Libraries Under Siege in Florida: A Worker’s Story

Morale is below sea level in Florida’s libraries. Those of us still working in year four of the pandemic face more threats to libraries, public education, and our livelihoods from  Governor Ron DeSantis and his dark money-funded “parental rights group,” Moms for Liberty.  This right-wing governor, encouraged by his carpetbagging supporters and ultra-conservative media outlets, is waging an all-out assault on librarians and the working-class people we serve. He and his “concerned parents” are threatening and harassing librarians for doing our jobs – providing books and programming for all of our patrons.

When library workers arrive on site in the mornings, we get everything ready for opening time. We turn the computers on, print computer guest passes, lay out the day’s newspapers, and check in the items left in the book drop overnight. We set up the day’s free programs or classes. Then we open the doors and welcome the public who are lined up outside, rain or shine, waiting to use their neighborhood library. 


Librarians serve the public

Library users come through our doors for many reasons. Contrary to the elitist belief that Google has made libraries obsolete, people still visit their libraries for all the traditional purposes –and a bunch of new ones. We’re still the best place to check out books, do research for school assignments, access low-cost printing and free Wi-Fi, and attend storytime with your children. Increasingly, access to everything, including government services, is online. Library users come in to print out IRS forms, apply for unemployment benefits, Medicaid, or TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families), apply for jobs, start a business, participate in a clothing or craft supplies swap, and check out a pass for free entry to the local art museum or state park. Florida’s public libraries are busy places, functioning as hubs where people can get help for a variety of needs. And we do it with shrinking budgets and unfilled positions. I’ve worked in Florida libraries since the peak of the housing market crash circa 2008. Public libraries and schools are one of the last instances of functional government left standing in this state. 

Library workers are charged with maintaining comprehensive collections of books so that we have something to offer to every reader. The profession, which is still made up predominantly of white women, has made conscious efforts in recent years to bolster the diversity of authors, viewpoints, topics, and fictional characters in our collections. We know that when children can see themselves in the characters in the books they read, they are more interested in reading. Representation in library books also opens up children’s imaginations of what might be possible for them. Ask any person who felt “different” from their peers in school and you’ll hear touching accounts of how much it meant to read about someone like themselves, particularly for children living in conservative households and towns. Recent studies show that fiction readers learn empathy and understanding by reading accounts of characters facing discrimination, poverty, and other assorted injustices the readers may have never experienced personally. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) considerations for hiring and recruiting are frequent topics at library conferences. My library was lauded for bringing an author to share their family’s immigration story. Yet we are experiencing whiplash as we receive relentless scrutiny and harassment for running libraries that fulfill their mission statements.


DeSantis’s assault on libraries

As soon as he was elected in 2019, DeSantis started to gut public education by siphoning tax dollars into charter schools and eliminating the Common Core curriculum. In June 2020, DeSantis vetoed the entire $29.4 billion budget for the Complete Florida Plus Program. This encompassed some K-12 online learning services and the library consortium for Florida’s state colleges and universities, which includes a suite of services and resources necessary for student success and institutional accreditation. Most schools and libraries were closed at this time, making online services and resources the only ones available. As schools and libraries reopened with public health precautions in place, DeSantis went to war with local governments and school districts, eventually winning the fight to outlaw mask mandates. When anti-COVID vaccines became available in early 2021, the rollout was a mess and the wealthy and well-connected skipped ahead of workers in line. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio got his shots right away while Florida’s teachers and librarians had to wait until our age range was called, working in person in unsafe conditions in the meantime. 

In 2022, DeSantis and the Moms for Liberty ramped up their book-banning campaign. DeSantis signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law in March. This flagrantly hateful law makes it illegal even to mention the existence of gay and transgender people near kindergarten through third-grade students. Florida Republicans are now actively working to extend this ban through the 12th grade. Public school teachers and media specialists have borne the worst of the book-banning frenzy so far. Public school board meetings, which have been raucously contentious since the mask wars, are now the site of dangerous name-calling as parents (and people without school-age children) scream that every book they don’t like is filled with “pornography” or “critical race theory.” School and classroom libraries have been shut down while librarians and administrators read through each book trying to decipher which ones run afoul of the latest vague laws. DeSantis allowed the “Moms” to assist in creating a mandatory curriculum for school media specialists on selecting “appropriate” books. School librarians are master’s degree-holding professionals with teaching certificates who are trained to select and manage library collections. The “Moms” hold no credentials, as evident in their writings, complete with spelling errors and nonsense [many of which have been removed after being ridiculed]. Individual educators and entire school districts are censoring themselves by erring on the side of caution, even removing books in anticipation of bills not yet signed into law. We don’t want to lose our jobs or go to prison as stricter interpretations of the laws make the distribution of certain materials to minors a felony offense. Uncertainty and intimidation are the goals. 


Attacks ahead?

This attack on freedom of inquiry and First Amendment rights has not stopped with the K-12 schools. Florida’s public colleges and universities are scrambling to adhere to new laws regarding the content of textbooks, classroom discussions, and the elimination of diversity offices and initiatives. Tenure and faculty unions are under attack. As the vitriol increases, it has become truly scary to work in a public library. My library faced threats from the Moms for Liberty crowd, who had a problem with one of our book displays. We had simply moved books already on our shelves to a table to highlight them and encourage checkout. The “Moms” saw it on social media, and out came the pitchforks. They called the mayor and county commissioners. They harassed us on the library’s social media accounts, posting risque excerpts from graphic novels not contained in our collection and calling us “pedophiles” who are “committed to promoting rape, mental illness, and racism to children as young as five.” One person commented menacingly that they live nearby and would stop in to see us. Librarians and library staff work with the public all day. We are skilled in fielding complaints and de-escalating situations. But the state-sanctioned overreaction to words on pages combined with Florida’s new law allowing concealed carry of handguns without training or a permit is more than we can handle.