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News / Northwest

WA passes bill to protect libraries, as other states target them

Battles over libraries generally involve books dealing with race, gender or sexuality

By David Gutman, The Seattle Times
Published: March 27, 2024, 8:17am

SEATTLE — Washington has passed legislation intended to safeguard its public libraries, after a small city in the southeastern corner of the state nearly became the first community in the nation to shutter its library over the book battles that have engulfed schools, libraries, cities and states across the country.

The legislation, which passed both the House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee Tuesday, comes in response to a push last year to close the only library in rural Columbia County. The new law will make such attempts much more difficult, requiring more signatures to get potential shutdowns on the ballot and then allowing a broader population of voters to decide a library’s fate.

“Libraries bring vital resources to our communities,” Inslee said Tuesday. “This bill protects our state libraries.”

The move runs counter to a nationwide trend that has seen legislators, almost exclusively Republicans, push bills making it easier to ban or censor books, cut library funding or remove legal protections from libraries and librarians.

Legislators in 27 states proposed bills this year that could harm libraries or limit the books and services they provide, according to the American Library Association.

The battles generally involve books dealing with race, gender or sexuality that opponents have argued are inappropriate for certain audiences.

In Utah, the governor recently signed a law to allow a small minority of school districts to get books banned in all public schools statewide.

Wisconsin and West Virginia both looked at legislation to make it easier to prosecute schools and libraries for display of “obscene” material.

Idaho has considered a spate of bills intended to restrict and regulate library books for kids, including legislation that would have allowed people to sue libraries if they provide “harmful material.”

Washington’s move in the other direction stems from a yearlong dispute in Dayton, a small farming town where a group of residents, upset with the placement of books dealing with gender, sexuality and race, nearly got the county’s only library shut down.

All the contested books are found in “hundreds, if not thousands of libraries across the country,” according to the Washington Library Association.

The American Library Association documented nearly 1,300 attempts to censor books in American libraries in 2022, nearly double the number from the previous year.

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The Dayton library’s opponents collected signatures to get a proposal on the ballot, and the November election was shaping up to be existential for the nearly century-old library.

Two quirks of state law, both dating to 1947, made the effort easier for the library’s opponents.

First, they needed the signatures of only 10% of the residents of unincorporated Columbia County to get their effort to dissolve the library district on the ballot. That amounted to only 107 signatures. If they had been trying to recall an elected official — a mayor or a county commissioner, for instance — they would have needed many more signatures.

Second, even though the library in Dayton serves all of Columbia County, and all Columbia County residents pay taxes to fund it, because it was established as a rural library district, only residents who lived outside the city of Dayton would have been able to vote on the library’s continued existence. That would have excluded two-thirds of the county’s roughly 3,000 voters.

The legislation signed into law Tuesday seeks to raise those hurdles to shutting down a library. A petition now needs the signatures of 25% of eligible voters to get a potential library dissolution on the ballot. And if it does make the ballot, all eligible voters in the district will be able to participate in the election.

“The Dayton library was on the verge of becoming the first library in the country to shut down because of a dispute over the books inside,” Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, the lead sponsor, said in a prepared statement. “We’re just trying to give all people a fair say in what happens to their library and not let minority rule.”

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, one of the few to vote against the bill, said the role of libraries is changing.

“If an area decides that it’s library as configured is no longer serving the interest of the people of that community, it is rational that they would use the existing levers of government to change the structure of their library,” Walsh, who is also the chairman of the state Republican Party, said in a floor speech.

Ultimately, the effort to close the library in Dayton never got to the ballot. A group of library supporters sued, and a court ruled the push to close the library was unconstitutional, because it excluded Dayton residents, even though their taxes funded the library.

“This bill couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Elise Severe, a Dayton resident who filed the lawsuit and helped lead support for the library. “We’re ready to move forward, we’re ready to let everything just settle and let’s rebuild our relationships in the community as well as with the library.”

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