Sen. Josh Kimbrell (R-Spartanburg) deserves a lot of credit for proposing Amendment 32 to the South Carolina budget. It requires libraries to forgo purchasing “sexually explicit” materials for children. Senator Kimbrell proposed the amendment after hearing complaints from parents in his district about materials their children saw in public libraries. It isn’t just his district, either, as the problem is nationwide in libraries. The amendment is now in Conference Committee (to be adjudicated by Sen. Harvey Peeler-(R), Sen. Nikki Setzler-(D), Sen. Thomas Alexander-(R), Rep. Gary Simrill-(R),  Rep. Murrell Smith-(R), and Rep. Todd Rutherford-D), should you wish to write) to see if it will be adopted. It is a welcomed amendment. Here’s why it should be, but first, forgive the following indulgence.

The last time I wrote about libraries (“The Tragedy of Ignorance”), some of my colleagues, both in and out of the profession, were incensed that I recommended legislatures withhold funding from libraries for inappropriate books. In that essay, I excoriated the presence of Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” and other such books that seek to proselytize young children into the gay parade. I also criticized “Drag Queen Story Hour.” Libraries have no place encouraging young children to make such decisions. That is the role of parents, and the parents can buy the requisite books for those sensitive topics. None of my critics said anything about the book itself (it’s egregious, and some of its scandalizing images can be found online). My call for withholding library funding was, in their thinking, beyond the pale. I doubt my support of Amendment 32 will be greeted with much favor, either.

For 40-plus years, I toiled in the groves of academe, specifically in academic libraries. Over those four decades, I also served in public libraries, including a genealogy library, but mostly in academic ones, either as director or dean. Something magical exists (or did) in libraries. I loved walking among the greatest minds of all time, even though those minds were represented in beautiful tomes with leather binding and gilt edges. Even our family vacations—admittedly much to the dismay of our then young daughters —often centered on what libraries were nearby. 

I’ve worked in libraries, I laud their service to mankind, and I have given my 42-years of vocational life to them. I in no way dislike them. Yet when you love something so earnestly, you inevitably have to correct its misprisions. The weltanschauung of libraries today is hardly what it was when I entered the profession more than 40 years ago. I feel cuckolded at this point. Everything I loved about them that I thought we loved together turned out to be only what I loved. The profession has, by and large, gone a-whoring after false gods. While countless well-meaning librarians remain in the trade, a strong activist voice is mounting. The national organization, the American Library Association (ALA), continues to push the profession to the very radical left.

There were hints of this leftward tilt early on in my career. As soon as I began 42 years ago, ALA began poo-pooing the idea that you had to love books or reading to be a good librarian. Annual meetings devolved from seminars about books, bookmaking, and preserving civilization to screeds from Germaine Greer, Hillary Clinton, or the quondam dipsomaniac and child endangerment comedienne Paula Poundstone. ALA went from being tolerant of conservatives, as represented by Will Manley’s “The  Conservatives Among Us”, a 12-year-old column that not only admitted the ultra-liberal nature of librarians but also admitted that liberals could learn from conservatives to the incoming (2023) president of ALA, a self-described Marxist-lesbian, Emily Drabinski. This makes perfect sense. Putatively representing freedom to read and learn, to call yourself after the most murderous and censorious regime the world has ever known. It’s like proudly calling yourself a Nazi and a white supremacist. Drabinski’s central platform is the “queering of libraries.”  Just when you thought it was safe to get back to your local public library. ALA is also considering ditching its neutrality viewpoint for a more activist one. All of this means that things will worsen before they get better if they ever get better again. Thus, Amendment 32.

Some librarians predictably screeched about Amendment 32, crying that it is censorship. But libraries never buy everything. Overall, about one million books are published annually. No public or academic library can buy all of these. Hardly any library buys more than an infinitesimally small number. This is not a criticism but a fact of economic life. Libraries also do not buy particularly expensive books. Budgets are always strapped, and spending $100 plus on one book is just not likely to happen very often. For every book purchased, another isn’t. Librarians also pointed to the scarcity of inappropriate books: only one here, only one there, as if to say it isn’t a big deal. But the point isn’t how often it occurs, but that it occurs at all. If, as some librarians argued, Amendment 32 isn’t needed because there are policies to prevent it, then why do we see inappropriate books more and more often in libraries?

What once got purchased in libraries focused on the community and its standards. This meant that esoteric subject matter, materials of dubious interest or interest only to an exceedingly small number of community members, self-published materials, vanity press materials (presses that published anything without question and for a fee) were seldom, if ever, purchased.  

So, libraries restrict purchases already. And the mantra we use as librarians is that “selection is not censorship,” a phrase made famous in library circles by Lester Asheim in 1953. It isn’t supposed to come across as librarians do when they restrict selection; what you, as a parent or citizen, do is censorship, but it’s not hard to see why some could think that. The point of all this is that libraries purchase—or not—any kind of book they wish to. Amendment 32 can help with selection by curtailing the more radical voices in librarianship.

Books on transgender transitions and the like have become as commonplace as pollen in spring in a public library not far from me. Government grants have helped with those purchases. Yet fewer than 3% of youth nationwide identify in this way. Any library with more than one or two such books would have some explaining to do. Moreover, gender dysphoria is hardly a settled matter even from a scientific view (remember the slogan, “Believe the Science!” but not in this case).  

The Rose Main Reading Room at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (also known as New York Public Library Main Branch) is an elegant study hall in the heart of Manhattan. (photo courtesy of Unsplash)

Transition requires hormones, psychiatric examinations, close medical supervision, and much more. The hormone injections wreak havoc on every organ in the body, often diminishing longevity. The result is not a very happy outcome. While suicide rates are high among such teens, the question rarely asked is whether it’s from the transition rather than the assumed bias against them. In any event, recommending transition for anyone under 18 (while that prefrontal lobe is still forming) is as close to child abuse as it gets. At one time, when a person felt this much self-loathing, they were referred to a psychiatrist, not a surgeon.

In that nearby public library, in January of this year, a concerned woman asked the library to balance its transition collection with a book that argued transition among teens might be a terrible idea. Just weeks ago, she was notified by the library that they simply could not buy that book. A long and tortured explanation unfolded about collection development practices and review. An outsider would have thought it rivaled neurosurgery. It does not, of course. At least one book questioning this practice would seem to be in order and yet was denied. It almost makes you think something else may be afoot.

Have we reached a point where we can neither tolerate our vices nor their cure, as the classical historian Livy had it? I hope not, and that is why Amendment 32 offers a very promising cure.

Mark Y. Herring is professor emeritus, dean of library services from Winthrop University. Herring spent 42 years as dean or director in academic libraries in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and South Carolina. He was most recently appointed by Gov. Henry McMaster to the South Carolina State Library Board. He resides with his wife, Carol, in Rock Hill.