A bill that passed the Illinois State Senate on May 3 is unfortunately not going to “end book bans,” as has been claimed by news outlets such as Politico and the Chicago Tribune. It instead gives the right wing another tool in its toolbox for destroying public infrastructure.
It’s understandable that a range of progressive groups and the American Library Association have all spoken out in favor of the bill, HB 2789, because many see its threat to withhold funding from Illinois public libraries that ban books as a way to push back against accelerating attacks on libraries from the far right. But by embracing a strategy built around the defunding of libraries, HB 2789 actually only puts the commons — our libraries — at further risk. The right wants to eliminate public goods, services and infrastructure — and through that, eliminate the parts of the public (read: people) who are not among the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, to borrow bell hooks’s phrase. Members of the right are already willing to use any means necessary to accomplish that goal, and the bill now before Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker gives them one more method of doing so.
The right has long been attempting to eliminate public education through privatization, under-resourcing, disaster capitalism and fetishization of a false “choice.” Now its forces have turned their attention to libraries, especially school and public libraries. The methods are different, but the goal is the same. By challenging books, disrupting board meetings and events, and terrorizing patrons and staff, the right aims to control the books and information available to the public. Public libraries in Iowa, Michigan, Texas, Idaho, and elsewhere have already closed, temporarily or permanently, or been threatened with closure because of book challenges and bans. (It is no coincidence that some of these states are also banning gender-affirming health care.)
Much like federal education policy during the Bush years, the only tool the government seems to be willing to wield to address education issues is fiscal punishment. Under No Child Left Behind, which was passed in 2001 with bipartisan support and was in place until 2015, schools that did not show improvement in standardized test scores were denied funds, and in some cases, closed. The schools that closed tended to already be under-resourced, and disproportionately attended by students of color. The defunding of those schools did not help students or educators; it punished them via the removal of resources and then expected those students and teachers to somehow do more with less.
And now we have a bill that once again threatens public infrastructure with defunding, even as, like No Child Left Behind, its surface intentions are noble. If libraries do not perform in a certain way, regardless of the extremely difficult positions they and their staff may be put in by right-wing activists — who are willing to go so far as harassing and threatening library workers — they will be defunded.
“Do more with less” is a refrain that every library worker is sick of hearing, and we’ve been hearing it for decades. The answer always seems to be a cut — to staff, to hours, to budgets for buying books and other library materials. Last month, New York City’s libraries just barely avoided the most drastic cuts in Mayor Eric Adams’s budget, after agitation from library workers and patrons made it clear that such defunding would be deeply unpopular and have dire consequences. Such tactics from purportedly liberal governments are not new; in 2012, The Village Voice declared the librarians at the New York Public Library to be number 13 on their list of the 100 most powerless New Yorkers. What is actually needed in libraries from Illinois to New York and beyond is more, not less. More of everything, and primarily more funding. Any bill that threatens cuts, especially as punishment, rather than providing more, badly misses the mark. Isn’t the threat of harassment and violence from the MAGA crowd enough? We shouldn’t also face defunding from those who purport to be our allies.
To be clear, book bans are bad and we need our legislators to help us stop them. What could our legislators do instead of threatening libraries? They could strengthen labor protections for library workers, so those workers can fight book bans without fear of losing their livelihoods. They could codify something like academic freedom for all library workers. They could reaffirm the freedom to read, including for children and teens, that is based in the U.S. Constitution. They could legislate patron privacy, especially digital privacy.
Simply leaving out the section of the Illinois bill that threatens removal of state monies would be enough — the rest of the bill unequivocally states that libraries in Illinois should adopt the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights or a comparable policy, which would give library workers a legal tool for fighting back against book challenges. They could do literally anything that supports libraries, library workers and library patrons, instead of punishing them.
Punishing libraries and the people who depend on them is, after all, what this bill will end up doing. That punishment will fall the hardest on those who need libraries the most, not on the groups like Moms for Liberty who are the source of book challenges, removals and bans. This bill will hurt people of color, women, poor people and the LGBTQ community as they lose access to life-changing information and safe physical spaces. And it will hit hardest those libraries that are already under-resourced and the most dependent on state funds to supplement local money, creating further inequality along race and class lines. Legislators in Illinois seem to think that their threat of defunding will stop book challenges. It will do anything but — because defunding or closing libraries is not an effective threat to those who are demanding books be removed. You don’t have to take my word for it; far right-wingers such as U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins in Louisiana have clearly stated that ending public libraries as we know them is on their agenda.
This isn’t a “gotcha!” moment for the right. In fact, there are no gotcha moments in modern politics, and we cannot outmaneuver the far right through clever words or trying to catch them in a logical fallacy. There’s just power and money, and we shouldn’t cede any of it. The Illinois legislature thinks this is a game of chicken that it can win, but right-wingers aren’t playing the same game. Instead, right-wingers have managed to reverse-psychology a Democratic-led state into doing the work of destroying civil society for them. As for those of us on the left, we would do well to remember that defunding is for things we want to go away, like police and prisons, and is never the right answer for our libraries.
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