When the Arlington Public Library recently set out to develop an internal policy for selecting seasonal book displays, director Norma Zuniga assumed it would be a straightforward task.
First, a group of pastors requested a meeting, where they shared their concerns that displaying books with LGBTQ content harms teenagers’ mental health.
Then, at a usually sleepy library advisory board meeting this month, a couple dozen community members demanded displays related to LGBTQ issues and Pride Month be removed from the libraries’ children and teenage sections.
Many wanted the books removed altogether. A couple of residents asked that an independent citizen review board examine every book in the city’s seven public libraries.
“A public library should be a center for the expression and sharing of ideas, a place to promote critical thinking,” Zuniga later said. “Our mission is to open doors to a world of ideas, information and imagination.”
The debate has catapulted Arlington into the middle of a growing battle over books, and specifically, which books are appropriate for young readers. That battle, brewing in schools for the past couple of years, is erupting in public libraries, where books about race and sexual orientation are frequent targets.
State Rep. Matt Krause helped ignite book bans last year when he launched an investigation into school library reading materials. The Fort Worth representative demanded Texas schools report whether they had some 800 books about racism, gender and sexuality on their shelves.
Public libraries from Irving to Llano, northwest of Austin, have fielded book challenges in the past year.
Fort Worth libraries closed last month after several branches received bomb threats. Similar threats in Denver, Nashville and Salt Lake City prompted the American Library Association to recently ask the FBI to investigate.
Meanwhile, attempts to ban books are expected to hit a record this year, according to the association, which has tracked such challenges since 1990.
Previously, the association typically documented 300 to 350 challenges a year, with most of the challenges targeting a single title. In 2021, the association recorded 729 complaints against 1,597 books.
This year, from January through August, the association has documented 681 attempts to ban or restrict books or library resources, targeting 1,651 titles.
“The unprecedented number of challenges we’re seeing already this year reflects coordinated, national efforts to silence marginalized or historically underrepresented voices and deprive all of us — young people, in particular — of the chance to explore a world beyond the confines of personal experience ,” the association’s President Lessa Kananiʻopua Pelayo-Lozada said in a statement.
Zuniga, who has worked in libraries for more than 30 years, said she has never seen this level of interest — or fury — over public library collections.
At the recent public meeting, multiple people accused the library of stocking pornography and said these books are “grooming” children. Grooming refers to a process in which offenders try to win a child’s trust in an effort to develop a sexual relationship.
Books in Arlington’s children’s sections include “Heather Has Two Mommies,” “My Two Dads and Me,” “Pride Puppy!” the tale of a puppy who gets lost while his family is attending a pride parade, “And Tango Makes Three,” about two boy penguins.
One of the pastors who met with Zuniga, Gary Hutchison with Grace Community Church in Arlington, said that being gay puts children on the “path to pain.”
Others said that LGBTQ book displays infringe on their rights to not see such material and force them to have conversations with their children they would prefer not to have.
“We are asking you to protect our children and not to side with the drag queens and group whose main goal is to expose our children to sexual content and a lifestyle that the majority of our population does not celebrate,” Gina Woodlee, of Arlington, said.
Fewer than 10 people spoke in favor of keeping LGBTQ book displays in children and teenage sections.
“Those who believe banning books will eliminate different sexual orientations are failing to face reality,” said Yleen George, a retired educator and Arlington resident. “They have not chosen their lifestyle. They didn’t get it from reading a book. They are living as God made them.”
Board chairwoman Catherine Serna later said she thinks the library can find a compromise in how it displays books. But Serna, who is studying to be a librarian, added that she is disturbed about what she called “quiet censorship.” The library, she said, will not censor its collection.
“My concern is this will be a slippery slope to censorship,” Serna said. “We don’t want this to open the floodgates.”
The library board, following four hours of public comments and discussion, voted to table a vote on book displays to allow library staff time to develop additional proposals.
The board plans to meet again Oct. 27.