Libraries in Arkansas are under increased pressure to remove children's books addressing sexual subjects, both supporters and opponents of those removals say.
Senate Bill 81 would take away librarians' legal protection against criminal prosecution if the library distributes a book deemed harmful to children. The bill passed the Senate. An amended version got through the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday and next goes to the House floor. The bill would remove the exception for librarians under Arkansas Code 5-68-308, the obscenity law, from prosecution.
Under Arkansas law, a book or other media is considered harmful to minors if an "average person 18 years of age or older applying contemporary community standards would find that the material or performance has a predominant tendency to appeal to a prurient interest in sex to minors."
There can be as many definitions of "contemporary community standards" as there are communities in Arkansas, said Garland County Library Director Adam Webb, who's also president of the organization Advocates for All Arkansas Libraries. Webb spoke against the bill in legislative committee meetings.
"Libraries have a process for reviewing books people object to," Webb said. "There's no need to make a new one statewide out of whole cloth."
Different communities handle book objections in different ways, he said, but they have such measures. That's fundamental to the principle of local control, he said.
The trend of objections is up, Webb said, but there's no central tracking of how many such requests are filed.
"We're civil servants," Webb said. "We're mandated reporters of child abuse. I can't tell you how many times I've reported kids coming to the library smelling of meth or suffering from abuse. To be accused of being groomers, that's the most disgusting thing."
Meanwhile, the Siloam Springs library has 10 of its books in the office of the city administrator. A resident there complained about the books, which included "This Book is Gay" by Juno Dawson, at a city board meeting Feb. 21.
The same day, Crawford County Library System Director Deidre Grzymala announced her resignation. The resignation took effect Feb. 24. Neither Grzymala nor the Crawford County Quorum Court would comment on reasons after reaching a severance agreement, but the resignation followed criticisms of the inclusion and public display of children's books with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning themes at the library.
The conservative Family Council used the statewide library catalog compilation at arsl.agshareit.com to search for books it considered objectionable at 21 libraries in Arkansas, listing them in a Sept. 28 announcement. The council had written the Rogers Public Library earlier that month asking for removal of "Sex is a Funny Word" by Cory Silverberg. The request was denied.
"This really got started in Jonesboro," Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council, said of closer scrutiny of libraries statewide. You could find objectionable materials in libraries 30 years ago, he said, but controversies with the Craighead County Library System brought the matter up statewide.
"People read about the issue there and started checking the libraries their kids go to," he said. SB81's Senate sponsor is Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro.
Controversy over books in public libraries isn't restricted to Arkansas, national figures show.
Nationwide, the American Library Association documented 681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources in the first eight months of 2022, according to the nonprofit group's most recent available figures. The tally covers public, school and university libraries.
The 681 attempts compares with 729 attempts in all of 2021. The association expects final 2022 figures to exceed 2021's. The 2022 attempts also targeted more books, according to the association's figures.
"In the past, the vast majority of challenges to library resources only sought to remove or restrict a single book," the group said in its annual summary of book banning in September 2022.
All of 2021's attempts involved 1,597 titles in total, the association's figures show. The attempts in the first eight months of 2022 targeted 1,651 titles. Those 2022 attempts "represented the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling these lists more than 20 years ago," according to the association's September 2022 statement.
"The unprecedented number of challenges we're seeing already this year reflects coordinated, national efforts to silence marginalized or historically underrepresented voices and deprive all of us -- young people, in particular -- of the chance to explore a world beyond the confines of personal experience," association President Lessa Kanani'opua Pelayo-Lozada said in the September statement. The group had no tally specific to Arkansas as of Friday, according to a spokesman for the association.