Apr 11, 2023 - News

Book wars: Texas county poised to close its libraries

Illustration of a stack of books with barbed wire wrapped around them.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Officials in a Central Texas county are gearing up to close its public libraries after a federal judge in Austin ordered them to return banned books to shelves.

Driving the news: Elected commissioners of rural Llano County, a little over an hour's drive northwest of Austin, are convening a special meeting Thursday about whether to "continue or cease operations of the current physical Llano County Library System," per the posted meeting notice.

  • The county, with a population of 22,000 people, operates three libraries, with nine full or part-time employees, not including the library director.

The big picture: The move would be a sharp escalation in the nation's ongoing book wars, which are a proxy for battles about the teaching of LGBTQ+ issues and race.

Catch up quick: Addressing an ongoing lawsuit brought last year by county residents who oppose the book bans and allege a "literary witch hunt," U.S. Judge Robert Pitman in a preliminary injunction in late March ordered Llano County officials to return at least a dozen books to library shelves that had been removed in 2021.

  • The books include "In the Night Kitchen" by Maurice Sendak, "Freddie the Farting Snowman," by Jane Bexley, "It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health" by Robie Harris, and a history book about the KKK.
  • At least two librarians have either been fired or resigned in protest over the book ban.

Between the lines: "Llano County leaders are amazing!!" Bonnie Wallace, the vice-chair of the county Library Advisory Board, wrote in a text, obtained by Axios, to a fellow conservative activist in February.

  • Referring to County Judge Ron Cunningham, the chief elected official in the county, she wrote: "The judge had said, if we lose the injunction, he will CLOSE the library because he WILL NOT put the porn back into the kid's section! Very courageous! Keep praying!"
  • Functionally the county equivalent to a mayor, the judge presides over the commissioners court, which takes up the issue of whether to close the libraries on Thursday.

Flashback: We previously reported how Wallace, a realtor, in 2021 alerted Llano County commissioners about "pornographic filth" in their libraries, with a list of 60 books.

  • Wallace was then appointed to the Library Advisory Board as part of a conservative takeover of the Llano County library system.

Of note: Neither Wallace nor Cunningham responded to Axios interview requests.

  • "The county is now considering whether to close its libraries in response to the Court's order, as it cannot continue to expose its librarians and county officials to lawsuits whenever a disgruntled library patron disagrees with a selection or weeding decision," Jonathan Mitchell, an attorney for the county, wrote in a Tuesday court filing that calls the preliminary injunction "overboard."

The other side: "It's a horrible, horrible thing to close a library," Leila Green Little, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, tells Axios. "It's not just three buildings filled with books. … They are places that provide Christmas presents for needy children during the holidays, books and community for mothers and their young children and gathering places for older people."


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