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As new Missouri library rule takes effect, librarians say kids’ access to books will be limited

Nomin Ujiyediin
Some Missouri libraries are considering only letting children have a library card or entering their facilities with a parent's written permission.

A controversial administrative rule from Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office takes effect Tuesday, requiring libraries to change their policies in order to receive state funding.

The new policy bans libraries from buying materials deemed obscene and from having certain displays in children’s areas. It also requires libraries to develop and publish policies on certain topics – including how they select children’s materials – and letting parents decide what materials children are able to access.

Librarians have criticized the set of regulations since they were first proposed last year, calling them an unnecessary burden when it’s already illegal to give obscene materials to minors. Procedures already exist for community members to challenge objectionable books.

But Ashcroft has said the rule is simply a way for parents to be more involved in raising their children.

“It would require libraries to designate what is age appropriate and what isn't age appropriate, and to be transparent about that,” he told KCUR in 2022. “So that parents can be in charge of how their children are raised.”

Here’s what you need to know about what the rule includes and how it will affect library users.

What's in the new rule?

15 CSR 30-200.015 Library Certification Requirement for the Protection of Minors includes six requirements in order for libraries to receive funding from the state.

  • Libraries must create and publish a written policy describing how they consider age appropriateness when selecting materials. 
  • Libraries are banned from buying materials that are “child pornography,” “pornographic for minors” or “obscene,” as defined by Missouri law.
  • Libraries must create and publish a policy letting parents and guardians determine what materials their children can access. Library workers are banned from giving material to children that hasn’t been approved by parents.
  • No “age-inappropriate” materials will be displayed in areas of libraries primarily used for children or teens.
  • Events must designate which ones are appropriate for different age groups.
  • Libraries will adopt a written policy letting parents challenge whether materials, events or displays are “age-appropriate.” Results of challenges must be published on a library’s website.

Libraries must submit their written policies to the state librarian every year by July 31.

Why these regulations?

In the news release announcing the library regulations in October 2022, Ashcroft said he wanted to protect children from inappropriate content.

“We want to make sure libraries have the resources and materials they need for their constituents,” he said. “But we also want our children to be ‘children’ a little longer than a pervasive culture may often dictate.”

The regulations come at a time when school and library books, especially those featuring LGBTQ content, are facing a rising number of challenges.

And it’s not the first attempt to limit children’s access to books in Missouri. The Missouri Legislature passed a law in 2022 that banned adults from showing children sexually explicit material. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit over that provision in February.

This year, Missouri lawmakers removed $4.5 million in library funding from the state budget in retaliation for the lawsuit, but later restored it.

How do librarians feel?

Many Missouri librarians think the new regulations are vague, redundant and burdensome, said Kimberly Moeller, president-elect of the Missouri Library Association.

“A lot of this rule seems like it’s a solution in search of a problem."
Kimberly Moeller, the Missouri Library Association

The rule doesn’t offer a clear definition of “age-appropriate” or “age-inappropriate,” she said. Many books don’t fall under the legal definition of “obscene” or “pornographic,” but are frequently challenged and removed from schools and libraries anyway. It’s also been hard for libraries to figure out how to comply with the rules.

“We're getting questions saying, like, ‘can we have [an LGBTQ] Pride Month display this year?’ Or does that violate this policy?” Moeller said. “And we just don't have an answer to that.”

The rules seem to ignore that libraries already have policies for collection development and book challenges, Moeller said. And providing minors with obscene content is already illegal and a violation of librarians’ professional standards.

“It’s not something that I believe librarians or libraries have ever been doing in Missouri,” she said.

The new regulations add to the workload of Missouri librarians, many of whom already feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities, Moeller added. The burden is especially high in rural areas, where there may only be one person working in a library.

Moeller questions how effective the new regulations will be, when many children already have access to an endless array of inappropriate content on the internet.

“I don't believe that the children in this generation are getting those materials from the library,” she said. “I don't think that the library is necessarily the place where, if you're trying to be rebellious, you go as a kid.”

How will this affect library users?

Some librarians feel that the rules have emboldened library users to act in a hostile manner toward library staff. While she doesn’t have official data, Moeller said librarians have observed a rise in people “berating staff” because they believe librarians are giving explicit materials to children. At one public library in Columbia, that now happens twice a week, whereas she had never heard of it happening in the past, she said.

“So many libraries are also having to now talk with lawyers,” Moeller said. “How do we handle threats that are coming in?”

Many libraries are considering only letting minors have library cards or enter the library with a parent’s consent, Moeller said. They are also considering creating individual profiles for each minor, where libraries can enter which materials are considered appropriate or inappropriate.

Moeller says this could limit children’s access to materials, especially if they need to check out books for summer reading.

“It takes that permission away and kind of punishes them even though they haven't done anything wrong,” she said.

Nomin Ujiyediin is the afternoon newscaster at KCUR in Kansas City.