A small-town library is at risk of shutting down after residents of Jamestown, Michigan, voted to defund it rather than tolerate certain LGBTQ+-themed books.
Residents voted on Tuesday to block a renewal of funds tied to property taxes, Bridge Michigan reported.
The vote leaves the library with funds through the first quarter of next year. Once a reserve fund is used up, it would be forced to close, Larry Walton, the library board’s president, told Bridge Michigan – harming not just readers but the community at large. Beyond books, residents visit the library for its wifi, he said, and it houses the very room where the vote took place.
“Our libraries are places to read, places to gather, places to socialize, places to study, places to learn. I mean, they’re the heart of every community,” Deborah Mikula, executive director of the Michigan Library Association, told the Guardian. “So how can you lose that?”
“We are champions of access,” she added, including materials that might appeal to some in the community and not others. “We want to make sure that libraries protect the right to read.”
The controversy in Jamestown began with a complaint about a memoir by a nonbinary writer, but it soon spiraled into a campaign against Patmos Library itself. After a parent complained about Gender Queer: a Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, a graphic novel about the author’s experience coming out as nonbinary, dozens showed up at library board meetings, demanding the institution drop the book. (The book, which includes depictions of sex, was in the adult section of the library.) Complaints began to target other books with LGBTQ+ themes.
One library director resigned, telling Bridge she had been harassed and accused of indoctrinating kids; her successor, Matt Lawrence, also left the job. Though the library put Kobabe’s book behind the counter rather than on the shelves, the volumes remained available.
“We, the board, will not ban the books,” Walton told Associated Press on Thursday.
A few months later, in March, an anonymous letter went to homes in the area. It criticized the “pornographic” memoir and the addition of “transgender” and “gay” books to the library, according to Lawrence. “That fired a lot of people up and got them to start coming to our board meetings to complain,” he said. “The concern from the public was that it’s going to confuse children.”
The library’s refusal to submit to the demands led to a campaign urging residents to vote against renewed funding for the library. A group calling itself Jamestown Conservatives handed out flyers condemning Gender Queer for showing “extremely graphic sexual illustrations of two people of the same gender”, criticizing a library director who “promoted the LGBTQ ideology” and calling for making the library “a safe and neutral place for our kids”. On Facebook, the group says it exists to “keep our children safe, and protect their purity, as well as to keep the nuclear family intact as God designed”.
Residents ultimately voted 62% to 37% against a measure that would have raised property taxes by roughly $24 in order to fund the library, even as they approved similar measures to fund the fire department and road work. The library was one of just a few in the state to suffer such a loss, Mikula said: “Most passed with flying colors, sometimes up to 80%.”
The vote came as a “shock” to Lawrence, who left his job in part because of town officials’ criticism of the Patmos library and libraries across the US.
“I knew that there were people that were upset about material in the library, but I figured that enough people would realize that what they’re trying to do with the removal of these books is antithetical to our constitution, particularly the first amendment,” he said.
The vote comes as libraries across the US face a surge in demands to ban books. The American Library Association identified 729 challenges to “library, school and university materials and services” last year, which led to about 1,600 challenges or removals of individual books. That was up from 273 books the year before and represents “the highest number of attempted book bans since we began compiling these lists 20 years ago”, the ALA president, Patricia Wong, said in a press release.
“We’re seeing what appears to be a campaign to remove books, particularly books dealing with LGBTQIA themes and books dealing with racism,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, head of the ALA’s office for intellectual freedom, told the Guardian last year. Celebrated books by Toni Morrison, Alison Bechdel and Ibram X Kendi are among those facing bans.
“I’m not quite sure what instigated the culture wars that we’re seeing, but libraries are certainly at the front end,” Mikula said. Indeed, as states across the US move to deny LGBTQ+ rights, the ALA’s No 1 “most challenged” book last year was Gender Queer.
“When you remove those books from the shelf or you challenge them publicly in a community, what you’re saying to any young person who identified with that narrative is, ‘We don’t want your story here,’” Kobabe told the New York Times in May.
Each library chooses its own collection, Mikula noted, an intensive process that involves staying abreast of what’s new, listening to what’s being requested, and “weeding out” selections that are rarely on loan.
“Our librarians are qualified. They have advanced degrees,” she said. “We want to make sure that the people who have been hired to do this work are trusted and credible, and that they’re making sure that the full community is represented within their library. And that means having LGBTQ books.”
If community members oppose the inclusion of certain books, there are formal means of requesting their removal, involving a review committee and ascertainment that the person making the appeal has actually read the book in question. But recently, she said, people have been “going to board meetings, whether it’s a library board meeting or a school board meeting and saying, ‘Here’s a list of 300 books. We want them all to be removed from your library.’ And that’s not the proper channel, but they’re loud and their voices carry.”