The First American Union Understood The Necessity of Public Libraries and Education: Book Censorship News for June 28, 2024

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Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She’s the editor/author of (DON’T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Public libraries and schools are democratic institutions. Imperfect as they are — each still suffers under the same social, cultural, historical, and economic systems that the United States does more broadly, including racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and so forth — these are spaces where the average person is able to access information, facts, and entertainment on the most egalitarian level possible. This is why they are prime targets by fascists and why they have come under fire over the last several years specifically. If these institutions can be defunded, there is plenty of opportunity to repackage what they do and sell them back to the average person. That’s precisely what we’re seeing with voucher programs happening in several states. Legislatures are pulling public funds from public education and transferring that into vouchers used to access private education (which often engages the systemic issues in public institutions as part of their sell — i.e., religious or far-right ideologies are baked into those curricula). The same goals exist in attempts to defund public libraries. Those can be privatized and sold back to those with the most capital.

The average person knows how much value exists in tax-funded institutions like schools and libraries. The average person knows that having information and subject experts is essential for navigating a world full of misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda. The average person knows access to books, to curated and vetted websites, and to a wealth of professionally-created reference work is key to being able to think for themselves. It is key to their liberation and key to their capacity to continue tearing down the -ism systems that libraries and schools exist to take apart.

While it feels like all of this is new and unprecedented, it’s far from. Censorship is an American tradition, and so, too, is the understanding by the average person that publicly-funded institutions are crucial.

In Shift Happens: The History of Labor in the United States by J. Albert Mann, Mann offers a comprehensive timeline of labor movements in colonized America. It’s a fascinating, infuriating read and a reminder that everything happening now when it comes to labor and the rights of people vs. the rights of corporations has happened dozens of times in history and will probably continue to happen. We may have well-established child labor laws, but in 2024, there are still states creating caveats that specifically target Black or Brown kids in rural states, permitting them to work in some of the most dangerous jobs otherwise not permitted nationally. Those laws are, of course, intimately tied to the defunding of public institutions.

One of the first unions in the United States was the National Trades’ Union. Wages were not keeping up with inflation in the 1830s — sound familiar? — and workers realized cooperatives created among them had the power to help protect them from further exploitation by the workplace. Those cooperatives joined together at the city level and then ultimately, the national. The National Trades’ Union, established in 1834, aimed to support all working people across the trades because working people working together created solidarity.

The National Trades’ Union demanded the following: national minimum wage, national working hours, public education, and free lending libraries.

At that time in U.S. history, nearly all libraries were subscription. People had to pay to access them and that access was limited to whatever materials that particular library chose to curate. It was not there to serve the public but to serve the library itself. The average worker understood, though, that access to libraries meant access to higher levels of society, but without the money to pay for subscriptions, they demanded a free network of public libraries because it was so important to their personal (and professional!) development.

The only library in the U.S. funded by taxpayers at that time was Peterborough Town Library in New Hampshire. It wasn’t until 1848 that the first major city proposed a taxpayer funded library. But even as Boston Public Library started the movement in the late 1840s, it would not be until 1853 when it opened to the public. Public libraries, unlike subscription libraries, focused not on the books that served the institution but on books that served the taxpaying public.

That is why the earliest worker union advocated for free public libraries. They were already under the direction of bosses and the corporation for which they worked; in addition to being unable to afford the subscription fees, they were subject to whatever was deemed worthy of collection by the library owner or corporation.

Free public libraries took off over the following decades. Part of that was thanks in part to Carnegie — himself a union buster, despite claiming to be pro-union — and part of it was that the work of public libraries was professionalized via the American Library Association in 1876. Public education strengthened in this era as well. Boston was the first city to establish a public high school in 1821, and education became a professionalized career through the mid-1800s. Fewer students received their education in one-room schoolhouses, and more were able to attend a multi-grade level school paid for by tax money. Note, of course, that the -isms mentioned above applied here in spades, as schools for girls and people of color were limited and had access to less capital and talent.

It is of no surprise that when social, political, and economic power seems to be in more hands, rather than fewer, public institutions that become targets of ire from the few. The schools and libraries become places from which to remove money (hello, New York Public Library, reeling with ongoing budget cuts despite the same city funding paying for an unbelievably baffling 86-person public relations team for just the New York Police Department) and where propaganda can flourish (see the United Daughters of the Confederacy).

Union popularity and decline mirror the power we see in politics; that’s why teacher unions have been hard-hit in the same states where book bans have been especially abundant in the last few years. In an era of rhetoric around the unpopularity of unions — despite the waves of meaningful and successful protests and strikes in 2022 — it comes as little surprise that two of the most beneficial institutions for the people demanded by unions nearly 200 years ago, schools and libraries, would become the targets for the power-hungry now, too. Remove access to taxpayer education and libraries that serve the people rather than the powerful, and you remove the few remaining places of democracy.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. That’s why it is critical to understand the purpose of erasure and oppression and that bans on books aren’t about the individual titles. They’re about the public institutions envisioned by the people for liberation from the few who hold and wield power. See the recent stories in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida.

These attacks are not new. None of the targets are new. We’ve got to stop being surprised. As we stare down another maddening election, we need to shout louder, push harder, and demand better. All of the tools are already at our disposal.

Book Censorship News: June 28, 2024

  • 26 books, all LGBTQ+ titles, were pulled from shelves in Citrus County, Florida, public libraries “for review” after complaints.
  • A Pride book display was burned at a Portland, Oregon, bookstore.
  • From the front lines of the battle over books in Llano County Public Library (TX).
  • Staring down a lawsuit, the new policies in Prattville Public Library (AL) would not outright ban LGBTQ+ books. Outright.
  • But don’t worry, some outright elsewhere in Alabama: “While Minton had proposed an amendment to the code changes that would have kept books dealing with ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ out of sections for minors, that language did not make the final version of the code changes. Instead, the code says libraries cannot have books with ‘sexually explicit’ content or other content ‘deemed inappropriate for minors’ in areas designated for minors. The rules did not clearly indicate who would be responsible for ‘deeming’ what material is ‘inappropriate,’ but guidance sent from APLS director Nancy Pack to library directors Tuesday clarified that those definitions will be left to local library boards. Minton told Sims that she had found that Hokes Bluff had many books that would need to be removed, and looked through the catalog with Sims in an attempt to find examples.” It’s up to local boards to decide on what “inappropriate” material may be available in youth sections of the library unless someone from the government has a different idea.
  • Parents in Lodi Unified School District (CA) can opt their kids out of “inappropriate” books.
  • We know it cost Jamestown Public Library $54,500 to review books in order to be in compliance with North Dakota’s book ban law. Here are costs at some other libraries in the state.
  • The recall petition against City Councilor Steve Dillard in Seaside, Oregon, has enough signatures. Dillard has been behind a push to ban books in the local public library there.
  • The latest from Iron River Public Library (WI), which has been under attack for a year from book banners, now angling to get the library defunded.
  • Despite protests from bigots, the Reno Public Library (NV) held a well-attended Drag Story Hour.
  • “In Cameron, Missouri, about 45 minutes northeast of Kansas City, the public school board and administration have been surreptitiously cutting off access to award-winning titles, and engaging in alleged skullduggery resulting in removing materials from school shelves. Intellectual freedom advocates on the ground note an overabundance of credulity toward Cameron school administrators on the part of the board, as well as violation of the board’s own policies — such as its policy manual’s section on objectives for the selection of library materials — in pursuit of shielding the youth from today’s conservative cultural bugaboos. Chief among these: the reality that LGBTQ+ people do indeed exist, and might even be interested in reading books in which their lives and experiences are reflected. Parents and educators point to Cameron administrators’ use of a suspicious review platform, BookLooks, which says its ‘mission is to inform parents on what is in these books being made available to children in schools.’” Oh, administrators using Moms For Liberty’s unprofessional review site to make decisions about books available to students in a school? Shocker.
  • The new book and curriculum policies at Frances Howell Schools (MO) are draconian. The sign in the image from an educator here says it all.
  • Speaking of draconian rules, the new book banning law in South Carolina schools goes into effect soon. See this story for more info on how destructive this bill is and how the State Education Department Supervisor deserves a lot more heat for underhanded tactics to get this through.
  • A Fort Worth, Texas, Christian group is threatening to remove the school district’s trustees because of the content in 90 books they don’t like.
  • One book banner went to the Washoe County School Board (NV) and just read from American Psycho to the board. He was told to stop, but he didn’t because these people don’t listen. They just perform.
  • And in the public libraries of Washoe County, there is a book banning sympathist and champion of defunding the library on the board.
  • St. Francis Xavier Catholic Secondary School (Milton, Ontario) has removed The Hate U Give from its curriculum following parental complaints.
  • Sunol Glen Unified School District (CA) has been dealing with two board members whose tenure has been about pushing book bans and anti-trans related policies and now, their seats are up for recall.

  • Here Come The Public School Closures: Book Censorship News, June 21, 2024

  • States That Have Banned Book Bans: Book Censorship News, June 14, 2024

  • How Alabama Library Supporters Took Action and You Can, Too: Book Censorship News, June 7, 2024

  • Chilling Editorial Cartoons About Book Banning: Book Censorship News, May 31, 2024

  • Here’s Where Library Workers are Prohibited From Their Own Professional Organization: Book Censorship News, May 24, 2024

  • What Do Book Challenge Forms Look Like?: Book Censorship News, May 17, 2024

  • How To Prepare for Pride Month in Libraries 2024: Book Censorship News, May 10, 2024

  • Are Librarians Criminals? These Bills Would Make Them So: Book Censorship News, May 3, 2024

  • How to Fight Book Bans in 2024: Book Censorship News, April 26, 2024

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