Rather than challenge books on an individual basis, voters in Washington’s Columbia County will consider a draconian option in November — closing the entire library. A ballot measure in the rural county of 4,000 residents in Southeastern Washington will allow a vote on whether to shutter the area’s only library, located in the county seat of Dayton.
According to the American Library Association, it would be the first library in the nation to close because of a dispute over which books are on the shelves. But it reflects growing disputes that have infected public and school libraries.
Library opponents in Columbia County last month submitted a petition with enough signatures to land the measure on the ballot. Jessica Ruffcorn, the leader of the petition movement, says the library is “targeting kids with sexualized content.” Library officials responded by moving some questionable books into a new “parenting” section in the library.
According to The Seattle Times, Ruffcorn explained in an email: “We do not trust their motives to move the books. Now it’s up to unincorporated Columbia County to decide what our community standards are, and whether our library is an asset or a drain on our community.” The Times also reports that the Voter’s Pamphlet statement against the library, written by three other library opponents, reads: “This public library is an irretrievably compromised entity, and it needs to be removed from our midst.”
For Columbia County specifically, the impact of a library closure would extend beyond the availability of certain titles.
“There are no bookstores, no books in stores other than the All Saints Thrift Store,” Lorna Barth, president of Friends of the Dayton Memorial Library, told news outlet Crosscut.com. “For many people in this county the library has the only Wi-Fi, computers for internet access … and it is the only place for young people to have any access at all to any books …”
But in broad terms, the issue reflects a disturbing movement. The American Library Association recorded 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022 — a 74 percent increase from the previous year. School libraries report a similar jump in censorship efforts.
In one example, high schools in Tampa, Fla., recently announced they would limit the teaching of Shakespeare over concerns that sexual content could run afoul of new state laws. In Washington, disagreements have ensued over the likes of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” in school libraries.
Indeed, parents should have a say in which books are appropriate for their children. But the prospect of closing a county’s only public library elevates the discussion to an appalling level.
Parents who call for certain books to be pulled from the shelves are not only deciding what their children can read, but what all children can read. They are demanding overly broad rights that suggest they are the barometers of morality in their community. In the case of Columbia County, when that strategy faced pushback from library officials, those parents thought having nothing to read would be preferable to the occasional book they find offensive.
There are many insightful quotes about the dangers of censorship and the banning of books, a familiar tactic of totalitarian regimes. One comes from President Dwight Eisenhower: “Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book …”
That is, of course, assuming that a library is available.