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Arkansas library gets funding slashed due to its Pride displays, LGBTQ-themed books

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Open this photo in gallery:The Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library in Jonesboro, Ark, has been the focus point for a battle over books that has riven this small city for more than four years.Quentin Winstine/The Associated Press

One week before Christmas, the cash-starved public library in Jonesboro, Ark., laid off a quarter of its staff, scaled back operating hours and cut back on children’s reading programs in a bid to stay afloat. These desperate measures were the culmination of a battle over books that has riven this small city for more than four years.

Conservative citizens and politicians here have fought with the library over a talk by a transgender author, a Pride Month display and the presence of LGBTQ-themed books in the stacks. Then they ran a successful referendum campaign to slash the library’s funding in half. The result was last month’s austerity.

“Our library is a husk of what it used to be,” said Dean MacDonald of Citizens Defending the Craighead County Library, a group that fought to keep the library’s budget intact. “You can see the damage.”

The defunding in Jonesboro is part of a nascent trend in the library wars unfolding across the U.S. When their efforts to censor books fail, some culture warriors are now tryingto choke off library budgets. In Michigan’s Jamestown Township, voters cut all funding to the local library in 2022. Officials in Virginia’s Warren County and Llano, Tex., have threatened to do the same. So have state legislators in Missouri.

In Jonesboro, a city of 82,000 best known as the home of Arkansas State University, the first conflagration happened in the autumn of 2019. When the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library hosted a public appearance by transgender novelist Meredith Russo, it faced an outcry and threats of violence. The event went ahead under police protection.

Then, in June of 2021, a Pride Month display of LGBTQ-themed books for children and adolescents ignited another firestorm.

At a packed meeting of the library board, Brandt Smith, a state legislator, argued that such displays “promote a lifestyle that, primarily, to many of us in this community, is unacceptable. We’re a traditional, moral values community.”

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If something didn’t change, he warned, the library’s budget would be at risk. “You’re going to see a very conservative legislature cut funding, and I don’t think anybody in here wants that, now do you?”

One board member, Mark Nichols, pushed for a policy requiring that librarians get board approval for all future displays. A majority of the board voted it down.

Conservative Jonesboro citizens started a group called Safe Library Books for Kids. Some filed complaints with the library, calling for several titles to be banned.

“This is propaganda to try to normalize sexually deviant behaviour,” read one complaint about And Tango Makes Three, a children’s story about two male penguins who raise a chick together. “This is porn!” read another about the gay memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue. A complaint about coming-of-age novel l8r, g8r, which includes discussions of sex, called for the library to burn its copies of the book.

The library reviewed the books but decided against banning them.

Members of Citizens Defending the Craighead County Library argued that censoring books would effectively disempower parents. “If you’re taking your child to a public library and they happen to grab a book that you don’t want them reading, you can take it away from them. But you don’t get to police that for anyone else,” Kayla Morrow said in an interview.

Ms. Morrow, who organizes drag queen story hours in the city, said she and others who defend the library have been met with a torrent of abuse. On social media, they have been labelled “groomers,” a common slur that plays into old homophobic tropes. People have also threatened to cause trouble at her events. “I’m a queer woman, and it made me realize how many people in the community hated me,” she said.

Six weeks before state and local elections in 2022, a group called Citizens Taxed Enough got a referendum question on the ballot calling for the local tax that funds the library to be cut from a two-point mill rate to one.

The cut’s supporters insisted it was purely a matter of saving taxpayer dollars, independent of efforts to stop Pride displays or censor books. But the connection was clear. The chair of Citizens Taxed Enough, Iris Stevens, had campaigned against Ms. Russo’s talk. The administrators of the Facebook page for Safe Library Books for Kids, Deanne Copeland and Beth Tennison, were listed as members of Citizens Taxed Enough on the group’s election paperwork.

Ms. Copeland declined an interview request. Ms. Stevens and Ms. Tennison did not respond. “What concerns me is the issue of exposing children to sexual themes – heterosexual or otherwise,” Ms. Copeland wrote in a message.

The referendum measure passed by a margin of 48 votes out of more than 17,000 cast within the city. At the time, the library had about US$6-million in the bank, enough to cover its budget for the coming year and then some. By late 2023, those funds dwindled amid the revenue cut.

Last month, the board approved wide-ranging austerity. The library is laying off 13 people, cancelling reading programs in daycares and nursing homes and jettisoning some e-books and audio books to save money on licensing fees. Hours at the library’s main branch, a low-rise modernist building that spans an entire city block on a leafy side street, will be cut every day of the week. On Sundays it will be closed.

Citizens Taxed Enough celebrated on Facebook. “Sorry, kids!” the group wrote. “On Sundays, you’ll have to find porn on your own.”

The group’s supporters are swiftly expanding their work.

Dan Sullivan, a state senator who represents Jonesboro, pushed a book-banning law through the legislature last year. Act 372 would allow local officials to bar minors from accessing library books they deem inappropriate. Librarians caught providing “harmful” books to anyone under 18 could face criminal charges. At a conference for Christian lawmakers this past summer, Mr. Sullivan vowed to defund any library affiliated with the American Library Association, an organization fighting against book bans.

To Jolene Mullet, who ran the Jonesboro library’s teen section until this past May, the upshot of all this is that one of the city’s cornerstone public institutions will become less inclusive. When the Pride display was up in 2021, she recalled, young readers would come to her asking for books on coming out or being transgender. Parents of LGBTQ children thanked her for providing a safe space for their kids in a state that often shunned them.

Now, all of that has been curtailed, along with services meant to take books around the community, because some citizens dislike some of the library’s content.

“Because these people have a problem with viewpoints that don’t align with their own, they’re willing to punish an entire community,” Ms. Mullet said. “I absolutely believe that kids should have the ability to read tough things, to read things that might challenge them.”


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