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Progressive Library Boards Can Block Right-Wing Censorship. Here’s How.

Want to fight right-wing censors? Join a public library board! They are at the front lines of this struggle nationwide.

A student studies in the Rice University Library on August 29, 2022, in Houston, Texas.

John Nystrom had been a Florida citrus grower for a decade, but when the freeze of 1977 hit, he changed careers. He’d spent a year as an art teacher before entering the orange business, but chose to work in the library when he went back into the system. In the more than two decades that followed, he worked as a certified school library media specialist in Orange County, Florida. When he retired to Lake County, Florida, Nystrom joined the Lake County Library System’s advisory board. “I just wanted to give something back,” he said.

What he wanted to give Lake County was a successful library collaboration from his days in the school system. “The public library had a program with the contests and programs that got kids interested in signing up for a library card,” Nystrom remembered.

That really matters. While school libraries provide resources and programming where children spend most of their days — in school — the public library operates at a different scale. Alongside larger collections and more extensive programming, public libraries are about public life beyond the classroom. Kids need both. “I wanted to bring that to Lake County and that was my goal for 10 years,” Nystrom told Truthout.

In 2021, Nystrom’s advocacy efforts came to fruition. Library Services Director George Taylor and his team at the library provided virtual library cards to all public school students in the county, adding more than 40,000 people to the library’s user population. Fines and lost book fees were waived, and students would have free access to everything in the library, including online tutoring and language learning programs, as well as a vast collection of electronic books. “It was huge,” said Nystrom. And it wasn’t just the books. Many students in the library district live in rural communities where the library is a primary access point for internet services. “There’s always a technology gap,” Nystrom said. Libraries can also solve that problem.

And then the program ended. In April 2022, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 1557, prohibiting discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools through third grade. With the “Don’t Say Gay” law in place, the school district ended its data-sharing agreement with the public library system, eliminating the virtual card that Nystrom had been pushing for more than a decade.

When public libraries work well, they collect materials that serve everyone, and that includes LGBTQ+ people. “The law is vague and the law is broad,” said Nystrom. “Everybody is concerned about getting sued or losing their jobs.” In the absence of robust union protections, that fear can be very real.

Nystrom’s story is a cautionary one, reminding us that good ideas must be paired with power if they’re going to shape the world. Pro-library advocates point to library boards as an important place to do that work. Take the case of Lincolnwood Library, just outside of Chicago. After a children’s librarian read The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish by Lil Hot Mess at a story time, organized pro-censorship activists swarmed, pushing the library to remove the book from the children’s section. The library director refused, backed by her board. What unfolded next is an all-too-common scene: overflow crowds outside the board meeting, calls to compromise and calls to resist, and a competitive board election.

In response to pushes to censor materials, a group of Lincolnwood residents organized under the name Library Defense. Tara Donnelly, a school librarian and co-organizer of the group, says they drew on existing community networks of interest and influence. Library Defense rallied together a diverse group of people who all agreed that supporting the library and the LGBTQ+ community was important in this moment. Alongside rallies and letter-writing campaigns, the group also looked to the library board.

Library Defense supported a slate of four anti-censorship candidates for the open seats on the Lincolnwood board. The diverse group ran under the banner, “Freedom to Read.” The campaign was rooted in the organizing Library Defense had already been doing: pushing turnout at board meetings, running letter and call-in campaigns, and spreading the word about efforts to eliminate diverse reading materials in the library.

The opposition ran as “We Love Lincolnwood District Library,” supported by far right organizations in the Chicago area like Awake Illinois and Heritage Action for America.

On April 4, the anti-censorship slate won, ensuring that, at least for the next year, Lincolnwood residents will continue to have a board that supports and promotes access to diverse books that represent the experience of everyone in the community. The election results are an important rebuke of the strategies employed by the right: people don’t want censors running the library.

The difference between Lincolnwood and Lake County is not just the presence of Ron DeSantis. It’s also about the power of the library boards, which can vary depending on the ways libraries are structured. In some cases, like Nystrom’s, the library board is advisory. In others, trustees have policy-making authority. Library governance is complicated, and trustees can play many different roles.

What is clear is that library boards need people who are committed to the values of libraries — including equitable access to information for all — as one bulwark against extremists. Resources for understanding the role of library boards are plentiful. A new project from organizer Mariame Kaba, called For the People, provides talking points and legislative templates for library activists on the left. The American Library Association’s United for Libraries division offers information and training on how to be an effective trustee.

For Nystrom, such activism is necessary to counteract the hopelessness he feels as he begins, again, to push for access to information for the schoolchildren of his county. “DeSantis is making himself known on the backs of the school children of Florida,” he said. Without broad political change, he added, “I don’t think there’s anything we can do.”

Note: This article has been amended post-publication to correct errors regarding who read The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish, and the slogan embraced by Library Defense, and to clarify which far right organizations supported “We Love Lincolnwood District Library.”

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