Republican legislators quizzed librarians on the availability of potentially controversial books and pornography during a Friday hearing on a wide-ranging bill to improve health services for kids, which included a provision designed to support libraries that carry books banned elsewhere.
The legislature’s Committee on Children heard testimony on Senate Bill 2, a priority bill sponsored by the Senate Democratic Caucus. Generally, the legislation is designed to fund and expand both mental and physical health programs for Connecticut children as well as take steps to address the continuing mental health repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, much of Friday’s testimony centered around controversial books on the shelves of public libraries. That’s because the legislation also includes a provision that provides incentive grants for so-called “sanctuary libraries.”
The bill defines sanctuary libraries as a town’s central library that carries and makes available any books that have been challenged, banned or censored by people and organizations.
During the hearing, several library officials expressed support for the provision, even if some were unfamiliar with the term, sanctuary library. Douglas Lord, president of the Connecticut Library Association, told the committee that library content decisions needed to be made by librarians rather than people interested in challenging books.
Lord said challenged books are often related to LGBTQ issues or books involving Black, indigenous and people of color.
“Librarians generally, and the Connecticut Library Association, affirms the dignity of all people,” Lord said. “That’s part of what we do as librarians: we see people for who they are. Federal courts have, again and again, affirmed the rights of individuals to make their own choices in public libraries that use public funding.”
Several of the committee’s Republican members were concerned that children may see or be able to borrow explicit material from a public library, especially if that library was incentivized not to ban content.
Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, asked Fairfield Town Librarian Scott Jarzombek what library policy would prevent a child from borrowing a book with sexually explicit material. Jarzombek said residents had to be at least 12 years-old to come to the library without supervision but otherwise could borrow books with a library card.
Mastrofrancesco reacted with disbelief.
“So a 12-year-old could go into your library right now and go into a section, pull out a book that’s explicit sexual content and can bring it and take it out and nobody’s going to question them,” she said.
“They could, yes,” Jarzombek said. “They could.”
“It’s outrageous,” Mastrofrancesco said. “Sorry. It’s not your fault but I think it’s outrageous that they can do that.”
For his part, Jarzombek said there were materials at public libraries that he would not feel comfortable with his children reading. The same could be said about the magazine rack at supermarkets and the aisles of local malls, he said. Still, he cautioned against removing those materials.
“Parents must be provided options and the resources they select and be free to decide what is appropriate for their children, including subjects not everyone is comfortable with,” Jarzombek said. “My concern is when we start removing those items, we’re removing resources that parents can use and are comfortable with to help educate their children,” he added later.
Some lawmakers still had reservations. Rep. Anne Dauphinais, R-Killingly, said she took Jarzombek’s point, but still felt there were things a library could potentially carry that would be inappropriate for children to see.
“There’s pornography, there’s sexually explicit things that parents don’t want their children exposed to — we’re talking about different sections of the library where things would be age-appropriate and not age-appropriate,” Dauphinais said. “If we’re going to do sanctioned libraries, which — I guess I’m understanding it as being very protective of their ability to get any kind of book that the board would agree on.”
Later in the hearing, Lord, who currently works at a library in Newtown, suggested that pornography may not be a pressing issue in libraries.
“No library that I’ve ever worked in stocked pornography,” he said. “There may be sexually explicit sections or, I don’t know, little snippets in some of the adult books but there’s nothing going on like that in any kind of children’s department. The concerns are real but they’re overblown. The book that is most frequently challenged in the United States of America is [the] Harry Potter series. That’s the type of level that we’re looking at.”