If Llano County can't ban books, will they close the libraries? (Editorial)

People read books that have been banned while Llano County officials read the Declaration of Independence at a celebration.

People read books that have been banned while Llano County officials read the Declaration of Independence at a celebration.

Alejandro Serrano

"I Need a New Butt!"

If reading that title causes an eruption of giggles, you may be one of the four-year-olds among the book's intended audience, amused as the main character considers getting a rocket or robot rear end. If reading the title causes waves of anxiety, you may be a Llano County official. The title is one of several at the heart of a fight that has stretched on for months now, all leading to a special meeting this Thursday where the county commissioners court is set to decide whether to keep its libraries open at all. The embattled list of 17 books includes several for adults and young adults that deal with themes of race, gender and sexuality in addition to the ones for kids about farts.

The case stands out as campaigns to pull books from the shelves move from classrooms to libraries, threatening the fabric of free society.

Libraries are a rare and crucial public good where everything from children’s story hours to computer classes are offered free of charge. Sociologists, including Eric Klinenberg, argue that libraries , or "palaces for the people" as he dubs them, are so critical to the functioning of a healthy society that we should consider them “social infrastructure,” as worthy of an Infrastructure Week as bridges and railways. That a county would consider doing away with them altogether signals a troubling, but not unprecedented, retreat from the belief in the public good.

Don’t like integrated classrooms? Just close the schools . Don’t want white kids swimming with Black children? Just close the pools . Don’t want people reading Pulitzer-Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s book about racism and caste? Just close the libraries?

That’s what it might come to here in Llano County, northwest of Austin. There, seven residents filed a lawsuit back in April 2022 , alleging that their First and Fourteenth amendment rights had been violated when the county pulled books from the shelves and restricted access in what appeared to be a coordinated effort between library and county officials. In late March this year, a federal judge ordered the libraries to return the books in question to the shelves and to cease “weeding” anymore books until the lawsuit was resolved. The county appealed the decision.

"It is a sad state of affairs when the County threatens to shutter libraries in retaliation for losing in a court of law," Leila Little Green, a parent and patron who helped bring the lawsuit, wrote in an email to the editorial board. "This action would end employment for some beloved public servants, eliminate innumerable resources, and devastate a lot of people in this community."

All over 17 books.

“Nobody is forcing children — or adults — to read any of the books in a library,” Ellen Leonida, one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit, told us in an email last year. “The speech the defendants are trying to censor focuses on books about U.S. history, books about race and racism, and books by or about LGBTQ people. These books are not pornography. They are history, politics, science, fiction and memoir. Llano County public officials don’t have to read any books they disagree with — but they have no right to ban them.”

Maybe not.

The county judge, one of the defendants in the lawsuit, declined to speak with us but in court, the county has made procedural arguments about the library system's authority to "weed" books. It argued that the 17 books in question were still made available via an "in-house" checkout system. They didn't appear in their regular spots or in the library catalogue but for those who somehow knew to ask, they were held in a back office. The county has also argued that what the plaintiffs call censorship was simply part of the library's regular duties. The employee who "weeded" the books, according to the county, followed industry-wide best practices, part of a regular process evaluating the relevance, currency and physical quality of a library's collection. She did so, the argument goes, without regard to specific viewpoints. In fact, she did so without even reading them!

In response to U.S. district judge Robert Pitman's order to restock the books, the county implied it might not be able to keep the libraries open if librarians were fearful of other "me too" lawsuits and urged the judge to rescind his order to "ensure that the county's libraries will remain open while the appeal proceeds."

Thursday’s special meeting could render the back and forth on restocking books moot with a workaround: shutter the libraries instead.

These arguments call into question what county leaders have said about keeping libraries open in the past.

County Judge Ron Cunningham wrote in an April 2022 statement that the county “is committed to providing excellent public library services to our patrons consistent with community expectations and standards, as well as operating within compliance of Texas and Federal statutes.”

So far, those "community expectations" have seemed to outweigh the commitment to "excellent public library services."

The county judge reportedly wrote in an email to Bonnie Wallace, the woman who first alerted the county to supposed “Pornographic Filth” in its libraries and who is now the vice-chair of the county’s library advisory board, that “the county is not mandated by law to provide a public library.”

Even prior to this week’s meeting, the county had radically reshaped the library system, undermining its function as a public resource by first freezing its ability to add any new purchased or donated books, then stuffing its library advisory board with outspoken critics who quickly closed their meetings to the public. The county slashed the library system’s budget so much so that in September, according to local outlet The Picayune , “ all six of the county’s librarians presented an official letter of grievance to Library Director Amber Milum ” in a meeting that Milum promptly left “as the letter was being read to her.” In it the librarians complained of inadequate “staffing, infrastructure improvements, and that the libraries have had to cut most of their programming and have not bought any new books in over a year."

"Defendants are not threatening to close the libraries because they are afraid of copy-cat lawsuits," Leonida wrote Tuesday in an email to the editorial board. "They are threatening to close the libraries because they would rather shut down the Library System entirely — depriving thousands of Llano county residents of access to books, learning resources, and meeting space — than make the banned books available to residents who want to read them."

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. And in Llano County, there may be more than one way to ban a book.