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Missouri library leaders say the state plan to defund public libraries would hurt library users

Several books which have been challenged by parents based on their content are pictured on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, at Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Librarians worry that a Missouri House-approved plan to cut funding for public libraries would weaken rural libraries if it becomes law.

Missouri library leaders are decrying a plan by state legislators to strip funding for public libraries.

In March, the Missouri House of Representatives approved a budget that would eliminate $4.5 million in state funding for public libraries. The move comes after the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association. That challenges a 2022 state law prohibiting sexually explicit content in school libraries. The lawsuit argues the Missouri law violates the First Amendment.

“For many communities, the library is the center of community,” St. Louis County Library District CEO and President Kristen Sorth said. “We're definitely kind of a safety net for many people, whether that be the only place where they can get reliable internet, or a place where they come for a Summer Reading Club program, or to build their resume or to look for a job.”

Sorth said state funding represents about $500,000 of the district’s $60 million budget.

The funding cuts were first approved by the Missouri House Budget Committee. Committee chair Cody Smith, R-Carthage, said last week that the state shouldn’t fund the lawsuit. Sorth said that no state funding is going toward the suit and that the ACLU is providing free legal aid. Smith did not reply to a request to comment.

Defunding public libraries would have significant consequences for rural libraries, Missouri Library Association President Otter Bowman said.

“The percentage of aid that that state aid makes up in the overall budget is much greater for rural libraries because they don't have such a strong tax base, they're kind of on a shoestring as it is now,” said Bowman, who works at the Columbia Public Library. “Another aspect of it is that they receive matching funds from the federal government at this point. If there is no state aid to match, then they could lose that much as well.”

Library funding is split among the state’s library districts. Bowman said state funds make up about 1% of Daniel Boone Regional Library’s budget, which includes the Columbia Public Library. She said for rural libraries, losing state funding could mean more service cuts and closures.

“There's the potential that they would need to reduce hours, reduce the number of staff and potentially even close some days of the week because they won't be able to make ends meet,” Bowman said.

Bowman noted the measure could be unconstitutional. The Missouri Constitution requires the state to fund free public libraries. Missouri ACLU leaders said in a statement the defunding targets libraries and its patrons.

“If the members of the committee are concerned about preserving taxpayer funds, they should stop enacting laws they know do not meet constitutional muster, not burden local governments in a misguided effort to silence organizations who object to the legislature’s overreach,” state ACLU leaders said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the $60 million St. Louis County Library District budget.

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.