On Thursday, the Llano County Commissioners Court discussed — meeting in a private session — whether to “continue or cease operations” of their three libraries, ultimately deciding not to close them.
“For those who don’t understand what happened, the library will remain open,” Llano County Judge Ron Cunningham said. “We will try this in the courts, not through social media or news media.”
After Cunningham’s announcement, one library proponent walked outside and shouted, “We won!” Cheers erupted among the overflow crowd, said Kevin Henderson, 59, a Llano County pastor who had been waiting for the decision.
The county issued a statement Thursday that appeared to blame the specter of closure on its opponents, detailing the financial burden that the protracted First Amendment battle had already imposed — more than $100,000 in legal fees and 250 employee hours responding to discovery demands. The library’s budget is $450,000 of a $15 million total county budget.
The federal judge’s ruling was a “clear invitation” for others to sue if they disagree with the way librarians maintain the collection and discard old material, the statement said. It continued: “As litigation costs and the continued threat of civil litigation continue to grow from law firms in Austin and San Francisco, it will be impossible for the county to operate this purely discretionary county function.”
Leila Green Little, an anti-censorship activist and plaintiff in the ongoing federal lawsuit, decried the “shameful attempt by the County to frame ongoing litigation and the plaintiffs as a threat to the library system, when in fact, plaintiffs are fighting to keep our public institutions accountable and open to the people.”
Residents and media members hoping to witness the debate had begun lining up at 7:30 a.m. to pack the tiny commissioners courtroom in the quiet Texas Hill Country county. Most inside the room were in favor of keeping the libraries open, but their opponents spilled into the hallway and out into the parking lot. Some in the chamber sang “Amazing Grace” as they waited.
During a brief public comment period Thursday, Rhonda Schneider, 54, who supported closing the libraries, spent most of her time reading from a young adult fiction book called “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” that is part of the library collection. As she read an excerpt that included a conversation between two boys about oral sex and erections, the room was silent.
“I am for closing the libraries until we get this filth off the shelves,” Schneider said.
Area resident James Arno testified that he frequents the library with his teenagers, ages 13 and 17, and believes that policing what children read should be up to parents.
“It’s not our job to burn this thing to the ground, to prevent kids from reading what these people were reading,” he said. “It’s the parent’s job to know what their kids are reading.”
The dispute began in the fall of 2021, when a group of conservative activists first contacted Cunningham, worried about what they called “filth” on the shelves. In April 2022, an anti-censorship group sued the county board, members of the county library board and the chief librarian, saying that the books’ removal had violated their First Amendment rights. On March 30, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman agreed, ordering the county to return the books to the shelves, update its catalogue and not remove any more material during pending litigation.
The county’s outside counsel, Jonathan Mitchell, said the chief librarian removed the books as part of routine maintenance of the collection.
“A public library cannot function if its librarians can be sued every time a library patron disagrees with their decision to weed a book. Librarians must continually weed books that aren’t being checked out to make room on the shelves for new arrivals. That is not censorship or book banning,” Mitchell, a well-known conservative lawyer who helped conceive Texas’s abortion ban, said in a statement.
The potential library shutdown attracted national attention and was widely condemned by academic and freedom-of-speech groups, who saw it as one further step in the erosion of conservative support for the country’s public library system.
Libraries have been the focus of culture battles in conservative communities, and efforts are ongoing to defund them, including a currently pending high-profile move by Republicans in Missouri’s legislature to strip that state’s libraries of about $4.5 million in funding.
Attempts to censor library materials reached a record high in 2022, according to the American Library Association, with 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022, nearly double the amount in 2021.
Llano, a small county of 22,000 about an hour and a half from Austin, has been in an intense public debate about the content of its libraries since the conservative activists first targeted them in the fall of 2021.
In response to their complaints, Cunningham ordered librarians to pause buying new material and to pull “any books with photos of naked or sexual conduct regardless if they are animated or actual photos,” emails previously reviewed by The Washington Post showed.
County officials subsequently dissolved the library board and replaced it with a new board that included many of the conservative activists, cut off access to some e-books and fired a librarian who pushed back against the censorship.
After the anti-censorship advocates filed their lawsuit, the 17 disputed books — including “In the Night Kitchen,” the series of cartoony “fart” books, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson, “They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group” by Susan Campbell Bartoletti and “Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen” by Jazz Jennings — were put into something the defense calls a special “in-house check out system,” meaning they were out of sight but available to check out for those who knew the books were there, court filings showed.
Pitman, in his March 30 ruling, said that was not enough.
“The physical books at issue in this case although ‘available’ for check out are hidden from view and absent from the catalogue,” Pitman wrote, saying that the evidence shows that the defendants would continue to make access to the books “difficult or impossible.”
John Chrastka, the executive director of EveryLibrary, a nonprofit devoted to sustaining public libraries, said that several levy renewals or increases for libraries under threat last year were passed by voters, except for libraries in Jamestown, Mich., and the Craighead County Jonesboro Library in Arkansas, where residents voted to defund their libraries. In each case, however, Chrastka noted, voters got to decide the outcome of the libraries themselves.
Gowen reported from Lawrence, Kan.