OPINION: Missouri wants to control libraries’ contents: What’s your opinion?


“Burn Any Good Books Lately?”

When I was a boy, 10 or 12 years old, I had three sources for sexual information.

One was my mother. When I asked her about “the facts of life,” she gave me a book that had a photo of an egg cell the size of a soccer ball, and a sperm cell the size of a football. I went to the University City Public Library. I found Gray’s Anatomy and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

These weren’t much help either. So I turned to my little buddy, Tom, who lived three doors down. He was an immigrant. I relied heavily upon his European sophistication. While Tom’s information was quite useful, a good book when I needed one might have been nice.

Hard as it is to believe, book banning is a topic again.

There have even been a few book burnings of late. In a study done by PEN International, between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022, there were 1,145 book titles banned in 85 school districts across 26 states. This impacts about two million students.

Not wanting to be left behind, my beloved state, Missouri, has joined this movement, a practice popularized by (Adolph Hitler’s) Joseph Goebbels. In August of this year, Missouri passed SB 775, which bans the distribution of “explicit sexual material” in both private and public schools. SB 775 also addressed child trafficking, sexual assault, and other related crimes.

Now, our Secretary of State, Jay Ashcroft, has proposed new rules that would block state funding for public libraries that offer books containing, in the secretary’s words, “non-age-appropriate materials.” Under the rules, anyone can challenge access to any book.

The proposed rules require Missouri’s 160 local public libraries to adopt policies on the age-appropriateness of literature. Libraries that violate the rules would lose state funding. The amounts are significant. Last year, the St. Louis Public Library received $452,000 in state funding. The St. Louis County Public Library got $660,000. Smaller communities received smaller but still significant amounts.

Now Mr. Ashcroft asks Missourians for their opinions. Should the state block funding for public libraries if they offer books that contain “non-age-appropriate materials?” You really want my opinion? OK. Here’s my opinion. It comes in four parts:

  • First, by restricting access to books of any sort, we implicitly, some would say explicitly, discourage freedom of thought.
  • Second, such bans undermine one of the most fundamental purposes for having a public library, which is to educate the young to be open to various points of view, then to draw their own conclusions.
  • Third, parents should supervise what their children read, but no one should censor what the community reads.
  • Fourth, exposure to a wide range of books opens a young person to the world, because it encourages, in a word, empathy.

It’s odd. I find myself in the unusual position of arguing what once was foundational Republican ideology. Trust local government. When possible, problems should be solved by the government which is closest to the issue. Most libraries are county or municipal.

What is not odd is that Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, wants to run for governor in 2024. Book banning plays well among MAGA Republicans.

I find myself thinking of that kid who wonders, as I wondered so many years ago, how husbands and wives relate to each other.

Perhaps the most famous photograph by Annie Liebovitz is one of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The Beatles singer is nude, curled in a fetal position around his fully clothed wife. He kisses her cheek. His eyes are closed. He holds her head with his arm.

Some argue that this is the most famous photo in rock ‘n’ roll history. It appeared on the cover of “Rolling Stone.” I would argue that this photo exquisitely captures the erotic love of a husband and a wife.

But about that kid. Somewhere in Missouri today, there’s that kid who wonders about husbands and wives. That boy or girl should see this photo. Someone should say, “Marriage, at its most beautiful, marriage is like this.”

Earlier this year, two books by Annie Leibovitz were banned in Missouri.

(John Tieman is a retired 40-year St. Louis public school teacher, a widely published poet, essayist, translator and a former member of Teachers Local 420.)

Make your voice heard by Dec. 15

The Secretary of State is asking for the public’s opinion on his proposal to let government decide what books should go into our public libraries instead of professional librarians. Whether you disagree or agree with this government censorship, make your voice heard:

• Email: comments@sos.mo.gov. The subject line must read: “15 CSR 30-200.15.”

• Mail: Office of the Missouri Secretary of State, P.O. Box 1767, Jefferson City, MO 61502

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