Proposed Missouri Rule Creates Wedge Between Libraries, Secretary of State

Missouri Secretary of State John R. (Jay) Ashcroft is receiving pushback from library leaders and staff, including the director of Ashcroft’s hometown library, in response to a rule proposed in October 2022 aiming to protect minors from inappropriate material.

Photo of Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft  
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft

Missouri Secretary of State John R. (Jay) Ashcroft is receiving pushback from library leaders and staff, including the director of Ashcroft’s hometown library, in response to a rule proposed in October 2022 aiming to protect minors from inappropriate material.

The “Library Certification Requirement for the Protection of Minors” proposes that the state library shall not distribute funds to certain libraries unless they certify in writing that they meet the following requirements:

  • The libraries have or will adopt “a written, publicly accessible collection development policy addressing how selections are made in considering the appropriateness for the age and maturity level of any minor”;
  • The libraries have or will adopt “a written, publicly accessible policy allowing any minor’s parent or guardian to determine what materials and access will be available to a minor,” with libraries prohibited from knowingly granting a minor access to any material not approved by a minor’s parent or guardian;
  • No age-inappropriate materials in any form, as defined by the library’s collection development policy, shall be knowingly displayed in areas designated by the library “as containing materials predominantly for minors”;
  • No event or presentation shall be held at the library without an age-appropriate designation attached to any publication, website, or advertisement relating to it;
  • The library has or will adopt a written, publicly accessible library materials challenge policy that enables anyone to dispute or challenge age-appropriate designations, with results disclosed to the public and published on the library’s website.

The rule would prohibit state funds to be used in Missouri’s 160 public libraries “to purchase or acquire materials in any form that appeal to the prurient interest of any minor.” Administrative rules are developed by a state agency or department to implement programs and statutes enacted by the general assembly.

In response, the Missouri Library Association (MLA) issued a statement stating it considers the proposed rule “an infringement on the professional judgment of librarians, and an effort to further stoke division in the communities that libraries serve.”

The statement goes on to say, “Libraries support access to information and ideas. The placement of books and materials in libraries is something that should be left up to people with training and experience in the profession of librarianship.”

It also claims that the proposed changes place an “undue burden on small and urban libraries by undermining not only their sense of agency but their ability to access information. The libraries who are most in need of state funding and assistance are also the most at risk under the proposed change.”

The public had the opportunity to provide input on the rule during a 30-day period from November 15 through December 15, 2022, during which 18,000 comments were submitted. The proposal is slated to go the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR), a legislative committee that examine rules and regulations filed by state agencies, by February. The rule—which would determine how state funds are distributed—could be in place, after being approved by the legislature, by March or April.



The proposal has frayed what had been a cordial relationship between Missouri libraries and the secretary of state. Library leaders and employees say they have felt blindsided by the proposed changes, although critics within the library community have been careful to temper their public objections by also referencing Ashcroft’s support of libraries. Ashcroft says the rule has been misrepresented.

Mary Beth Revels, director of the St. Joseph Public Library, told LJ, “I think his heart is in the right place. And he has been such a supporter of public libraries since he became secretary of state.” However, she added, “This is really difficult for all of us.”

The rule is vague as written, Revels noted, and seems to take away from parents the power to control what their children read, opening the door to censorship. “If somebody says, ‘Well, that’s an inappropriate book for my five-year-old, it may be OK for somebody else’s five-year-old.”

“We all have policies in place that allow parents to make the decision for what their child should read,” she said. “But the way that this rule is written, it seems that someone could come in and say, ‘Well, this is an age-inappropriate book. Nobody gets to check that out.’ And that’s not fair. We want parents to be able to control what their children read, not one person be able to censor a book because they feel it’s not age-appropriate.”

The majority of Missouri public libraries already have collection development policies in place, Revels pointed out. These include policies that address the purchase of materials for different ages, public services policies that state it is the parent’s responsibility to decide what their child can check out, and library materials challenge policies.

“We’re between a rock and a hard place as public librarians in Missouri,” she said. “When intellectual freedom is on the line, how do we not say, ‘That’s not OK.’ We have to have materials for everybody in our communities. But at the same time, I feel like we lost the support of the Secretary of State.” Ashcroft requests money for public libraries from the state legislature, and the Missouri state librarian reports to his office. “It’s going to be a tough year for public libraries in Missouri,” she added.



Ashcroft considers himself a friend of libraries. On his website, he writes that he has worked closely with members of the state legislature “to secure resources vital to better serve Missouri, including library funding.”

Over the past five years, it says, he was able to administer more than $9 million in grant funding “to help expand library access and improve resources.” In 2021 the Missouri State Library, a division within his office, partnered with Gale, part of Cengage Group, to provide Excel High School, an online program that gives adults the opportunity to earn a high school diploma through their local library.

In an interview with Library Journal, Ashcroft touted his record on libraries, saying, “I use a lot of political capital to help libraries.”

He maintains that the media has miscommunicated some of the aspects of the rule, pointing out that while people are talking about censorship and book banning, it doesn’t mention either.

The rule sets up a rubric that does not ban any book, he said, “But it does require there to be written, publicly-accessible policies, so that patrons have visibility and transparency, and parents can be in charge of what their kids [check] out.”

At the same time, Ashcroft feels it gives libraries local control. The rule is written so that every library writes their own policies, he. noted. “I didn’t tell what their policy had to say. I just said, ‘You have to address this.’ But how you address it in Kansas City is going to be different from how you address it in St. Louis or McDonald County or Clark County.”

Ashcroft is now in the process of reading the public comments.” He said he hopes they will provide ideas to improve the rule. So far, he noted, the reaction has been mixed. “A lot of librarians have read news reports and said, ‘We don’t want you banning books.’”

Despite Revels’s assertion, Ashcroft said, “There are libraries in Missouri that do not have these policies right now.”

He added, “If libraries are saying we don’t need this, all libraries already do this, I know that’s not true,” he said. “My sense is that the policies will vary by library district.”

Legislators would not fund libraries that they believe are pushing pornography to children, he said. He also stated that people around the state were voicing concerns about materials in libraries and felt that when they said something, they were summarily dismissed.

One of the motivating factors behind drafting of the rule was to prevent problems that have cropped up elsewhere, Ashcroft said. “I looked at doing something like this as a prophylactic to maybe stop us from having some of the problems and concerns that have happened in other states.”

A personal element also entered into his decision to draft the rule. Ashcroft said his wife expressed concern about the display of a book near the children’s play area at his family’s local library, the Missouri River Regional Library in Jefferson City. He said it would have put the display in the line of sight of his five-year-old child. “When she mentioned it to the staff,” he said, “the staffer said, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do about it.’”



Another alarm was raised when he attended a library directors’ meeting in the Columbia area and they discussed how to handle challenges over materials.

“What I said was, ‘Look, you just need to make sure you’re representing your district,’” he told LJ, making the point that libraries use taxpayer dollars, and need to be responsive to that fact. He described one librarian responding, “No, I have the authority and the responsibility to put whatever I think needs to be in the library there.”

The same librarian told him, “‘I have to have something that covers everybody in my district,’” Ashcroft recalled. “I said, ‘That’s not true. You don’t have books on how to be a child molester in your library.’… One of the library directors said, ‘That’s because [publishers] won’t publish them.’”

The conversation, Ashcoft added, “made me say, ‘Something has to be done.’” While he does not think the director he spoke with is representative of all directors in Missouri, “All it takes is one librarian like that to cause problems for every other library in the state that wants public funding,” he said. “And I want our libraries to get public funding. I believe our libraries are just as much a part of education as our schools are.”

Claudia Young, director of the Missouri River Regional Library whose term as MLA president ended at the close of 2022, said of the rule, “We feel it’s unnecessary. We have collection development policies and processes for reconsideration in place.” The rule also places libraries in the uncomfortable position of acting in loco parentis, she said—the responsibility of a child’s reading rests with the parents or guardian, not the library.

Aspects of the rule that address the placement of materials could place an administrative burden on libraries, she said. “There are libraries where all the materials are on the same floor,” she said. “Having to potentially renovate or rearrange collections can be time consuming and expensive.”

Young said one of the main reasons the library profession opposes this rule is because “we see it as an infringement on patrons' right to read, the core principle of librarianship.”

One of the major problems with the rule is the use of such terms as “prurient,” she noted—a term she has discussed with Ashcroft, who was willing to consider replacing it. “I think we’re all very perplexed about these books of prurient interest,” she said. “He won’t really say what books he’s talking about. He doesn’t want to give us a title list.” She also said that when talking about books of prurient interest, it’s important to note that the rule goes further than simply pointing to them by restricting them and tying state funding to that definition.

“There is nothing here that bans books,” Ashcroft told LJ. “The reaction from librarians has been overwrought.” He added, “There have been a lot of citizens who have reached out to me and said, ‘I really like what you are doing.’”

Young believes it would have been better for Ashcroft to have consulted with librarians before rolling out the ruling, which would have been a good time to solicit feedback.

“I have not lost sight of all the good things the secretary of state has done for libraries while he has been in office. And I thought that he would come to us with this information ahead of time,” she said. “We were blindsided as a profession by this proposed ruling and I know he said he’s disappointed that we haven’t come to him and talked about this, especially directors. And as a profession, we’re equally disappointed that he didn’t come to us ahead of time to talk about what he was thinking.

“We feel it’s unnecessary and an overreach by state government, and we do want it to go away,” Young added. “But I got the impression from speaking with him in December that it wasn’t going to go away. He mentioned that the legislature might take it up and it would be in our best interests to work with him.”

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