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Opinion: Library bill redundant, threatens talent attraction

A Wider Lens

Posted online

My childhood could have been a Norman Rockwell cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Every fall, just past my front yard was a tree-lined street with a tunnel of flaming orange leaves and dappled sunlight providing cover as we played touch football, bicycled and giggled in the crisp breezes. When Mrs. Dow rang her old school bell at dusk Sunday evening, we all knew it was time for us to return to our respective homes for homemade pot roast and mashed potatoes while watching “The Magical World of Disney.”

But what made it truly idyllic for me was that I could walk beyond my squeaky backyard chain link fence gate into the front door of a branch of the Springfield-Greene County Library. Its exterior was unimpressive metal that nevertheless held the artful imaginations of thousands of authors and the highly coveted Encyclopedia Britannica.

Many hours of my youth were spent perusing the stacks. I blushed reading a book about amphibious reproduction, so you can only imagine the anguish I experienced passing the controversial Judy Blume books filled with blunt coming-of-age stories. I have yet to have the courage to crack the spine of one of her books. It’s still with me; I can’t even look at a cover of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

I share this personal narrative by way of full disclosure that I am a little bit of an idealist who is a longstanding prude. But I’m also an unabashed supporter of our public library system as equally for its truths as its fictional worlds, including those that make me personally uncomfortable.

On Jan. 16, when I saw the headline on Facebook, “Proposed Book Banning Bill in Missouri Could Imprison Librarians,” I didn’t recognize the source, so I ignored it as just another website lobbing fallacious stories intended to rile and divide the electorate. When I saw it the third time, I took a chance and clicked on the article that included a link to Missouri House Bill 2044. I skipped reading the article’s interpretation of the bill in favor of reading the bill itself, still believing the headline was a gross overreaction.

If you are unfamiliar with the bill sponsored by Neosho legislator Ben Baker, I encourage you to read it for yourself at House.mo.gov, but here is my CliffsNotes version: A five-person board of adults elected at a town hall meeting would decide what books based on age-inappropriate sexual content could not be placed on public library shelves for young readers to see. Librarians could be fined or imprisoned for up to a year for defying the board.

For a moment, my 13-year-old self imagined a world in which she never saw a Blume novel. She smiled. My adult self was disgusted with a spate of questions.

Is one of our greatest concerns about our youth that they are visiting our libraries in droves unaccompanied by a parent? I don’t think so.

Are parents not responsible for understanding their own child’s reading and maturity levels? I think they are.

What can a child possibly learn at a public library that they can’t more easily access on the internet? Nothing.

By Jan. 19, HB 2044 was making international headlines. Here are a few:

• “Missouri bill: New parent board could toss any public library book it deems sexually inappropriate – and librarians could be jailed” —Washington Post

• “Missouri could jail librarians for lending ‘age-inappropriate books’” —The Guardian

• “A Missouri bill would cut off aid to libraries that allow kids to access ‘age-inappropriate sexual materials’” —CNN

• “Missouri librarians could be fined, jailed for giving kids ‘age inappropriate sexual material’” —Fox News

Baker claims he wants parents to have a say, clarifying his concerns are less about the content of books and more about the programming provided by public libraries. He specifically cites drag queen story hours, such as those held in St. Louis, Kansas City and St. Joseph.

The absurdity of HB 2044 was quickly superseded by its redundancy.

The St. Joseph News Press reported in September 2019 that a drag queen story hour attracted 500 visitors to a downtown library, some to listen to the book readings and others to protest. It would seem the patrons protesting knew something Baker doesn’t. They have a voice and made it heard. I would say the same for those who attended the readings led by a drag queen. They have a voice, too.

What about here? Well, the Springfield-Greene County Library District is governed by a nine-person board that addresses public concerns. As a matter of fact, the most recently posted board meeting minutes from November 2019 document a citizen’s formal address regarding her concern about library programming. It would seem that patron knows something Baker doesn’t. She has a voice and made it heard.

While I am hopeful the bill will die, the headlines and articles will not.

That is why Missouri’s business community should be very concerned by this impetuous piece of legislation. Professionals considering relocation to the state of Missouri are seeing those headlines in their news feeds, too. We are competing to attract and retain our current and future workforce that wants diverse and culturally rich communities in which to live. Legislative messages of exclusion and jailing of librarians is not the message a state with a mindset of business growth can afford to embrace.

Mar’Ellen Felin is CEO of Springfield Business Journal video media outlet sbjLive. She can be reached at mfelin@sbj.net.

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