St. Louis Public Library

Children and parents participate in an event at the St. Louis Public Library in this photo dated April 11, 2023.

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'Despicable and Dangerous': Missouri Republicans Vote to Defund State's Public Libraries

"First they ban books, now they go after libraries. What will be next?"

Literacy and civil liberties defenders on Wednesday excoriated Republican state lawmakers in Missouri after they gave their final approval to a budget that would completely defund the state's public libraries and other essential services.

In addition to cutting the $4.5 million allocated for public libraries in Missouri's $45.6 billion state budget, the final package approved on Tuesday cuts all government support for diversity initiatives, childcare, and pre-kindergarten programs, Heartland Signalreports.

Rep. Cody Smith (R-163), who heads the House Budget Committee, proposed ending state library funding after the ACLU of Missouri filed a lawsuit earlier this year on behalf of the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association challenging a bill barring educators from "providing sexually explicit material" to students.

According to the Riverfront Times, Missouri schools have banned more than 300 books since the law went into effect. These include works about Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, graphic novel adaptations of Shakespeare and Mark Twain, the Gettysburg Address, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus.

"First they ban books, now they go after libraries," political and digital strategist Nathan Mackenzie Brown tweeted after Tuesday's vote. "What will be next?"

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage called the library defunding "despicable and dangerous."

"I learned to dream and think more expansively in libraries," Nottage tweeted Wednesday. "It was where I went after school while my parents were working."

In a Missouri Independentopinion article published Monday, James Tager, research director at the free expression group PEN America, wrote that "Missouri's new effort to punish libraries is vindictive and harmful."

Tager argued the such policies especially harm the "children who lawmakers are claiming to protect by shrinking access to libraries' educational materials and programs."

"The budget proposal is about political power—with children as pawns," he added.

Tager contended that the cuts "will disproportionately hurt economically disadvantaged and rural Missourians," as "libraries typically provide other essential services, including free access to Wi-Fi and computers."

"Local libraries in rural areas are particularly dependent on state funding," he added. "Librarians have alreadystated that, if this budget passes, they will have to cut back on services, including those that have helped Missouri communities get access to lifesaving health information."

As the Missouri Senate takes up the House-approved budget, there are signs that public library funding could be saved. Sen. Lincoln Hough (R-30), the body's chief budget writer, has said he plans to restore the $4.5 million in the upper chamber's version of the legislation.

The move by Missouri Republicans to eliminate library funding comes amid a surge in GOP book-banning in schools and libraries across the country.

As Common Dreamsreported last month, censorship of books—especially books about the lives and struggles of people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and other marginalized groups—has reached record highs. According to the American Library Association, 2,571 unique titles were challenged in 2022, a 38% increase from the previous year.

At the federal level, congressional Republicans last month introduced the so-called Parents Bill of Rights Act, which would force educators to make classroom curricula publicly available and provide parents with a list of reading materials in school libraries.

"Conservatives have weaponized hate and fear to try to tear our schools apart, with students who just want to learn and thrive turned into pawns in their political games," Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) said in response to the bill's introduction.

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