What Happened When One Community Defunded Its Library

A Pride display at a local library spurred community backlash — and now its staff is dealing with the repercussions.

Like many public libraries across the country, the main branch of the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library in Jonesboro, Arkansas, set up a variety of displays for Pride Month in June 2021. There were showcases of books by LGBTQ+ authors, an exhibit that explained the different community flags and a section of kids books featuring LGBTQ+ characters.

According to its staff and supporters, the library hadn’t had any obvious issues celebrating Pride prior to 2021. But that month spurred community backlash that contributed to the county voting the following year to cut library funding in half.

More than a year after the vote, the cuts have finally gone into effect, and the results are dire. The library and its other branches (there are eight, including the main branch) are now forced to operate with reduced hours and smaller staffs and have had to cut services that community members previously relied on.

“The Pride display in June 2021 was a huge catalyst and the main reason why the library was defunded,” Dean MacDonald, a supporter and advocate for the CCJPL, told HuffPost.

Conservatives across the country began targeting public libraries during the backlash to the sweeping social justice movements that took hold in 2020 in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Using the guise of “parental rights,” conservatives whipped up a moral panic: first about children learning about the United States’ racist past and then about kids learning about LGBTQ+ rights, falsely asserting that members of the LGBTQ+ community were preying on children or that books about gay or trans people should be treated like pornography.

“When the children’s [Pride] display went up, that’s when it really hit the fan,” said Vanessa Adams, the director of the CCJPL, who was previously the library director in another Arkansas county.

David Eckert, who was the library director in the summer of 2021, was surprised when the complaints started rolling in. He told KAIT-TV in Jonesboro that he initially got a lot of positive feedback — close to 30 support emails — about the Pride display, compared with the three formal complaints he received. But eventually that changed.

“It had actually been up for three weeks before I heard a complaint,” Eckert told the station’s news team at the time. “I’m not exactly sure why there was a problem this year, especially because before I started working here, we’ve always put this type of material out every June.” (Eckert resigned in November 2021 amid controversy over library policies.)

“I dream of a world where this argument that we are having today will make us laugh at ourselves.”

- A resident supporting the library at a board meeting

At a three-hour library board meeting in August 2021, residents argued over a proposal to allow the board to approve of displays and guest speakers. The vote failed to pass, with board Vice President Mike Johnson saying that librarians should be trusted to make such decisions.

But another library proposal quickly divided the area: Board member Amanda Escue went on to suggest a new policy that would require the board to approve “sensitive materials” before the library could make a purchase.

Many residents spoke out against the proposal.

“I dream of a world where this argument that we are having today will make us laugh at ourselves and dismiss it as insanity,” one resident said at a September 2021 board meeting, according to KAIT.

Others turned to mistruths about LGBTQ+ materials to support it. “The topic is not about religion, the topic is not about your sexual orientation, the topic is why do the children, the young children, need to see the pornographic explicit material,” one resident said during the public comment section of a library board meeting, KAIT reported in a separate story.

Escue resigned from her position weeks before the board could vote on her proposal about “sensitive material,” citing her family’s move to Randolph County, Arkansas, as the reason, according to The Jonesboro Sun.

The board voted 4 to 2 not to adopt the proposal.

Then, at the end of September 2022, just weeks before the election, a group called Citizens Taxed Enough announced it had gathered enough signatures to put decreased funding for the library on the ballot. It framed the issue as one of tax relief for residents, but Citizens Taxed Enough said on social media that the group had looked into the library’s finances because staff refused to remove or move books it didn’t approve of. Recently, Citizens Taxed Enough insinuated itself into a Facebook post to say that the library was a place where children could access pornography.

HuffPost reviewed Facebook posts identified as belonging to members of the Northeast Arkansas Tea Party, a right-wing group supporting the ballot measure to cut the library’s funding in half. In the posts, made in the lead-up to the 2022 election, the members falsely claimed that library staff were providing sexually explicit material and abusing children, and they criticized a Drag Queen Storytime event as predatory toward children.

“It really blindsided us because we hadn’t heard any rumors that they were going to put it on the ballot.”

- Vanessa Adams, director of CCJPL

Library supporters and patrons in Craighead County, Arkansas, which is home to more than 100,000 people (the majority of whom live in Jonesboro), said they were taken aback when defunding the library ended up on the ballot in November 2022.

“It really blindsided us because we hadn’t heard any rumors that they were going to put it on the ballot,” Adams said about the measure, leaving support groups like Citizens Defending the Craighead County Library little time to get the word out about voting.

The ballot measure to cut library funding passed by 48 votes.

“I didn’t think this would happen to start with,” Adams said. “I was certain this community would come out to support the library.”

The effect of the November 2022 vote wasn’t felt until the end of last year. The library is forward-funded, so it had enough funds to keep operating as is for a full year after the election.

The library will receive $2.6 million this year, down from $4.7 million the prior year. Adams managed to stave off closing any of the eight branches. However, she had to lay off 13 people while two people who retired were not replaced. Overall, the library is down to 30 employees from 45.

The branches also have reduced hours, with all of them — save for the main branch — closed on Saturday. None of the libraries is open on Sunday.

The library has also had to cut some services. Before the cuts, library staff would bring materials to elderly people and people in long-term health care facilities. Now they’ll have to scale back such outreach. The library also won’t be able to regularly support courier services, which can bring materials requested by patrons from one branch to another.

Perhaps most chilling is that the defunding means there are fewer books available.

“Our materials budget has taken a big cut,” Adams said. “It’s really sad. There are fewer books and fewer e-books, which were really popular.”

Criticism and fearmongering surrounding public libraries is part of a disturbing trend that’s taken hold around the country. Librarians have been fired for refusing to remove books with LGBTQ+ themes from shelves, and some libraries have dealt with threats of physical violence.

In Jonesboro, there’s a chance that a measure to reinstate library funding could be on the ballot next year. But advocates are aware that they need to tread carefully — after all, this time around they’d be convincing residents to take on a tax increase. However, some community members are already offering financial support to the library after the cuts.

“We’re getting monetary donations left and right,” Adams said. “The community is understanding and is really stepping up to help us.”

In the meantime, there’s still support for the library — even with all the cuts.

“The public perception is that Jonesboro is for all this, but there have been tons of people who have spoken up from all political backgrounds,” MacDonald said. “People have written off Arkansas, but there are people coming out of the woodwork that are people fighting back.”

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