Out of sight, out of reach, out of mind. 

That’s the goal for a growing cadre of activists who are attacking public libraries for providing LGBTQ+ literature and sex ed materials to people of all ages.

Amid skyrocketing book bans in public school libraries, heightened rhetoric describing LGBTQ+ and sex education content as “obscene” or “pornographic” has also proliferated across public libraries from Alabama to California. The rhetoric fuels mass challenges against long lists of books or “types” of books, heightened restrictions on access to literature, and board-level fights. The sum effect is an emaciated public sphere in which students can’t access literature at school or in their broader communities. 

Losing access to specific titles is problem enough. But the push to restrict LGBTQ+ literature and books depicting sexual experiences also serve to undermine the civic role of libraries altogether. 

Alabama to California

In February 2024, librarians in Huntington Beach, CA, began to remove books from the public library children’s section and relocate them to the adult section. The action was a result of City Council Resolution No. 2023-41, a newly-passed resolution which prohibits access to books with sexual content for any patrons under 18 years old. Following the resolution, librarians expressed confusion as they re-cataloged hundreds of books ranging from titles about puberty to the picture book Once Upon a Potty

On April 2, 2024, Huntington Beach’s City Council took the additional step of creating a Community-Parent Guardian Review Board with the power to approve or reject the acquisition of children’s books and materials and to identify children’s books already in circulation for review. This task, until now, was entrusted to librarians – professionals trained to curate a collection that serves the entire community’s needs. Under this new committee, materials will likely be removed and some books may be prohibited from purchase based on vague community standards applied by a City Council-appointed review board. 

This year, a similar story unfolded in Prattville, Alabama. Activist group Clean Up Prattville and its next iteration, Clean Up Alabama, pushed to reshelve primarily LGBTQ+ books – moving them from children’s to adult sections. Across Alabama, from Mobile to Fairhope to Huntsville to Trussville, community members have questioned the shelving of LGBTQ+ literature and literature with sexual content in children and teen sections. 

In February 2024, the Autauga-Prattville Public Library responded to pressure from Clean Up Alabama and passed new acquisition policies that suspended the purchase of any children’s literature or young adult books that include “obscenity, sexual conduct, sexual intercourse, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender discordance.” The policy also requires that adult books that include those themes be labeled with a red sticker.

Similar tactics can be found nationwide. In Fall 2023, the Phillips Public Library in Wisconsin faced a number of challenges and pressure from their community to restrict books featuring LGBTQ+ or social justice themes from the children’s section. In response, the library reshelved books, like the picture book Dress Up Day by Lisa Bullard, to sections with names like “Identity” and “Social Activism.”  LGBTQ+ stickers were added to many titles that were moved, including Introducing Teddy: A Gentle Story About Gender and Friendship by Jessica Walton and Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman. The library also moved It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie Harris, a sexual education book for young people, to adult nonfiction.

Challenging where a book is shelved and whether a young person can access that book, sometimes even with parental permission, is a key tactic in attacks against public libraries. The political push and board debates over shelving location and requests to  “move” books undermine the professional expertise of librarians, most of whom have trained for many years to respond to the needs of their communities. This expertise has been under attack  not just by local agitation, but by state legislation and increasingly heated national rhetoric

What happens next?

Acquiescing to reshelving doesn’t always stop the agitation.

Such was the case in Oconee County, Georgia, in July 2023 where Flamer by Mike Curato was moved from the young adult to the adult section of the library. But even after the move, the library continued to see opposition during board meetings to Pride displays and other books featuring LGBTQ+ stories and people. At the same time, the library saw calls to end library programs that support LGBTQ+ youth and children.  

And the case in August 2023 when the Columbia County, Washington Rural Library District was threatened with being dissolved by voters after a series of challenges by county residents who were upset about “sexual content” in books in the children’s sections. This despite the fact that the interim director moved items about sexual education to a parenting section and the entire young adult nonfiction section was moved to adult nonfiction. The pressure to dissolve the library eventually subsided after a ballot measure was removed from the ballot following a lawsuit. 

Or take Indiana’s Hamilton East Public Library. In August 2023, the public library was ready to move more than 1,300 Young Adult titles to the Adult section of the library, based on a collections development policy that overroad publisher, author, and librarian recommendations on where to shelve books. It took a community push back and the social media attention of author John Green to alter course for that library.

While some librarians and allies have been able to push off the most burdensome of restrictions, attacks are becoming more frequent across the country. 

Libraries, by their nature, serve the entire community. When books are reshelved or removed based on personal or political preference, it impedes the ability of the library – and of highly-skilled librarians – to fulfill their civic role: to encourage discovery, dialogue, and debate.  Coordinated opposition illustrates the shared motivation behind the attacks: eliminate LGBTQ+ expression from public spaces, undermine libraries as a site of civic discourse, and challenge the professional expertise of librarians. 

Daniel Shank Cruz contributed research to this blog.