Public libraries and citizens across Missouri are concerned about a rule that the Missouri Secretary of State has proposed that could penalize libraries unless they restrict access to certain books and other materials.
The Missouri Secretary of State, who oversees the Missouri State Library, makes rules deciding how to distribute state funds and some federal grant funds to public libraries. The St. Louis Public Library in a typical year receives about $280,000 from these funds. The Library has always dedicated these state funds, which amount to about 1% of our tax revenue, to buy books and other collections. Smaller libraries depend far more on these funds and have more at risk under the proposed rule.
The rule purports to protect children and parental rights by forbidding materials that “appeal to the prurient interest of a minor.” Other sections of the rule state that “no age-inappropriate materials in any form” may be displayed in areas of the library holding materials for children. Further, it states that “any person,” may object to any presentation, event, material, or display within the library, and that the library must record and publish each complaint. In the last year, many public libraries have experienced book and program objections, often coming from far outside our cities and state, seemingly promoted on the internet, and almost exclusively targeted at racial minority and LGBTQ+ materials.
Public libraries strive to assist parents with the tools and support they should have to help their children learn, grow, and succeed. They deal daily with very different opinions of what words like “prurient” and “age-inappropriate” can mean. We represent and serve the increasingly diverse population of our city, state, and nation, and the enormous variety of citizens who need and use our libraries. We believe deeply that state censorship is a mistake that causes harm and always fails in its stated intentions. The St. Louis Public Library believes that if we are required to follow these rules as written it will cost tens of thousands of dollars, and we will need to consider whether the funds - your tax dollars - are worth the cost.
The St. Louis Public Library was one of the first in our nation to welcome children to the library and to devote space, collections, and librarians to them. Our staff has spent decades thoughtfully building rich and wonderful children’s collections and helping children and families discover and use them. A public library is always an important asset in a child’s life. Many of the great creative minds of our country, from Bill Gates to Toni Morrison, spent much of their childhoods exploring their public libraries. I am confident that the St. Louis Public Library will continue to be a resource for all children and families whether the proposed rules are put in place or not. I trust our staff to fulfill their responsibilities carefully; I trust parents to decide what is best for their children; and, in truth, I trust children to explore and consider and ultimately choose for themselves. But as the person privileged to lead one of the great libraries of the world, I am concerned that Missouri is stepping onto the slippery slope of state censorship.
You can read the proposed rule and judge for yourself whether it would make you feel safer or more at risk. Missouri invites comments on the proposed rule until December 15th. You can submit comments by email to firstname.lastname@example.org , opens a new windowor by mail to: Missouri Secretary of State, P.O. Box 1767, Jefferson City, MO 65102.