Arkansas librarians meet for annual conference amid censorship pressures

LGBTQ+, other controversial topics on tap, as well as professional development programs

By: - October 12, 2023 10:20 pm
Library books on shelves. (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Library administrators and staff from across Arkansas are gathering in Hot Springs this weekend for an annual conference, at a time when librarians in some parts of the state are under pressure to remove or relocate books pertaining to controversial subjects.

The Arkansas Library Association (ArLA), a chapter of the American Library Association, is a statewide organization that advocates for public libraries and promotes professional development for librarians. Both individuals and institutions in the library profession can be members of ArLA, according to its bylaws.

The organization is one of 18 plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the state over Act 372 of 2023, a law that would alter libraries’ material reconsideration processes and create criminal liability for librarians who distribute content that some consider “obscene” or “harmful to minors.” In July, a federal judge temporarily blocked the portions of the law that would have applied to public libraries, three days before the law was supposed to go into effect.

Supporters of Act 372 and the relocation or removal of certain library content have said no one under 18 should have access to content regarding sexual activity or LGBTQ+ topics.

The ArLA conference schedule includes discussions about the history of censorship in libraries, including attacks on LGBTQ+ subject matter.

The conference as a whole will not focus on these issues, but they have had an impact on librarians’ morale across the state, said Carol Coffey, the ArLA president and the Patron Experience and Library Analytics Coordinator for the Central Arkansas Library System.

Arkansas librarians brace for impact of law making them liable for “obscene” content

“It’s hard to hear yourself, even in general terms, [depicted] as someone who wants to harm children and has an agenda, when what we do is help people find the information they need,” Coffey said. “We want to help children learn to read and explore their interests. It’s hard when you know what you’re trying to do and the most vocal rhetoric is not understanding that.”

Last year, the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library saw voters cut its funding in half after protests over an LGBTQ+ book display and a transgender author’s visit to the library within the previous couple of years.

This year, Saline County became the primary battleground over what content children can access in public libraries. Patty Hector, Saline County Library’s director since 2016, refused to relocate books about racism, sex education and LGBTQ+ topics after the county quorum court recommended she do so in April.

On Monday, Saline County Judge Matt Brumley fired Hector, less than two months after county officials gave him some power to hire and fire library staff.

Additionally, Crawford County is facing two lawsuits, including the one against Act 372, after the local library system moved children’s books with LGBTQ+ topics to a segregated “social section” accessible only to adults. In the other lawsuit, three parents argue that these sections violate the First Amendment right to freedom of expression. A federal judge denied the parents’ request for an injunction in September.

In the face of such tension, Coffey said, it’s important for ArLA to emphasize the services libraries provide to their communities, which go beyond just providing books.

“We are the place that people come to when they are looking for a job or how to use a computer,” Coffey said. “Right now in a lot of places, we’re making sure that children are fed after school. We have to keep saying, ‘This is what we are and this is what we do.’”

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.