While conservative movements and bills taking aim at anti-racist approaches to education have primarily focused on schools, libraries can also be particularly vulnerable as repositories not just for books, but for information, education, and resources. As library boards can often operate with very little oversight from other branches of local government, who has control over budgets, services, and programming can have wide spanning effects on a community.
In many areas, libraries function as community centers offering public access to the internet, after school programs, citizenship classes, and assistance in applying for public benefits. Book displays centering LGBTQ+ and BIPOC stories and multilingual programming can go a long way toward making marginalized community members feel welcomed and included. And it is precisely because of the expansion of library services in recent decades that many officials want to clamp down on their reach.
In April, the Niles-Maine Public Library, located just north of Chicago, Illinois, made national headlines when the library’s newly elected conservative dominated board proposed a new budget calling for drastic cuts in library hours, staffing, and new books, sparking a very public outrage. For librarians and community advocates across the country, this felt like a warning shot for what could potentially happen in their own backyards. Now, many libraries across the country are contending with the ways anti-critical race theory panic has bolstered conservatives’ attempts to control services and budgets.
In recent months, smaller library systems that have tried to diversify their programming and respond to the national conversation about systemic racism have seen pushback in a variety of ways. This January saw the Lafayette Parish Library board in Louisiana cancel a grant-sponsored voting rights program because of its alleged “far left” speakers and its failure to present “both sides” of the right to vote. Candidates for two open nonpartisan seats on the library board in Kootenai County, Idaho, said in April that they were individually interviewed by the local Republican committee and quizzed about their thoughts on LGBTQ+ issues and books geared toward kids and teens. And in July, the public library in the Wisconsin village of Whitefish Bay removed a sign addressing systemic racism in the community after a slew of angry feedback from community members.
“I think if you look at the source of that anger, it’s about power and resources,” said Kafi Kumasi, an associate professor of library science at Wayne State University. “It’s wanting to make sure that children are fed this myth of what America is and are not exposed to the realities of racism, classism, sexism.”
The illusion of neutrality
Fears around race, diversity, and control of public funds are one of the reasons why bills and policies aiming to ban anti-racist, LGBTQ+ supportive, and other “liberal agenda” programming have found a foothold in many suburban communities. Library advocates worry that under the guise of “spending” concerns and whether or not material is “age appropriate,” community groups with conservative agendas are looking to capitalize on manufactured outrage over anything they deem “critical race theory” as a way to curb social services and library availability of books by authors of color, and those that feature LGBTQ+ characters or discuss institutional racism.
To Kumasi, the idea that “young people can’t handle any understanding of why the world is the way it is” is based less on wanting age-appropriate information made available and more about adults feeling threatened by changing social norms. Further, as a framework to analyze how racism is embedded in U.S. policies, laws, and legal systems, critical race theory isn’t even taught at the elementary, junior high, or high school levels. More concisely, conservatives aren’t railing against critical race theory—they are trying to prevent children and young adults from being taught how to be anti-racist.
“Even if you go with the idea that libraries are supposed to be neutral, that neutrality involves having an understanding of both sides, even if you don’t necessarily believe in what critical race theory has to offer,” said Kumasi. “Library and information science professionals should be actively advocating that people understand what [critical race theory] means so that they can make their own educated judgment.”
For parent and library advocate Barnali Das Khuntia, combating disinformation is a major reason she agreed to be appointed as a library trustee in Downers Grove, Illinois. Khuntia says that before her appointment, she made it clear that her focus would be diversity and inclusion and making sure the town library would be a welcoming place to the growing number of nonwhite families in the community. Khuntia defines her mission as a library trustee as “really breaking down the question of ‘What does it mean to be an anti-racist library? What does it mean to be anti-hate? What does it mean to be a library that’s going to be a leader in the community?’”
“Downers Grove doesn’t have a museum, we don’t have a lot of things that other communities [might have], so our library is our only public space,” she said.
But while Khuntia says the library administration in Downers Grove has embraced programming that caters to multilingual communities and the need to create an actively inclusive space, some community members didn’t seem to agree. Khuntia noted how pushback seemed to increase as the library became more vocal in making statements of support for marginalized communities. She deals with occasional questions and complaints about displays and programming that highlight diverse experiences, but is more concerned about ensuring the library backs up their inclusivity statements with real actions. In addition to anti-hate statements about issues like the rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, anti-Asian hate, and a message in support of brown and Black lives, the library is also planning a land acknowledgement ceremony in the fall that will be a collaboration with local Indigenous groups.
“Some people just want the library to just be this place where their kids will get books, and they can go use the computer and make Xerox copies and leave,” Khuntia said. “They think the library should not be a place to make a political statement.”
An unanticipated battleground
Residents can be unaware of how decisions are made at their local libraries or which positions in their communities require elections. Methods of selecting library board members can vary from town to town, with some holding county-wide elections and others filling open seats by local government appointment. Often, library boards can also act autonomously, with little oversight from a town’s mayor or other local officials, making it more difficult to overturn library board decisions. For example, the mayor of Niles, Illinois, publicly declared that the proposed cuts to the library system were “ludicrous,” but had little power to stop them.
Nora Flanagan, a Chicago-based teacher and literacy advocate, has observed how running campaigns for local level positions like library and school boards “is literally a playbook for entering into electoral politics.” An active participant in the movement to protect the Niles library, she pointed to the election results as what can happen when there are enough people with extremist views spending money in a campaign with minimal voter turnout.
“They’re getting into the races not enough people pay attention to,” she said.
That community complacency places public facilities like libraries at risk for conservative takeovers. Despite warning signs like then-candidate Joe Makula reportedly asserting that the library “should concentrate on people learning English because that’s the language here,” rather than purchase books in foreign languages, only 8.14% of eligible voters participated in the Niles library board election.
“People in the community felt, ‘Oh, the library is a good institution, they are doing well,” a library staffer, who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly, told Prism. “Nobody was like ‘Alright, we have to watch [the library board] like a hawk.’”
The low voter turnout the Niles Library Board election experienced was not at all unusual for elections of that type. A recent library-related election in Sterling Heights, Michigan, experienced “exceptionally low” turnout while another Michigan township only saw 21% of voters turnout to the polls to vote on, among other things, an operating tax for the district library.
Becky Keane-Adams, who has been on the Niles-Maine library board since October 2020, is the only board member who responded when Prism reached out for comment. Keane-Adams, who is white, moved to the area six years ago “because of its diversity,” and was troubled by the initial lack of community concern.
“[The conservative candidates] definitely have a significant group backing them, who came out to vote, and other people did not,” Keane-Adams said. “And that’s kind of where the disconnect happened.”
Forewarned is forearmed
As library programming and materials related to issues like race, LGBTQ+ rights, and social services become more prominent, library advocates warn that supporters need to be on guard in their own communities. Local public facilities like libraries are not insignificant targets, and what happened in Niles demonstrates how easily library board takeovers can happen, even when the signs of discontent from conservative community members are obvious.
Mentions of austerity politics and claims that candidates will “save the taxpayers’ money” can be warning signs, and quickly shift to fear-mongering about “paying for books that aren’t in English, that make white people feel bad.” Notably, the conservative Niles library board members ran on a platform of curbing what they claimed was excessive spending and mismanagement by library staff and administrators. So how should communities respond when faced with similar takeover attempts at their libraries?
“The obvious answer is get involved but that’s complicated, especially right now [because of COVID],” Flanagan said. “I think we need to talk to each other and I think we need to be ready to fight, or fight back when this happens.”
Even when conservatives take control of library boards, communities aren’t left powerless. While it may not be possible to undo every policy enacted by conservatives that can curtail library services and materials, they can still be mitigated. Advocates and supporters shouldn’t underestimate how much of a difference intense community pressure and concentrated mobilization plans can make. In Niles, a coalition of activists and community members eventually pressed education leaders, religious groups, and elected officials to speak out against the cuts, held a Save Niles Library rally in the town, and lobbied the conservative board members to either side with the community or resign. The library staff even voted to unionize.
“I’m kind of awestruck by all the work people have done in organizing,” Keane-Adams said.
The pressure slowly seems to be working. The Niles library board eventually passed a compromise budget that restored the library’s staffing and open hours but still cut its operating budget by 20%. On Aug. 23, conservative trustee Olivia Hanusiak announced her resignation from the board, meaning that one seat will be vacant and that the board membership would be evenly split between library supporters and the conservative coalition.
Ideally libraries are already actively involving Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, as well as other marginalized groups as part of their leadership. Proactively protecting a library’s ability to function as a welcoming community anchor is especially critical as pushback to anti-racist and inclusive education grows nationwide. But even when community complacency leaves a library vulnerable, it’s still possible to rally and correct that mistake. Flanagan noted how once the stakes became clear in Niles, “hundreds of people showed up” for the five-hour library board meeting about the proposed budget cuts.
“They had everybody from teenagers advocating for books [by best selling Black authors like] Angie Thomas to elders from the community talking about how the library makes them feel connected,” she said. “I was there for the whole meeting, it was beautiful.”