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Missouri Secretary of State looks to control public library policies on age-appropriate books

John Langholz
Via Flickr
The interior of St. Louis Public Library, Central Library at 1301 Olive St.

Since August, Missouri schools have banned more than 300 book titles from school libraries in response to a new law that criminalizes having sexually explicit material in schools, according to the writing and literature organization PEN America. Titles such as Kurt Vonnegut’s "Breakfast of Champions," Alan Moore’s "Watchmen" and George Orwell’s "1984" are banned or pending investigation from libraries and classrooms in various school districts across the state.

Now, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft wants to impose a rule that establishes a certification process to require state-funded public libraries to adopt policies on age-appropriate reading materials.

“It'll help parents know what's going on so they can make whatever decision they see fit about what their children check out.” Ashcroft said. “This is all about transparency and about parent control, which libraries are saying they believe parents should be in charge.”

If these rules go into effect after the public comment period ends Dec. 15, public libraries would be forced to make their collection development policies that include what books, materials and events are defined as age-appropriate by the library, and the ability for parents to challenge a library's age-appropriate designation, accessible to parents.

People can either email their comments to comments@sos.mo.gov with the proposed rule number “15 CSR 30-200.015” in the subject line, or mail the Office of the Missouri Secretary of State at P.O. Box 1767, Jefferson City, MO 65102.

Public libraries would not be allowed to use funds received from the state to purchase age-inappropriate materials. They would be denied funding from the state librarian if they do not comply with these rules. But Ashcroft said libraries could use city taxpayer money and other funding sources to purchase whatever books they want outside of the age-appropriate designation.

“Every library has to have their own source of local funding before they ever receive a dime from the state,” he said. “It's not like if you can't use the state funds, you can't buy it. If you have other funds that are available, you can use that instead.”

The rules are opposed by many library groups in the state. The Missouri Library Association calls them “an infringement on the professional judgment of librarians and an effort to further stoke division in the communities that libraries serve.”

The CEO of the St. Louis Public Libraries said they already have a collection development policy in place that is accessible to the public and protects youth while giving parents the choice to make decisions about what their children read and see.

“People who are caring for their children have nothing to fear from a public library, there is only advantage and learning and opportunity here,” said Waller McGuire.

McGuire mentioned that since he made a statement in response to Aschroft’s proposed rule, many patrons have come to him asking why the state should be involved in what books and events the library decides to present to the public. Few people have had an opposing viewpoint, he said.

“One patron said that he supports the secretary of state and his position,” said McGuire, “it was simply that St. Louis Public Library provides LGBTQ materials and that was evil, but that is not the opinion of most St. Louisans.”

McGuire is also concerned that the rules do not appeal to the diverse population of readers that grows every year in the city.

“Inevitably, it steps on minority groups, or the disadvantaged, or small numbers of people who are looking for alternative reading sources or different kinds of information,” he said.

Britny Cordera is a poet and journalist based in St. Louis and is currently serving as a newsroom intern at St. Louis Public Radio.