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Michigan libraries recruiting citizen army to aid book ban wars

Libraries are organizing to present a united front against growing efforts to censor LGBTQ-themed books and other books some consider to be explicit. (Bridge file photo)
  • Book ban battles continue across Michigan’s public and school libraries
  • Libraries are now organizing to battle what they consider to be misinformation
  • Conservatives say they are protecting children from explicit material

Michigan libraries are fighting back against growing calls to ban books by recruiting patrons to spot and spread the word about culture war battles in their communities.

On Tuesday, the Michigan Library Association launched a six-month campaign to encourage residents to join Mi Right to Read, a website that offers updates on book battles in libraries and recommends action, such as posting on social media, writing letters to local media and attending school and library board meetings.

“We need help from parents and all community members when they see these types of efforts to limit or censor content at our public libraries,” said Juliane Morian, coalition member and Rochester Hills Public Library director, in a statement announcing the program Tuesday.

The website offers links to media coverage of book battles, including disputes in nine Michigan public and school libraries since June 1.

The effort is the latest development in escalating battles in Michigan schools and public libraries, with conservative officials and parent groups objecting to popular LGBTQ-themed books, including memoirs that have passages or illustrations chronicling sexual experiences. 

In Ottawa County, voters in Jamestown Township defunded their public library last year in a fight over a handful of LGBTQ-themed books. The Patmos Library remains open for now, through donations.

In March, the prosecutor of Lapeer County threatened criminal charges against the local public library over an LGBTQ-themed book if the library declined to remove the book, “Gender Queer: A Memoir.” The library board voted to keep the book on its shelves.

In April, a Cass County commissioner proposed an ordinance that sought to criminalize the distribution of sexually "explicit" library books to children. The proposal was pulled before it came up for a vote, following public and media attention.

The Cass County incident became, in effect, a trial run for the new citizen effort. In that case, librarians from across the state coordinated media contacts to draw attention to the proposal.

“Every library in the state of Michigan is going to be challenged at some point, and they have to be prepared,” Debbie Mikula, executive director of the Michigan Library Association, told Bridge Michigan in April. “And when they are challenged, they know other librarians are going to stand right next to them.”

Some officials have framed their efforts to pull books as attempts to protect children from sexually explicit material. In some communities, critics of LGBTQ-themed books haven’t requested complete bans, but have asked that the books be removed from children’s sections or placed behind the counter where parents would need to give permission for their children to read them.

Librarians counter that once some books are censored it becomes easier to ban others. For example, when some LGBTQ books were questioned at a public library in Iron Mountain in the Upper Peninsula in 2022, a patron followed up with a complaint that there also were too many books written by Jewish authors and books about Black people.

At Ottawa County’s Patmos Library, employees were labeled “groomers,” and several staff members resigned under an onslaught of criticism.

The book culture wars reached Lansing in April, when a resolution in the state House to honor Librarian and Library Worker Day passed along party lines, with  all Republicans voted against the resolution.

In a statewide poll in March commissioned by the Michigan Library Association, 75 percent of respondents agreed that access to books should be protected especially for young people learning about different perspectives; 83 percent said they would support state legislation to protect the right of the public to read what they wish to read in local public libraries and not have books banned.  The poll included 800 respondents, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

“The majority of Michiganders support the work our public libraries do and want to see various perspectives portrayed in the content available at their local libraries,” Mikula said in Tuesday’s news release. “Michigan’s public libraries are centers for community, and we want to ensure that librarians across Michigan can do their jobs and serve the needs of all individuals.”

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