Why Libraries Are in More Danger Than Ever — And What We’d Lose if Censorship Succeeds

library aisle

Getty Images

Literary icon Judy Blume weighs in on this spirited debate.

Every week, it seems, there’s a new headline about a controversial fight over book bans. But you might be less aware of another equally aggressive campaign taking place around what we’re allowed to read: the desire to defund libraries altogether.

The value of libraries is hard to put into words. They don’t just provide free access to knowledge (although that, all on its own, is an invaluable resource). They’re also one of the last public centers that offers a wide range of resources to children, adolescents, the elderly, parents, and more.

Here’s the thing: Frustrating though they are, book bans often serve little practical purpose beyond elevating the popularity of titles that are pulled from shelves. But the defunding of libraries is actually an extremely effective strategy for censorship and voter suppression.

Here’s what’s at stake, why it’s happening, and what one pretty famous author has to say about it.

Why are libraries at such high risk right now?

In the last few years, the Republican Party has waged a war against books. As time has passed, certain members of the GOP have taken increasingly drastic measures in the name of censorship — and the end result is a devastating blow for libraries around the country.

To be clear: We’re not just talking about a few banned books or a vitriolic town hall meeting (although those issues are concerning, too). We’re talking about the actual defunding of certain libraries in their entirety, the generational implications of which are actually impossible to quantify.

In Missouri, for example, the Republican-controlled state house recently passed a budget that would defund every single library in the state. The reason for this draconian measure? It’s an act of retaliation, after Missouri libraries refused to adhere to a book ban that would prevent librarians from providing any titles offering context on LGBTQ issues, racial justice, or the history of the Holocaust.

A state senator in Missouri has assured the public there is “no way” this budget will actually be passed — at least not for now.

But this isn’t the only instance of a widespread effort to completely defund libraries in the name of conservative discomfort with topics that are now firmly planted in mainstream ideology. For example, that includes topics like the very basic concept that every person deserves dignity, respect, and equal rights regardless of who they choose to love.

The war against libraries is happening all over the country. In addition to Missouri, efforts to defund libraries have taken place in Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, and Texas, to name a few.

Why do Republicans want to defund libraries?

What is the end goal of defunding libraries, you ask? It’s a great question — and one without an entirely clear answer, unfortunately.

The Republicans who want to shut them down frequently talk about “inappropriate topics” for children, and they claim (without much evidence) that some schools are trying to indoctrinate or “groom” children with far-left ideologies. They also talk about the need for “school choice, which would allow parents to use state funds to send their children to private or charter schools, and the importance of putting parents in control of what their children learn.

What they haven’t said much about is their vision for what might replace a library if they defunded the ones we already have.

That is what most of this argument seems to come down to: control, who has it, and who doesn’t. But it seems the politicians pushing this agenda only want a small minority of parents to have that control.

It’s worth noting that most of the topics Republicans deem controversial are, in fact, not considered controversial in the majority of American households. In a 2022 NPR poll, for example, a mere 18 percent of parents said their child’s school taught them about LGBTQ-related issues in a way that clashed with their family values. The same percentage had similar reactions about racism and race-related issues.

In other words, less than one in five parents believes their school is teaching their child inappropriate topics related to gender or race — and yet in spite of that, this conversation continues to dominate our headlines, and Republicans continue to pass measures that provide parents, children, and American citizens alike less access to information.

Judy Blume speaks out in defense of libraries

In a recent conversation with Katie for an upcoming episode of her podcast Next Question, beloved children’s book author Judy Blume shared her concern about the ongoing efforts to defund libraries.

“We used to say knowledge is power, and they’re saying knowledge is dangerous,” Blume said. “So you know what? We have to keep speaking out.”

Blume, whose iconic coming-of-age novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was banned from certain schools in the 1980s, currently lives in Florida. She shared her horror at the censorship taking place in the Sunshine State and argued that it’s happening as a result of certain politicians becoming “drunk with their own power.”

“[There are people] who don’t want girls to be able to talk about menstruation or ask for help,” Blume said. “It’s craziness. I don’t know how else to explain it.”

For anyone who feels as perplexed as Blume about these ramped-up efforts for censorship, she has a piece of advice for you: Join forces with the organizations that are already working hard to protect our rights. The National Coalition Against Censorship is a great place to start.

“Once you do that,” Blume advised, “it will be just like when I found out in the ’80s that it feels good to know that you are not alone. It feels good to be working with other people who believe what you believe.”