Who has the right to choose what books are offered to children and adolescents in public libraries: Should it be parents or free speech advocates and the LGBTQ+ community? Where should these books be placed?
This is a major issue in Dayton, a small town of 2,500 residents in southeastern Washington State, about 300 miles from Seattle and 125 miles from Spokane. A ballot initiative has been placed on the ballot by a conservative parent rights group led by Jessica Ruffcorn. This group’s goal is to monitor what their children read about race relationships, sexuality, and gender identity. Ruffcorn desires to protect the community’s children from exposure to progressive views on these issues. Positions pro and con test the limits and freedoms of the First Amendment versus parental rights. It’s another front in the culture war that increasingly divides the nation.
The stakes are high: If Ruffcorn’s initiative wins at the ballot box, the library will close permanently.
Here is the blunt statement in the voter pamphlet on whether to close the library. The quote comes from an article written by Seattle Times reporter David Gutman in the Aug.13 edition entitled, “Book Battles Are Raging Nationwide. A WA Library Could Be the First to Close”: “’This public library is an irretrievably compromised entity, and it needs to be removed from our midst.’”
Sasha Abramsky in the Aug. 21-28 edition of the progressive magazine, The Nation, frames the issue in her article, “The Library Wars”, this way: “Closet doors that have been painstakingly pushed open over the past 60 years are now being slammed shut.”
The public library director first refused to move any of the books, according to the Times, but then tried to cool tempers after getting a lot of pushback. The entire young adult nonfiction section was eliminated, and the books with titles such as “Gender Queer” with illustrations of sexual acts, “This Book is Anti-Racist”, and “A Black Lives Matter Memoir” were intermingled into the adult stacks. According to the Times reporter, “It has not worked.”
Jessica Ruffcorn stated, “We do not trust their motives to move the books. Now it’s up to the unincorporated Columbia County to decide what our standards are, and whether our library is an asset or a drain on our community.” The library director due to the pressure resigned and moved to a bigger library system in the state.
Other library wars are taking place across the state and the nation: Walla Walla, Liberty Lake east of Spokane, and Tampa, Florida, which decided to “limit teaching Shakespeare over concerns that the sexual content could run afoul of new state rules” (Seattle Times). Even the Bible has been banned in Utah’s primary schools for its vulgarity and violence. (BBC)
Why are these issues arising? Blame the politicians, mainly on the right. Republican presidential candidate Governor Ron DeSantis has followed in the Nixon-Agnew precedent of winning through division.
But the progressives are not guilt-free. Both groups use these hot-button issues to “rouse their base” to action, gain financial support, and create voting enthusiasm. Voters on both sides remind me of Pavlov’s dogs that were conditioned by a bell to salivate over the expectation of being fed red meat. Why does it happen? Emotion overwhelms reason and critical thinking. Politicians know how to ring the bell.
Ruffcorn and her group have a valid point. Young children should not be exposed to explicit sexual content at a young age, especially erotic pictures. Such books should not be in the children’s section of the library. How much of an issue this really is remains a question, though.
The problem is that, like almost all humans under stress, both sides are going to extremes. Since parents of young children have a great deal of control over what books their children are reading, Ruffcorn and her group are erring by wanting to close the public library in Dayton. That’s “throwing the baby out with the bath water”. Once the library is gone, ignorance and fear rush in to take its place.
If the ballot initiative in Dayton passes in November, “That is the end of the library as we know it,” said Jay Ball, who owns a local auto shop and chairs the library’s board of directors. “It’s insane, it’s just insane” (Seattle Times).