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A Kansas City library system has banned LGBTQ Pride book displays in children’s areas

A woman stands between two rows of shelves filled with books. Near her is a cart filled with books. She is placing books on a shelf.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Mid-Continent Public Library has removed adult books, including parenting books, from the teen's and children's sections to comply with Missouri's new library rules.

The new policies are a reaction to rules from Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft that ban libraries from “age-inappropriate” displays for teens and children. Staff of Mid-Continent Public Library say the policies are confusing, and point to a work environment that is not inclusive of LGBTQ staff.

New restrictions on Missouri libraries have led one Kansas City-area library system to ban LGBTQ Pride displays in its children’s and teens’ sections.

The Mid-Continent Public Library said the decision was made to comply with Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s new rules, which forbid libraries from having displays of “age-inappropriate” materials in areas designated for teens and children. If libraries don’t comply, they could lose state funding.

The library will also require that all display signs come from its central office or from marketing program LibraryAware, instead of from individual branches. Adult books, including parenting books, are no longer allowed in children’s areas.

The new policies are outlined in the minutes of the library’s May 16 branch managers’ meeting.

In an email to KCUR, the library said it still has Pride displays in common areas and it strives to make its children’s displays “diverse and inclusive.”

“Our staff work very hard to provide a wide range of services and resources to meet the needs of our diverse customer base,” said MCPL director Aaron Mason in a statement. “Maintaining customer access to this broad collection of resources is our top priority.”

Mid-Continent Public Library serves around 800,000 residents in three Missouri counties — Clay, Platte, and Jackson — reaching areas not served by the Kansas City Public Library system.

But some library employees feel that the new rules send an unwelcoming message to LGBTQ patrons, kids and staff.

“It decreases the accessibility that libraries should be all about,” said Ryan Fleming, a youth librarian at MCPL’s Colbern Road branch in Lee’s Summit.

His branch is removing most display signs, bookmarks and labels on book bundles — packages of books on specific topics curated for children. Fleming says this has caused confusion for library visitors.

“I had a patron… point out that it was confusing that all the signs were gone and it was just piles of books with rubber bands,” Fleming said.

Fleming said one staff member at his branch had made bookmarks with a list of sensitive topics — like puberty, abuse and eating disorders — and where to find books about them. The bookmarks needed frequent replenishment because they were so popular. Now they have been removed completely.

“There’s a great staff here at all of the branches,” Fleming said. “But I feel that these rules aren’t going to make great service easier.”

Confusing new rules

Rows of shelves filled with library books lie on either side of the image. A gray carpet runs down the middle leading to a table where two people are sitting at a round desk studying.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A pair of students work together at a table inside the Mid-Continent Public Library's Colbern Road Library Center in Lee's Summit on Apri 4, 2023.

The secretary of state’s new rules are causing disorder across the library system. Fleming said direction from MCPL leadership has been unclear. Branch managers have interpreted the rules in their own way, leading to inconsistencies and confusion among staff.

“There hasn’t been any direct communication from our senior leadership team down to our staff-level employees,” he said.

Jim Staley, MCPL’s community relations and planning director, says the lack of guidance from Missouri’s Secretary of State on the new rules has been confusing for library leadership as well. The rules needed to be implemented in a short time frame and at one of the library’s busiest times of year.

“This has been very difficult,” he said. “We’re trying to balance complying with the rule and being able to keep that state funding that’s important to us, with making sure we have great access.”

Staley said the effort to restrict library branches from creating their own display signs and bookmarks is not new and the library has been trying to centralize its sign and bookmark creation for several years.

The secretary of state’s rules raised new questions about whether all display signs and bookmarks would have to be labeled with a designated age group, Staley said, but the library determined that it was not a requirement.

LGBTQ materials will still be accessible to patrons, Staley said. Most children’s displays during the summer are supposed to be focused on the theme of the summer reading program. This year’s theme, “All Together Now,” is about inclusion.

“Those displays should be broadly inclusive of all types of books, as long as they’re children’s and youth books,” he said. “There’s no suggestion that we shouldn’t have broadly inclusive materials in the children’s area.”

Another 'kick in the teeth' to LGBTQ staff

A brown sign sits among bushes and flowers. It reads "Mid-Continent Public Library John W. Ferguson Administrative Headquarters"
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
Mid-Continent Public Library's administrative headquarters. The library board voted last year to reduce a voter-approved tax levy that funds library services.

An MCPL staff member, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of professional repercussions, said she felt like senior library leadership was limiting her ability to do her job. Displays on specific topics like LGBTQ issues can help readers find materials that would otherwise be scattered across the whole library, she said.

“It’s very difficult to just find these on the shelf, which is why displays are so important to what we do,” the staff member said.

She feels that not having displays or labels is a demonstration of MCPL’s priorities.

“They’re showing who they care about more,” she said. “They care more about the people that could potentially become aggressive over a display like that than they care about the community that we’re serving.”

The staff member also feels that this is the latest example of a larger work environment that has not been inclusive of LGBTQ staff.

In 2019, library trustee Rita Wiese wrote a letter to a local newspaper criticizing an MCPL program about transgender experiences and accusing the library of promoting “materials and programs that lead children toward being sexually exploited.”

In 2021, some MCPL trustees posted on Facebook, criticizing a library display celebrating banned books. The following year, library director Steve Potter resigned, citing the increasingly conservative nature of the library board of trustees.

And last year, the library's board voted toessentially self-defund, reducing a voter-approved tax levy that serves as the institution's primary source of revenue.

The change was projected to save property owners in the three counties an average of $5 a year, but added up to a $4.3 million reduction in library funding — which staff said would cause a loss in essential services and an increase in wait times.

“This is really just another kick in the teeth to those of us who are a part of that community,” the staff member said.

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