The city of Huntsville, Texas, has voted to privatize its library following disputes over a Pride display and other books with LGBTQ2S+ content currently in circulation. It’s the latest in a wave of politicians taking aim at the availability of books containing queer and trans content.
On Tuesday, the Huntsville City Council voted 6-3 in favour of outsourcing its library operations to Library Systems & Services, a private, for-profit management company. The move comes just months after city officials ordered library staff to remove a display of LGBTQ2S+ books from the Huntsville Public Library. While the city council claims it’s a cost-saving measure, residents are voicing fears that it will lead to more restrictions and book removals.
“This is a form of censorship that’s going on and it’s going on behind our backs,” said one resident at a city council meeting on the topic, according to KBTX. “This is a public library. If it’s public, then the public should have a chance to vote on this and we need to get a lot more information.”
It’s unclear what exactly this will mean for the book collection in the Huntsville library. However, Library Systems & Services has been criticized in the past for removing local input from library management and their approach to staffing—they aren’t obligated to rehire local librarians, and historically haven’t offered pensions for staff, per the New York Times. Huntsville Public Library staff have already received letters saying they will have to reapply to their current positions in January, at the discretion of Library Systems & Services, according to Houston Public Media.
An employee at the Huntsville Public Library told Houston Public Media that the city council’s decision to turn library management over to a private company appears to stem from conflict over a “Read with Pride” display in August. The display highlighted LGBTQ2S+ themes and authors. In August, city officials told the library staff to remove the display, a move which, according to the employee, came after a complaint from a community member about its appropriateness. A “Banned Book” display that featured books banned by other governments and school boards—including Gone with the Wind and Friday Night Lights—was also removed.
In October, Huntsville resident Amanda Louie said she saw a Huntsville police officer at the library circulation desk reviewing a series of books, including some with LGBTQ2S+ themes, as well as other works like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, as reported by multiple media outlets. Louie later learned, in emails obtained through an open records request and shared with Houston Public Media, that city staff had received a complaint about the potential illegality of those books, and had subsequently instructed police to review them.
Residents and library employees have been voicing their concerns over Huntsville City Council’s choice to privatize library operations. The president of the city’s library board, Michelle Lyons, said the board was not consulted about the move, even though it takes away the library’s ability to determine its own programming. “We have had no opportunity to have conversations with anybody from the city about how we feel, or our concerns about this particular vendor,” she told Houston Public Media.
Louie started a petition opposing the decision and criticizing the city council’s refusal to listen to community input, which has amassed over 800 signatures.
The situation in Huntsville also caught the attention of the American Library Association (ALA), the oldest and largest library association in the world. In a tweet, they responded to the news by writing that “publicly funded libraries should remain directly accountable to the public they serve” and that the ALA “opposes the shifting of policy-making and management oversight of library services for the public to the private for-profit sector.”
Huntsville is not the only city where libraries have been affected by a growing movement to censor LGBTQ2S+ books and authors. In August, a library in Jamestown Township, Michigan, had 84 percent of its budget cut after pushback against its choice to carry LGBTQ2S+ books, including Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe and Colleen A.F. Venable’s Kiss Number 8. In Vinton, Iowa, a public library closed earlier this year after multiple directors resigned due to conservative criticism of LGBTQ2s+ books in the collection. School libraries have also been under attack, with lawmakers in Texas and South Carolina attempting to remove LGBTQ2s+ books from schools.
The targeting of LGBTQ2S+ books is part of a larger national trend—over the last year, the U.S. has seen a historic uptick in books bans and challenges. According to preliminary 2022 data from the ALA, attempts to ban or restrict library resources are at an all-time high. A report from advocacy organization PEN America found that 33 percent of the school library books subject to challenges or restrictions between July 2021 and March 2022 addressed LGBTQ2S+ themes or have prominent queer characters, second only to the 63 percent of books facing potential bans that address race and racism or have prominent characters of colour.
In the ALA report, ALA president Lessa Kananiʻopua Pelayo-Lozada says banning books “denies young people resources that can help them deal with the challenges that confront them.
“The unprecedented number of challenges we’re seeing already this year reflects coordinated, national efforts to silence marginalized or historically underrepresented voices,” she says. “Efforts to censor entire categories of books reflecting certain voices and views shows that the moral panic isn’t about kids: it’s about politics.”