Bills targeting book bans raise concerns about the penalties libraries could face

Bills against book bans are gaining traction in state legislatures around the country — and with them have come worries about the potentially negative impact on libraries themselves.

The number of banned books across the country saw an almost two-thirds increase in 2023 from the previous year, to more than 4,200 titles, according to a new report from the American Library Association. The free speech advocacy group PEN America found that last school year, about 30% of the book titles being challenged in schools included characters of color or discussed race and racism, while another 30% presented LGBTQ characters or themes. In addition, almost half the banned books featured themes or instances of violence or physical abuse, and a third contained writing on sexual experiences between characters.

The rise in book bans has prompted lawmakers to push back with bills in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and New Mexico. They follow Illinois and California, where such legislation has been signed into law.

Experts are raising concerns, however, as some of the legislation would fine school districts or withhold library funding if their provisions are not followed, such as in Illinois and California. The enforcement measures could especially be a threat to public schools and libraries that are underfunded and understaffed, they say.

“It always is a concern when you put funding on the line for any reason,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

“We would not want to see bills that are overly prescriptive that make it difficult for smaller communities or rural communities to receive their funding.”

She added, “Our big concern is not creating a system that would make it so onerous to comply with the bill that it makes it difficult for libraries with fewer resources.”

Budgetary constraints also can give rise to circumstances that could be misread as violations of state laws, experts say. For example, titles may be removed or go missing from the shelves of schools or public libraries when the books are damaged or lost or there’s no money in the budget to purchase them. Personnel shortages also can prevent libraries from staffing panels that review books or instructional materials for approval or disapproval. Some experts argued that such problems could be unfairly weaponized against schools or public libraries, which have experienced increased criticism and scrutiny as part of the growing movement to ban books.

Illinois’ new law requires that state libraries adopt the American Library Association’s long-standing Library Bill of Rights, which says that reading materials cannot be banned, removed or restricted due to “partisan or doctrinal disapproval,” or, alternatively, a similar statement prohibiting the banning of books. If public libraries don’t adopt such guidelines, they become ineligible for state grant money, which makes up a substantial part of their budgets.

When asked about the concerns over the law, Illinois state Sen. Laura Murphy, a Democrat who co-sponsored the measure, said in a statement to NBC News that by adding the threat to funding to the legislation, lawmakers were “intentional in establishing a mechanism to hold libraries accountable and sending a clear message that there would be a recourse for those who seek to ban books.”

She added that the law’s enforcement gave it more of a backbone and was a way to “further demonstrate our support for librarians” who back efforts to keep an inclusive range of book titles available.

Emily Knox, an associate professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that she believes connecting funding to Illinois’ bill is necessary for its effectiveness.

“That’s what gives the bill any teeth at all,” she said. “Libraries and schools need more money, but because funding is so precious to public institutions, you don’t want to do things that jeopardize the possibility of getting funding from a source like the state. So it does make a big difference.”

Knox said claims that the funding could be weaponized against libraries in the state if they are targeted for not having certain titles on the shelf are inaccurate based on the wording of the legislation.