The following editorial published on March 11 in the Tampa Bay Times:
Hillsborough County, Florida’s fast-growing suburbs in the south and east face many problems. A rogue library system isn’t among them. We’re not sure where Michael Owen, a newly-elected Republican county commissioner, is going with this campaign. But no one should want Hillsborough to reprise an ugly chapter by entangling itself anew in America’s culture wars.
Owen said last week that he wants parents to know what their kids are reading at the public library. He wants to give parents the opportunity to prevent their youngsters from accessing material in the adults section and from checking out “controversial books dealing with sexuality.”
Parents, he said, are entitled to “trust their children are not getting fed garbage, basically.” He also wants the county’s 30-branch library system to drop its affiliation with the American Library Association, saying the nonprofit “has clearly gone radical.”
To parents who want to be more involved with their child, we say more power to you. Many library patrons would be thrilled to see more parents accompanying children to the library. But does Owen have any evidence that Hillsborough libraries are feeding “garbage” to children? Or is that just a drive-by smear meant to create a boogeyman and justify a political talking point?
Owen traces his criticism of the national library association to a tweet from the group’s incoming president, who described herself as a Marxist after she won the post last year. How that justifies leaving a national organization that promotes literacy, dates to 1876 and boasts nearly 50,000 members is anybody’s guess.
At a time when government, civic institutions and even facts themselves have come under withering partisan attack, our libraries have become more important than ever. Their solemn place as safe spaces for truth and learning help nurture our kids, making for stronger citizens, stronger families and stronger communities. There are few better places for a child to spend time, and fewer worse places to make a political scapegoat.
Owen asked the staff to report back on the county’s status as a member of the American Library Association and the impacts of withdrawing from the group. He also asked for a report on whether minors can check out materials from the library’s adults section and whether parents can have an opt-out provision barring a child’s access to adult materials.
We’ll see how this plays out, but it’s a slippery slope when politicians start questioning the content of libraries and access to them. It revives memories from the dark days when another Republican commissioner from east Hillsborough raised concerns in 2005 over a gay pride display at a regional library, sparking years of bitterness in this community, and damaging the image and functioning of county government.
Returning to those times is not anything anyone needs.