kids to read and research, at least we'll teach them to be quiet. Maurice Sendak help us if this is a harbinger of wilder things to come.

In our state, the buck stops with Gov. Greg Abbott and the GOP-dominated Legislature, the same meatheads who neglected to increase school funding despite a $33 billion revenue surplus. Texas already has the fourth-lowest literacy rate in the nation, with nearly 1 in 5 adults lacking basic prose skills — a perfect compliment to us also having the fourth-lowest number of libraries. The late great columnist Molly Ivins used to joke that, given Texas' perpetually ranking near the bottom of every educational metric, our state motto should be, "Thank God for Mississippi!"

Unfortunately, when it comes to literacy, the Magnolia State now has us licked.

Statistics notwithstanding, it's the personal stories that have been the most heart-rending. At a school board meeting last March, one student from Nathaniel Hawthorne Academy in SAISD — yes, named after that Nathaniel Hawthorne — lamented the layoff of her librarian.

"Please reconsider letting her go, because we love her," the student begged.

In comments to news site Houston Landing, a parent of two at Terrace Elementary School in that city described their campus librarian as "a magical, real-life Ms. Frizzle," and was moved to tears upon finding out the woman who helped her 8-year-old daughter start a school newspaper would soon be unemployed. 

I wish I could tell you getting fired was the worst of it. In a growing group of states, including our own, librarians have found themselves subject to threats of violence and prosecution. 

In a must-catch episode of 60 Minutes from earlier this month, Richard Geier — the vice-chair of the Beaufort County Board of Education in South Carolina —  discussed just how desperate the situation has become.

"We've had a parent come in and tell a librarian that, 'You are violating a state statute by providing pornography to a minor, I'm going to the sheriff, I'm going to have you arrested,' and storm out," Geier said. "Now, that's not just happened once, that's happened multiple times at multiple schools. I even got an email saying, 'OK, the sheriff has said no, the solicitor said no, I'm going to the FBI!'"

And Beaufort isn't an outlier. As recently detailed in the New York Times, "librarians — accustomed to being seen as dedicated public servants — have been labeled pedophiles on social media, called out by local politicians and reported to law enforcement officials. Some librarians have quit after being harassed online." 

Nor is the fallout limited to campus. Echoing Bette Davis' ironic role as a brave librarian in the 1956 film Storm Center — the first Hollywood rebuke of the censorship of the McCarthy era — the former head librarian at Kingsland Public Library in Central Texas, Suzette Baker, filed suit this month against the Llano County officials who fired her for refusing to remove books tagged as offensive.

A federal judge already ordered the books reshelved early last year. Their titles range from the silly (Larry the Farting Leprechaun) to the pedagogically vital (They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group).

Censorship-mongers are evidently as humorless as they are ahistorical. But what might be motivating them? 

American Library Association President Emily Drabinski provided a clue during a February interview with Axios.

"We have to think of this in the context of diminishing public investment in public institutions," she explained.

From the Second Red Scare to today's trans panic, perhaps the real target is neither Marxist propaganda nor queer literature but the democratic egalitarian ideal of a shared public good. Modern lending libraries are what sociologist Erik Olin Wright called "real utopias" — and ones worth cherishing. 

Don't forget to mark your calendars for the San Antonio Book Festival on April 13, of which the San Antonio Public Library is a founding partner.

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