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When Missouri Proposed Library Censorship, Librarians Got Organized

The librarians’ partial victory shows how pro-worker, anti-censorship organizing can work even in a conservative state.

Missouri lawmakers on March 23, 2023, moved to strip state funding from public libraries in retaliation for a lawsuit challenging a new state law that bans certain materials in school libraries.

In October 2022, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft issued a draft of a proposed state regulatory rule that would eliminate state funding to libraries that failed to comply with a list of requirements meant to restrict access to “age-inappropriate” materials that might fall into the hands of children. Among its restrictions, the proposal would require libraries to develop processes for parental review of books checked out by their children, prohibit libraries from using state funds to purchase materials of “prurient” interest, and require age ratings for library programming and displays. An aggressive menu of anti-library policies, the rule sparked intense opposition across the state. Over the 30-day comment period, Missouri residents registered more than 18,000 comments, comprising a stack of more than 20,000 pages, that forced Ashcroft to withdraw and revise the rule. It was a win for Missouri librarians and for intellectual freedom.

This organized response did not come from nowhere. Missouri librarians have been systematically preparing library workers for such challenges since at least 2015. That’s the year librarian Colleen Norman — who is also the chair of the Missouri Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee — worked with her colleagues at Mid-Continent Public Library in Independence, Missouri, to develop a workshop designed to train frontline library workers in the basics of intellectual freedom principles and book challenge defense. Intellectual freedom is defined by the American Library Association as “the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view, without restriction” and is one of 12 core values in the profession. These organizers understood that it isn’t the library director or board chair that preserves the right to read, it’s the library worker at the front desk. “We were asking frontline library workers to have these conversations, and we hadn’t talked to them about what to say,” said Norman, who is also the former chair of the Missouri Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. “We created this training that walks through what intellectual freedom is and what it means,” she said, “and then we talk about how to have a conversation when someone comes in with a concern.”

Norman and her colleagues tested the training at their branch of Mid-Continent in 2015. Then they extended the workshop to the entire library system, training 900 Mid-Continent library workers in one-on-one conversations in just six weeks. Norman and her colleagues then pitched the training to the Missouri Library Association’s annual conference, and it was a hit. Now, intellectual freedom and challenge defense training has become a standard offering at the event. Library directors across the state saw the impact the program was having and some started to request trainings in their own libraries. With funding support from the Missouri Library Association (MLA) to cover travel costs and fees for the training team, “it just exploded,” said Norman. They also worked with Amigos Library Services to offer training around the country, and expanded locally, working with student activists organizing in the small town of Nixa, Missouri.

That preparation has been crucial in the face of an avalanche of opposition to library resources and services for LGBTQ+ Missourians. When the workshops began, they were intended to train library workers in responding to the occasional book challenge that libraries have always dealt with. Public institutions are, after all, accountable to the public, and there can be real reasons to question library decisions. This is why public libraries have policies and processes to manage these concerns — they’re a normal part of doing library business. But the current spate of challenges is different. “The new piece is the national organizing around challenges,” said Joe Kohlburn, past chair of MLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. “The right has chosen the library as an easy target, a place where people can stand and protest. The project for these training sessions now is to make us a harder target.”

Over the 30-day comment period, Missouri residents registered more than 18,000 comments, comprising a stack of more than 20,000 pages

That will be essential in the ongoing fight for access to information in the state. The win in the case of Ashcroft’s rule was, like many progressive wins, hard fought, partial and temporary. The Missouri legislature passed Senate Bill 775 in late 2022, requiring school libraries to remove any “explicit sexual material” from their collections. The Missouri ACLU has filed a lawsuit arguing that the far-reaching legislation strips the public of their First Amendment rights. House Budget Committee Chairman, Republican Cody Smith, responded with an effort to eliminate $4.5 million in state funding for libraries, a cut that has passed out of committee and will now head to the floor. Library organizing continues across the state.

For his part, Kohlburn believes that librarians and other comrades in the fight for intellectual freedom will win. “I’ve been doing activist work in this state for a long time,” he said, “And this is the first time I’ve felt uniform solidarity. I have not talked to anyone who isn’t on our side.”

Note: This article was amended to clarify that Colleen Norman is current chair of the the Missouri Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, and Joe Kohlburn is its past chair.

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