PEN America is expressing concern about a new bill passed by the Kentucky legislature this month, which critics say will politicize county library boards.
In a move that has alarmed library supporters, SB 167—which came back from the dead last week with a dramatic veto override—will, according to the Lexington Herald Leader, empower local politicians to “appoint whomever they want to library boards," as well as potentially "block major library spending.”
The bill appeared to be dead after Kentucky governor Andy Beshear vetoed it, and the Kentucky House of Representatives fell short of the necessary votes to override. But in a surprise maneuver last week, the override measure was revived. Given a second shot, the Kentucky House narrowly voted to override Beshear’s veto, carrying the measure into law. The law is scheduled to take effect in January 2023.
"Though often unheralded as such, public libraries are the beating heart of democracy, making access to the universe of knowledge and information open and equitable for all," said Summer Lopez, senior director of free expression programs at PEN America, in a statement. "At a moment when book bans are sweeping the nation, this effort to hand power to politicians to wield vast control over libraries in Kentucky should be viewed as a massive alarm bell. These attempts to politicize decisions about what information the public can access and what books they can or can’t read, pose a direct threat to the freedom to read.”
John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary, an organization that supports local libraries, agrees.
"This bill breaks with more than a tradition or practice of non-political library appointments. It breaks faith with the citizens of Kentucky to have no fear or favor in how decisions are made to provide access through libraries," Chrastka told PW. "The provisions in the bill to allow libraries to buy property and lease it for educational purposes is the dark heart of this legislation. There is something very troubling about it and Kentucky voters should pay attention to who championed this legislation, and why."
Chrastka went on to describe 2022 as the worst year for proposed and passed state legislation in generations. And he singled out the Kentucky bill. "The political chicanery that was used to pass this bill, after the Governor's veto was legally and procedurally sustained, is a raw example of how a political minority is railroading their anti-access, anti-education, and anti-library agendas through."
Kentucky Republicans told reporters the issue is fiscal “accountability,” pointing out that most of Kentucky’s public library boards can levy taxes and should therefore “answer to someone elected by voters.” But critics say the bill is in fact a blatant effort to “politicize” library boards, and give unprecedented control over library operations to politicians.
According to the Lexington Herald Leader, library directors in the state are concerned that vesting power in a single partisan political leader will lead to “partisan-skewed boards with ideological interests in the material on library shelves” as well as in terms of programs, services, and library buildings. "Whenever you have political control, it’s going to benefit that politician and their backers,” Pike County library director Louella Allen told the Herald-Leader earlier this month. “It’s not going to be for the benefit of all the population and the needs of the entire population.”