Across the country, right-wing activists and politicians are pushing to control and censure public libraries. That is currently happening here in Kenosha County.
County Board Supervisor Tim Stocker was the first conservative to publicly take aim at the reading material in our public libraries, attacking the award winning book Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Homegoing was selected by the National Endowment for the Arts to be the 2023 Big Read book. Kenosha public libraries are participating in the Big Read, as they have for years. Supervisor Stock has repeatedly attacked the library during his comments during County Board meetings. You can read more here. You can listen to award-winning Ghanian author Yaa Ngasi talk about her book for adults here.
Kenosha City Council member Dave Mau has attacked both public libraries and museums.
Kenosha Moms for Liberty and the Republican Party have now joined in Stocker's effort to control what is available in our public libraries. They've been putting out calls to action to encourage their followers to attend library meetings and speak against what they feel are "inappropriate" materials and displays in the library, meaning materials and displays that go against their own personal values. You will find one of their calls to action here. We encourage people to take the time to read the comments by Tim Stocker and by Sandy Rowe Wiedemeyer, the Chair of the Republican Party of Kenosha County, on that post.
People like Wiedemeyer and Stocker, who are trying to rally conservatives to impose their personal values on our public libraries, often argue that they are not pushing book "bans." Rather, they claim to be focused on ensuring libraries have "age-appropriate" materials. You can see that reflected in Wiedemeyer's comments on the call to action post.
Objections to sexual content in literature
While these bans are often masked as an effort to remove "pornography" from libraries, it is now well-documented that nation-wide most of the targeted books have LGBTQ characters or are literary works. In particular they target literature with sexual content. That has been obvious in the public remarks made by Stocker during County Board meetings and remarks made by Moms for Liberty and the Republican Party who've turned up at library board meetings to meddle based on what they feel is "appropriate." Public libraries are already governed by the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) which guides their material choices and how they protect children from inappropriate content. But these conservatives want the libraries to be ruled by their own personal values, regardless of what other library patrons want to see and read.
It's important to understand that materials with sexual content are not pornographic or obscene or “harmful to minors” simply because they have sexual content or go against an individual's personal level of comfort. Whether material is “obscene” or “harmful to minors” is determined by the courts, not by individuals. This is the case no matter how uncomfortable those individuals or the members of a group may be with the book(s), or how strongly they feel children or teens shouldn’t have access to specific materials. (It’s important to state that parents and guardians certainly have the right to decide what they want their own children reading, and the responsibility to talk with their kids about those limits and expectations. You can read more about that here.
One of the objections conservatives have about Homegoing is that is a realistic description of the actions against enslaved people, including a disturbing rape scene against a young slave. It is difficult and painful to read, but it is not pornography. Pornography is material specifically created to illicit a sexual response. That is not the purpose of this scene in the book, it a painful and graphic telling of how slaves were treated.
Homegoing is not a book written for children, it is an adult book. But why is it important for teens to have access to literature that includes rape scenes if they want that? Some parents might be uncomfortable with high school readers choosing books that deal with such violent content. Yet according to the CDC, nearly 1 in 5 women have experienced rape or attempted rape in her lifetime, and 1 in 3 experienced it for the first time between 11 and 17 years of age. For young men between 11 and 17, the statistic is 1 in 4. Rape is a global problem with an estimated 35% of women worldwide experiencing some form of sexual assault or harassment in their lifetime. Child sexual abuse and molestation come serious long-term effects. Reading stories can help young survivors process their experience, especially during the early phase of their recovery when talking to other people is too difficult. Stories can provide support and healing. Stories remind all of us that we are not alone. Reading stories can lead to conversations about these traumatic subjects and also help others to listen. Often, these stories are disturbing, explicit, difficult to read, and terrible.
So while the Republican Party, Moms for Liberty and Tim Stocker are asking library staff to keep their children "safe" from material that makes them as parents feel uncomfortable or that would require them to have difficult or uncomfortable conversations with their children, they would be denying reading materials to other children or families that want or need access to such literature.
Conservatives are asking libraries to co-parent THEIR children while limiting access to materials for others
Ironically, members of the Republican Party and Moms for Liberty are the same people who loudly proclaimed "we don't co-parent with the government!" when schools were facing difficult decisions during COVID. Yet now Stocker, the Republican Party and Moms for Liberty believe they have the right to control our public library spaces, expecting library staff to choose materials they feel comfortable with and set up spaces in the library that reflect their conservative beliefs without regard for the beliefs of others. One of them spoke at a recent library meeting demanding that the "other side" be displayed during Black History Month. Another demanded a "pornography" section be established in public libraries for any books with sexual content that made that person feel uncomfortable.
The movement to defund public libraries
Nation-wide attacks against public libraries have quickly moved to outright bans on books from public libraries with conservatives arguing public money should not be used to purchase what these groups label "pornographic" or "indoctrinating" materials. Republicans in Missouri took it to the extreme this week by voting to defund public libraries state-wide. You can read more about that here.
Locally, Moms for Liberty is demanding our local library system end its relationship with the American Library Association (ALA) because of its stance protecting 1st Amendment rights and against censorship. You can read about that here. They are demanding our public libraries cut all ties with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) because of its promotion of the book Homegoing. They are demanding our library not hang posters or have any displays which make them feel uncomfortable or which they consider "divisive" or "political", displays that go against their own personal beliefs.
Most of us believe our public libraries belong to all of us and understand that libraries are run by professional librarians who are trained to choose appropriate books for various ages. Libraries are for our entire community-not a select group of people who believe they are privileged and their personal beliefs should allow them to control the content and the environment of our public libraries.
For more information about conservatives attacks on books: