A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

News & Opinion

Just Where are We Heading?

by on August 1, 2022

Small Steps to Navigate the Changing Legal Landscape

In between what has felt like a daily barrage of book bans, censorship legislation, and library board take-overs happening in public libraries across the country, we now face the uncertainty that comes with recent news about the Supreme Court’s upending of Roe v. Wade. Underneath the surface of all of these issues lies a political agenda rooted in power and control. Make no mistake, this is an agenda that undermines the value that public libraries bring to their communities as places where anyone can freely seek information and as places that celebrate diversity of thought and story. With the overturning of Roe, it is more important than ever for libraries to protect the privacy of patrons who seek information to help them make decisions about their health. And, if recent events in public library land provide any indication, some library workers will likely do that work under the threat of criminalization.

Navigating this political climate starts with understanding and leveraging the structures of government in which public libraries are situated. Here are a few steps to help get you started. Thanks to John Chrastka, Executive Director of EveryLibrary, for chatting with us on this topic and contributing to these strategies.

Know your library’s legal basis and know the line of authority. Does the library function within a municipal government structure or is it an independent library district? Is your board a governing board or an advisory board? The answers to questions like these will impact everything from the library’s financial bottom line to its management and its policies. State library law forms a foundation that will either help or hinder a library’s ability to uphold core principles of intellectual freedom, privacy, and social justice. For instance, Kentucky lawmakers recently passed a bill that changes how library board members are appointed in the state, shifting more authority to elected county judge-executives and raising concerns about Kentucky public libraries becoming a new breeding ground for legislators to exercise their political agendas. “The method by which you appoint a board matters a great deal. In cases of book banning, the board will have set policies that adjudicate the issue. But, when policies are overturned as a result of changes in board appointments, or when the structure of how those policies are made changes, there will be consequences down the road,” says Chrastka. Knowing your state’s library laws and your library’s positioning within other government structures may seem obvious or of most concern to library administrators. The truth is – these factors impact every library worker and every library patron. And, it’s all too easy to compromise the mission of the library when a rift forms between written law and practice or when library staff form assumptions about how things will always be based on current relationships between the library and other political players. Being informed will empower you to advocate for legislation that supports the core values that make public libraries inclusive and useful to their communities.

Track bills in your state. Most states have online applications for tracking legislative bills, allowing you to monitor activity and updates that impact public libraries and library laws. Also, look to your state library association’s advocacy committee or your state library. Ask them what advocacy activities, from writing to legislators to giving testimony, they recommend or already have planned. In addition, library administrators should regularly talk to their library boards about legislative bills and issues that have potential to impact their authority and the library’s operation. Library board members often have strong connections to law makers. They know the audience for your advocacy efforts well, which can make all the difference in ensuring your message lands.

Get to know your local elected officials, too. State legislators shape library laws, but it’s also worth considering the nature of your library’s relationship with local elected officials. Do library board members, library staff, Friends or Foundation members have a good sense for what each of your local council members or commissioners care about? Or, what their values are? Does the library monitor what issues council members put their support behind? The time to develop relationships with your local elected officials is now – before any pressing issues arise. Your local elected officials likely know your state legislators, so knowing who your allies are locally is paramount. They can become your best advocates, mobilizing alongside you when issues arise, if the library has invested time both in getting to know them and in sharing stories and data about the library’s impact in the community.

Harness the power of collective action. No one individual or entity can advocate effectively in isolation. The issues public libraries face today are about deeply held ideologies, values, and political power. The pressure to compromise the principles, independence, and apolitical operating structures that make public libraries valuable to their communities is real. So, how can library workers advocate effectively for legislation and board decisions that ensure the library’s ability to serve the whole community and uphold crucial pillars of its mission? “Libraries across the country are rather alone when crisis hits. We have to get to a place where it’s more than just librarians fighting for the structure of government,” says Chrastka. There are many players in our communities who have a role to play. The library director and library board are crucial players, as are other library staff members, Friends members and staff, local elected officials, state library associations, school officials, business leaders, and many other community partners. Directors should bring all these players into their circles. Get to know them personally. Make sure they know about the principles that guide our work and why they matter. Make sure they know about the human impact of the local public library. Let them know how they can help, and ask them how you can help. With these small steps, we begin to build a coalition for collective action.

Resources and articles for further exploration:

  1. ALA Advocacy and Public Policy: https://www.ala.org/advocacy/advocacy-public-policy
  2. Dankowski, T. (2022, March 26). Challenging times: PLA 2022: addressing the swell of censorship cases. American Libraries Magazine. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/blogs/the-scoop/challenging-times/
  3. Floyd, D. (2022, June 13). Chattanooga City Council wants more oversight of Public Library to ‘ensure accountability’. timesfreepress.com. https://www.timesfreepress.com/news/local/story/2022/jun/13/public-library-board/570842/#/questions/
  4. Harris, E. A., & Alter, A. (2022, July 6). With Rising book bans, librarians have come under attack. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/06/books/book-ban-librarians.html
  5. The Kansas City Star Editorial Board. (2022, June 23). Conservative culture warriors take aim at Kansas City’s Mid-Continent Public Library. The Kansas City Star. https://www.kansascity.com/opinion/editorials/article262781858.html
  6. Legislation of concern. EveryLibrary. (2022, April 3). https://www.everylibrary.org/2022_legislative_attacks
  7. York, D., & Barton, R. (2022, April 14). Update: In Final Day of legislative session, Kentucky House votes to override gov. Beshear’s veto of Bill Impacting Public Library Board membership. WKU Public Radio | The Public Radio Service of Western Kentucky University. https://www.wkyufm.org/2022-04-14/bill-shifting-authority-over-public-library-boards-to-judge-executives-dies-after-failed-veto-override-in-kentucky-house
  8. Zarroli, J. (2022, June 21). Some states are changing the laws that govern community libraries. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2022/06/21/1106320865/why-states-are-changing-the-laws-that-govern-libraries-serving-communities

Tags: , ,