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At the Library: Missouri bill legalizes and legitimizes censorship

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library censorship

On Jan. 8, a Missouri legislator named Ben Baker introduced a state law that has librarians, writers, authors and countless members of the public up in arms; it is a law that could, if passed, result in public librarians being fined or sent to jail — simply for doing their jobs.

Let me back up a bit and explain.

The proposed legislation, officially titled House Bill No. 2044, is also known as the Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act. It calls for the creation of “parental library review boards” made up of elected members of the public — with librarians explicitly banned from sitting on these boards — who would then make decisions about what materials are “age-inappropriate” for minors.

The end goal would be for these review boards to determine which books should be removed “from public access by minors” in Missouri’s public libraries.

There are a fair amount of semantics at play within the text of the legislation, but I want to be clear: This is a law designed to legalize and legitimize censorship.

Under the law, public libraries that allow minors to access materials that have been deemed to be age-inappropriate by the aforementioned “review boards” would be denied state funding; by that same token, individual librarians who don’t adhere to the law would be fined, or could face up to a year in jail.

But specifically, what type of library materials are we talking about?

Baker, the legislator who introduced the bill, noted in a post on his official Facebook page that the bill is intended to restrict minors from accessing “agenda driven literary content designed to encourage (their) excessive interest in sexual matters.”

Further, the text of the bill describes “inappropriate” materials as those with “any description or representation (...) of nudity, sexuality, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse (...) that appeals to the prurient interest of minors.”

It goes on to include books that are “patently offensive to prevailing standards … (of) what is appropriate for minors; and taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”

I have so many issues with this piece of legislation that I don’t even know where to begin, except to say I love being a librarian, but I didn’t — nor did any public librarian I know — sign up to be an ideological stand-in parent for someone else’s child.

Objectively, I understand the intent behind this law; and I can certainly empathize with adults who want to ensure that their children are not exposed to materials that they, personally, deem to be inappropriate.

But here’s the thing: Public libraries don’t exist to uphold any single, or prevailing, viewpoint. As former librarian and editor Jo Godwin famously observed: “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.”

That’s one of my favorite quotes, but don’t misunderstand me; the sentiment behind it isn’t a license for public libraries to be recklessly incendiary or unnecessarily provocative.

In fact, I truly believe that public libraries should be a safe space for everyone who walks through our doors — and in many senses, that’s exactly what we do, and who we are.

Libraries are safe in the sense that we welcome everyone; in that we provide equal access to information; and because we don’t pass judgment on our patrons or the materials we add to our collections.

Public libraries are a service to, and a reflection of, the many-faceted communities that we serve.

What we are not, however, is a replacement for the responsibilities or rights of an individual parent to independently govern the ideas and information to which their children are exposed.

This law places a grossly ill-considered onus on public libraries, and public librarians, to subjectively police and limit access to library materials, when it should be up to parents to take an active role in reviewing, and making decisions about, the materials their children are reading.

The Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act is not only an affront to everything that public libraries stand for, it also spits in the eye of the free and democratic society in which we live.

• Krystal Corbray is programming and marketing librarian for Yakima Valley Libraries. She and other library staffers write this weekly column for SCENE. Learn more at www.yvl.org.

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