On the Books: Library Legislation 2024 | Censorship

Freedom to read issues are generating legislation—both library-adverse and library-protective—across the country.

Freedom to read issues are generating legislation—both library-adverse and library-protective—across the country

Iowa’s 2024 legislative session lasts 100 days, and it’s a busy and nervous time for Julie Finch and Sam Helmick, leaders of the Iowa Library Association (ILA). Many of their colleagues across the country know just how they feel.

Starting in January, Iowa lawmakers introduced five library-adverse bills. These are defined by the American Library Association (ALA) as “impairing the ability of libraries, their staff, and library boards to acquire and provide diverse materials, resources, and programming.” As ILA’s president and chair of governmental affairs, respectively, it’s Finch and Helmick’s responsibility to monitor the progress of these bills and choose how and where to deploy advocacy resources.

At a time when book challenges across the country are at their highest level ever, library professionals nationwide are fending off a growing number of threats initiated by state legislators. Many library supporters lack sufficient time and training to do so, but out of necessity this is the political terrain they currently navigate. As Helmick says, “I think that advocacy and lobbying is a 365-day job right now.”

In 2023, Iowa passed a property tax overhaul with bipartisan support that sunsets funding levies for 97 of the state’s 543 libraries, according to Finch. This year, the ILA backed a new state House bill that would have restored these funding mechanisms, but it ground to a halt when two of three subcommittee members—both Republicans—declined to endorse it. “It really illustrates how we are fighting a two-front war,” says Helmick. “We are being distracted by a culture war while we’re also fighting a class one.”



Iowa’s library community has had plenty of company in nervously watching as library-adverse bills advance in state legislatures. Such proposals have been introduced nationally at “unprecedented rates” in 2023 and 2024, according to ALA. As of press time, however, just 4 percent of such bills proposed this year have passed. EveryLibrary, a nonpartisan political action committee for libraries that offers pro bono consulting and support, tracked 123 “bills of concern spread over 31 states; five have been signed into law.

On the positive side, EveryLibrary Associate Director Peter Bromberg says, 71 other bills proposed in 2024 qualify as “pro-library”—created to safeguard the freedom to read and the work of libraries. So far, three of those have become state law, and three more are awaiting their governor’s signature.

In 2023, of 157 library-adverse bills EveryLibrary tracked, 22 passed. Two more were adopted and vetoed by governors. Seven pro-library bills were signed into law.

EveryLibrary breaks down library-adverse bills into eight categories that would:

  • criminalize libraries and expose library workers to civil penalties;
  • pre-empt established First Amendment rights;
  • establish book rating systems;
  • mandate restrictive policies on collection or materials;
  • limit access to school library databases;
  • establish “onerous” parental notification procedures;
  • outlaw teaching of “divisive” concepts; and
  • lead to closure or defunding of libraries.

This illustrates the myriad avenues of attack employed by lawmakers and the extent to which libraries, should they lack an organized and persistent defense, can be vulnerable.

“In some ways, this has been a wakeup call,” says Bromberg. “Maybe some good will come of this in the long term, in that we’re going to have a new generation of librarians who realize that we don’t have the luxury of saying that we’re not going to be involved politically.”



While many library-adverse bills don’t become law, the ones that do can exact a heavy toll.

Every year, the Boise State University School of Public Service conducts a public policy survey of Idaho residents. Among its findings for 2024, 69 percent trust public libraries and librarians to choose the books made available to patrons.

“That’s a high number,” says Lance McGrath, president of the Idaho Library Association. “Any politician would kill for an approval rating of 69 percent.”

But in one high-profile legislative outcome this spring, the other 31 percent appeared to wield the most political clout. On April 10, Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed House Bill 710 into law after a three-year campaign by Republicans in the legislature. The bill requires public and school libraries to remove materials deemed harmful to children or face civil liability, and lets children or their parents who obtain materials deemed harmful to minors file a legal claim against the library those materials came from.

“Most concerning is that Idaho law includes ‘any homosexual act’ in its definition of pornography,” notes Bromberg, “which could lead to a wholesale purge of LGBTQ+ books and voices from the shelves of Idaho libraries.”

“Libraries have no idea what to do with this law,” McGrath says. “It is very disruptive and confusing. Libraries across the state are currently contacting attorneys regarding policy and procedure, which comes at a cost to Idaho taxpayers.” 

It’s not only red state legislatures that are weighing library-adverse bills; in 2024 Minnesota has seen 10, for example. But they are most frequently introduced in states such as Oklahoma (12 restrictive library bills), Missouri and South Carolina (nine each), Louisiana (seven), and Idaho (five). Alabama’s HB 385, similar to HB 710 in Idaho, recently passed the state House 72–28 and is awaiting a third reading in the Senate Children and Youth Health Committee.

Texas, on the other hand, had no bills of concern introduced this year. The reason? Its legislature can only meet to pass bills in “regular session,” during odd-numbered years. In 2023, Lone Star State lawmakers considered a whopping 32 library-adverse bills. Only one passed: House Bill 900, which required book vendors to rate all materials based on references to or depictions of sex before selling them to schools. A federal judge later granted a temporary injunction against the law after a group of bookstores and bookseller associations sued the state on the grounds that its “vague and overbroad” terms violate the First and 14th amendments.



West Virginia lawmakers introduced eight bills flagged by EveryLibrary as library-adverse; the nonprofit said all could potentially criminalize librarianship. None passed, and the legislative session—which lasted a mere 60 days—ended March 9.

“It’s a fast and furious 60 days,” says Sarah Palfrey, chair of the West Virginia Library Association (WVLA) legislative committee. “One of the benefits of the 60-day legislature is they can only do so many things. There are a lot of bills that get introduced that don’t ever go anywhere.”

But some do. The WVLA mustered most of its advocacy this session against House Bill 4654, which sought to remove exemptions from criminal liability for schools, public libraries, and museums relating to distribution and display of “obscene material” to minors. The bill passed the House on February 16 and went to the Senate, where it sat pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee, unacted upon, with 294 other pieces of legislation. The legislature adjourned March 9, leaving HB 4654 and many others dead in their tracks. Palfrey, although relieved, says the bill made more progress “than we were comfortable with.”



Both ALA and EveryLibrary help state library associations advocate for, or against, legislation. This often pits them against well-funded adversaries that work to shape policy, recruit elected officials to sponsor bills, and tap into a network of supporters for action.

The Idaho Family Policy Center, a conservative Christian organization, not only mobilized some 3,000 residents to contact the governor’s office in support of HB 710—it crafted much of the bill’s language. Based on the makeup of the state’s legislature, it was preaching to the converted: 28 of 35 state senators are Republicans, and that GOP majority is even wider in the House, where Democrats are outnumbered 59–11.

Similarly, the conservative group Citizens for a New Louisiana backed that state’s House Bill 777, which prescribed criminal penalties for anyone spending public funds on ALA services or membership. Violators would face up to two years in prison and a $1,000 fine. The bill is currently listed as “involuntarily deferred in committee.”

National organizations that back restrictive library measures, including No Left Turn in Education, State Policy Network, Congressional Prayer Caucus, and Alliance Defending Freedom, often do so as part of their fight against diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) frameworks or other measures they see as liberal causes. Libraries are “easy targets in that we’re unable to defend ourselves as professionals other than through our state associations and unions,” notes Bromberg.

The proliferation of library-adverse bills, Bromberg says, is directly linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. As grassroots engagement galvanized around issues such as school closures, lockdowns, and vaccine mandates, an infrastructure emerged in the form of citizens’ organizations, Facebook groups, and vocal opposition at public forums.

The public health crisis waned, and schools reopened, but that right-wing infrastructure stayed in place, Bromberg adds. Activists saw their numbers grow and their messaging become stronger—only now, he says, the issues have shifted to library-related matters such as collection decisions, fears over “inappropriate materials,” and calls to strip public funding.

“People were angry, they were already connected, they were already pissed off at the schools and distrustful of government,” Bromberg says. “They turned their attacks [toward libraries]. We weren’t ready for that.”

Adds Helmick, “You never have a censorship challenge without it closely being followed by a funding challenge. It’s much easier to dismantle public institutions that are publicly funded once you’ve questioned their humanity.”

ALA itself has become the target of library-adverse bills. Georgia’s Senate Bill 390 would have forced all public and school libraries to sever ties with the association, and remove the state requirement that only certified librarians work in public libraries. State Sen. Larry Walker says he sponsored the legislation after learning his library accepted a $20,000 grant to diversify its collection from ALA, which he has called a “Marxist and socialist” organization. The bill passed the state Senate by a 33–20 vote, moved over to the House, and died there in March.



Far fewer library-protective bills are currently under consideration. New York state has considered six, while California proposed just one. In a state that faced no library-adverse bills this session, Vermont Library Association President Oceana Wilson mustered most of her lobbying apparatus on behalf of Senate Bill 220. The omnibus legislation would, among other items, demand fair contracts between libraries and ebook vendors, make threatening public librarians a criminal offense, require libraries to have a policy in place for reviewing challenged materials, protect the privacy of patrons ages 12 and older, and prohibit schools from removing materials as a result of the identity of authors or characters being challenged.

In essence, the bill is a laundry list of everything libraries feel an urgency to codify. SB 220 breezed through the Vermont State Senate by a vote of 23–6 on March 27 and passed the House in early May.

Similar events are unfolding in Delaware, where lawmakers are hoping to pass House Bill 299, the Delaware Libraries for All Act. It directs the Delaware Library Consortium to develop and adopt policies on collection development and other services to “ensure equitable access and the right to read for all Delawareans.” But as Delaware State Librarian Annie Norman points out, “This isn’t going to fix anything; it’s asking to codify what the libraries are [already] doing.”

The bill, crafted with EveryLibrary, was the first piece of legislation introduced in the current session. HB 299 passed the state House 30–5 (with six absent) on March 26, and moved to the Senate, where it was assigned to the Elections and Government Relations Committee but, at press time, had been removed.

On April 25, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore signed that state’s Freedom to Read Act, which explicitly bars the exclusion of library materials due to “partisan, ideological, or religious disapproval.” It also gives the state library board “general direction and control” of policy. Libraries must comply with provisions in order to receive state funding.

“We’re not telling anyone what to read,” Democrat Dana Jones, a member of Maryland’s House of Delegates and the bill’s chief sponsor, says. “The people are choosing. This is a statewide bill for everyone to protect literature, libraries, and librarians.”



Less than 3 percent of library-adverse bills have survived to see a governor’s signature so far in 2024, a comforting statistic. But 2025 will likely see similar legislation introduced across the United States. And why not? Sometimes, Bromberg says, the goal isn’t even to create a law. Some state lawmakers see advantage in introducing “performative” library-related bills, he notes. It’s a way for politicians to virtue-signal a brand of conservatism potential voters might like.

Why do most library-adverse bills fail? Reasons can vary from state to state. Palfrey, in West Virginia, says the brief 60-day session forces legislators to prioritize bills. Sixty days leave less time for proposals that might be designed more as a way of grabbing a party-friendly headline than crafting viable legislation.

Finch takes the idea further. “Some [bills] are just the pet project of one person,” she says. In small Iowa towns, a single person’s opinion can be enough to coax a representative into writing adverse library legislation.

Lawmakers sometimes tamp down bills within their own party that seem likely to spur legal challenges if adopted, says ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom Executive Director Deborah Caldwell-Stone. Lawsuits can mean hefty and prolonged legal expenses for states.

Adds Bromberg, most library-adverse proposals that fail are simply not good bills. “State legislators look at each other,” he says. “They look at what they’re doing in other states. They copy each other. There’s a lot of cut-and-paste legislation.”



Advocacy is seen by many as the “quiet” part of an effective strategy against library-adverse legislation. Advocates try, most of all, to remind influential officials how libraries may have enriched their lives. “People back winners,” says Iowa’s Helmick. “Advocacy is important, and talking about how we’re winners is important.”

EveryLibrary works with state library associations to help build coalitions locally or strengthen existing ones. It offers behind-the-scenes help with messaging or enlisting key
allies such as vendors or academic institutions.

State library associations can support coalition-building—recruiting educators, former librarians, and residents concerned with civil rights for targeted campaigns. “We don’t control or direct or dictate anything,” Idaho’s McGrath says. “We advise, and we’re experts in the field of librarianship. We have an understanding of the implications of any legislation that would pass, and what the consequences would be of passage. We try to do a good job of providing that reference service.”

Helmick says they work to recruit sympathetic lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. But they mostly credit library workers for learning to “organize, activate and engage” during the last two or three years. “That’s what leaders should do,” Helmick says. “Resource, advocate, and support people to do the work. Train the trainers. Then celebrate them and encourage them.”

This year, with Iowa’s library community reeling from the tax reform bill, ILA tried but failed to garner support for a countermeasure, Senate Study Bill 3131. “It just didn’t go very far,” Finch says. “But the fact that we got pro-library legislation even introduced in this supermajority did feel like the teeny-tiniest of wins.”

There were other fights in the state. House Study Bill 678, adopted by a subcommittee in February, would allow city councils to oversee and change hiring practices of library directors and to use certain library tax money without a referendum. ILA members worked to squash that proposal, Finch says, and it went nowhere.

Palfrey cites engagement with legislators and enlisting the help of library supporters in West Virginia as a big reason why all eight library-adverse bills failed to pass. “Talking is what solves all our problems, she says. “Sometimes it feels like it causes them, but it’s also the only solution.”

Bob Warburton is a journalist living in Rockland County, NY. He has contributed news stories for LJ for more than a decade, and also works as a print and digital planner for Gannett Co., Inc.



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