One thing the U.S. did right: in the 1990s and early 2000s, the government funded the renovation of many public libraries. In some cases, they even built new ones. Drive through any small midwestern town and you’re likely to find a new library or a renovated Carnegie public library. Take Hawarden, Iowa (population: 2,700), the birthplace of the forgotten writer, Ruth Suckow. Upon our arrival, we could not locate Suckow’s house/museum, so we consulted a reference librarian at the strikingly modern public library. The librarian knew whom to call, and our charming guide, a member of the Ruth Suckow Memorial Association, knew all about the family history and Suckow’s books. And I thought: Hm, I could live here, because it has a good library and refined people!
We have many favorite libraries: we love Blue Earth County Library in Mankato, MN (population: 44,488), because of its well-stocked bookstore and fantastic summer book sale. My husband also recommends the public library in Central City, Nebraska (population: 2,934), where he once cooled off during an epic bike ride on a 94-degree day. (N.B. Central City is the birthplace of Wright Morris, who won the National Book award for two of his novels.)
But now we find ourselves in the 21st century, facing library censorship issues we never saw coming. Two small-town public libraries in the midwest have closed this summer (at least temporarily) due to censorship issues, one in Vinton, Iowa (population: 4,938); the other in James Township, Michigan (population: 8,618) was defunded.
The censorship issues focus on LGBTQ+ books, particularly on the subset of Y.A. LGBTQ books. I was not aware that this was a special genre, though of course I have read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories – but I simply call those classics. I am presently reading Our Wives under the Sea, a novel about a lesbian couple, one of whom is traumatized after a dangerous submarine trip becomes a six-month nightmare. But does that count as an LGBTQ+ book? I wouldn’t call it that.
As for Y.A. books, I have a contentious, snobbish idea: stop buying poorly-written crap aimed at teens. I don’t care if they’re Y.A. autobiographies, Y.A. feminist fiction, Y.A. science fiction, Y.A. queer books, Y.A. people-of-color books, Y.A. mysteries, Y.A. adventure books, Y.A. romances: don’t buy them unless you’ve read them and can vouch that they’re well-written!
Some of you may understand my contentiousness. In the cities, we can fight these censorship battles more efficiently, so long as the education system and public libraries survive (and that is in question these days), because there is greater diversity and a greater number of college-educated people. But small towns and rural areas seem especially susceptible to Far Right hysteria these days.
Sometimes the lines between literary standards and censorship are blurred. During my childhood, the children’s librarian refused to stock Nancy Drew books. My mother talked to her about it: she thought Miss M. might crack if she knew how expensive they were, and how many parents bought them for their daughters. But Nancy Drew was beneath Miss M.’s standards. And, I admit, it was an excellent library, though I think she was wrong about Nancy Drew.
Nowadays, the Christian far right has a penchant for censorship, and, as with issues like abortion, LGBTQ+ is an easy target. Let’s hope shutting down the libraries isn’t the censors’ goal, because see how easy it was for them? I don’t think it’s necessary to close the public library on behalf of a collection of crappy Y.A. books. If you want to go down fighting, do it for Mark Twain, Harper Lee, and J. D. Salinger.