A battle over what is obscene and what is censorship continues at Midland libraries
As Midland’s Centennial Library opened on a recent Saturday, Midland County Commissioner Dianne Anderson arrived with a few friends to take books out of the public library’s teen section.
She quietly gave out instructions, “Go through a book, read it and if you feel like it needs to be pulled out you pull it out and you show it to me.”
For months, Anderson has spearheaded an effort to restrict books found in the children’s and young adult sections at county libraries that she and her allies deem obscene and inappropriate. Anderson claims she’s not banning books, she just wants to put them out of reach of impressionable readers.
This is her second visit to the library in the last few weeks. She first surprised librarians on Aug. 30 when she led a group of around 12 people into the children’s section during story time to remove dozens of books.
The group took titles like “An ABCs of Equality,” “Antiracist Baby” and “My Two Dads and Me” off library shelves. They were loosely guided by a pre-prepared list with a wide range of titles including many focused on the LGBTQ community, social issues and sex education.
Their picks were stacked on a library cart that was locked in a back room. As of last week, some of those books still haven’t been returned to shelves, according to Midland County Library Director Debbie Garza.
On their return trip in September, Anderson and supporters didn't want to say what they were looking for. One of those present, Cathie Broten, refused to explain why she was there after taking the book “A Court of Silver Flames” off the shelf. “Back off, this is private business!” she exclaimed.
But this is a public library. There is a process in which citizens can request that librarians remove or recategorize material and these self-appointed censors don’t have the authority to remove books on a whim.
What’s happening in Midland is part of a larger national trend and one that’s especially big in Texas, according to the American Library Association. In 2022, the association recorded “the highest number of attempted book bans” since the group began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago. The ALA found attempts to restrict books were “unparalleled” with Texas leading the nation.
Just this month, the Lone Star State came in second in a new Pen America report for efforts to ban books in public school libraries. Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed House Bill 900 which aims to keep sexually explicit material out of classrooms. While the law has been put on hold by a federal judge, some residents and officials in Midland have still proposed looking to the law for guidance for managing the collections at public libraries.
On Sept. 11 the Midland County Commissioners discussed Anderson and her group culling through books at Centennial Library — with one official calling her actions “unauthorized raids.”
Referring to herself as a “Pollyanna,” a character in an early 20th-century novel known for being cheerful and optimistic, Anderson said she was only trying to be helpful.
During the meeting, Anderson recounted how she told Library Director Garza, the two of them would review the removed titles “and the court will approve any books that are moved to the adult section.” She continued, “Never thinking that it would be called a raid, what a horrible word to use.”
Anderson said she had to act because she believed library staff were not doing anything about what she calls explicit and offensive material, even after the commission passed a new obscenity policy for local libraries.
“The community standard of what is appropriate for the books in our library was never going to come from our library director,” she said.
The new library obscenity policy states books in the children’s and young adult sections that are deemed obscene under the Texas Penal Code have to be moved to the library’s adult section.
However, according to this definition, to be considered obscene a work has to be sexually explicit and “lack serious literary, artistic, political, and scientific value.” Garza, as well as the county’s attorney, have previously stated there is no evidence any books in the county’s collection meet that standard.
That didn’t stop over a dozen Midlanders from demanding the county do more to shield young readers from inappropriate material. Midland County Judge Terry Johnson agreed that books he believes are pornographic needs to be restricted to the adult section.
“Nothing’s been banned. Nothing’s been burnt.” He continued, “We’re just saying that we don’t want our young people exposed to some of the things they’re exposed to.”
That includes books about sex education, surviving sexual assault, as well as works about drag queens and sexual identity.
Shirley Robinson, the executive director of the Texas Library Association, said even if officials are not technically banning books, when policies and procedures are ignored to recategorize or move books off shelves — it’s censorship.
“It’s a clear violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment,” she said, “When you start removing books from an area or put them in a locked room or creating barriers for people to access information, that's when you start violating those rights,” she explained.
She said groups trying to censor books is not new, but restricting works written for children and teens to the adult section is a strategy activists are using more.
In Montgomery County north of Houston, officials barred anyone from checking out materials deemed “explicit or questionable.” The City of Abilenealso passed an obscenity law similar to Midland’s this year.
Robinson says groups are working with local governments to censor libraries.
“What we’re seeing are certain groups who are directly working with members of these elected bodies to either go outside or to flagrantly disregard those existing policies or procedures to go in and selectively remove books they don’t personally agree with.”
Heather Bredimus, a mom of four has become a vocal opponent to censorship in Midland. In her opinion, deciding what books children can read is a parent’s responsibility and not the government’s.
“Ultimately it’s my job,” Bredimus said, “If I’m someone who wants to shelter my kids more than the average parent then it’s my responsibility to know what’s in that book.”
She’s repeatedly heard people say they are just trying to protect children, but Bredimus believes this is part of a political agenda.
“I feel like this is a facade [and] the only thing that will stop it are lawsuits unfortunately,” she said.
There are concerns over if and when Midland County will get drawn into an expensive legal battle over its libraries, similar to the one that’s embroiled Llano County in Central Texas since last year. So far no suit has been filed against Midland.
For their part, the majority of the county commissioners remain adamant that what they see as obscene books need to be moved out of the children’s and young adult sections.