Delaware Libraries for All Act moves forward

a stack of three books with rainbow ribbon bookmarks is on the table. Concept back to school, freedom, independence. Right to read.
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Delaware has joined the growing roster of states where state legislators are attempting to protect libraries from right-wing harassment. On March 26, the Delaware Libraries for All Act (HB 299) passed its first major hurdle when the State House passed the measure by a vote of 30-5.

“In our current climate, where libraries are under attack by a small but vocal minority, it’s crucial to recognize their significance as symbols of our shared values,” Delaware State Rep. Cyndie Romer, who introduced the bill on Jan. 25, told PGN after the bill’s passage. “They embody the principles of equal opportunity, universal education, and the democratization of information. Libraries have always been among the most visited public service institutions and measures like HB 299, which ensures our libraries are accessible to all, are more important than ever as we work to keep it this way.”

The Act will now be referred to the Senate where, according to protocol, it will be assigned to committee before being taken up by the full chamber. According to Jenevieve Worley, spokesperson for the Democratic caucus, the process may take a few weeks to get started as the Delaware legislature will be taking a break.

The Libraries for All Act would strengthen the right to read by the novel tactic of designating public libraries as a place of public accommodation. This would put libraries under the aegis of Delaware’s Equal Accommodations Law. The Delaware Library Consortium would then need to develop and adapt policies which define equitable access and the right to read for all state residents, immunizing Delaware’s public libraries from efforts by conservatives to remove diversity and inclusivity-related materials or books with LGBTQ+ themes.

In a statement provided to PGN, Romer, who is also the bill’s primary sponsor, explained her rationale for introducing the Act, why she feels inclusivity is so important, and why libraries should be protected from censorship. 

“Libraries offer more than books,” she said. “They offer digital resources, host community events and workshops, and provide access to government services, becoming central to communities. By safeguarding libraries as inclusive spaces, we ensure that everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, age, or background, has the opportunity to access information and resources. Our State Librarians advocate for intellectual freedom and defend our access to information against censorship, ensuring diverse perspectives.”

Romer went on to address conservative concerns about “protecting children” from “harmful influences,” a major reason why right-wingers say they pursue a book banning agenda.

“I think book banning often reflects adult anxieties and ideological conflicts about societal values,” she said. “An inclusive education, which encompasses a diversity of experiences and viewpoints, can play a vital role in preparing children to engage in society. I also trust our State Librarians, directed by Annie Norman, who has an M.S., Library & Information Science. I believe in their expertise and judgment to appropriately curate and categorize materials, ensuring that content is accessible in a manner that respects both the developmental stages of children and the diverse values of our community.”

Redefining libraries as public accommodations that are legally required to serve the needs of the entire community is a new tactic. Delaware is the first state to employ this approach in an effort to protect libraries and the right to read.

“That would make sure that we could not be inundated with all kinds of bans on materials in the libraries that we have been seeing all over the country because we would be considered a place of public accommodation,” said Kay Bowes, president of the Friends of Delaware Libraries in an interview with Delaware Public Media. “So there could be no banning or very little.”

The bill’s progress thus far has been rapid. It was debated by the committee at its March 12 meeting, and was advanced out of committee without opposition. It was immediately put on the ready list for a vote by the full House, which addressed it relatively quickly. Whether its progress through the Senate will be similarly swift remains to be seen.

One shortfall with the Libraries for All Act is that it will not protect school libraries from book banning or right-wing efforts to curtail programming, as the wording in the bill specifies that it applies to public libraries.

The library advocacy groups the American Library Association (ALA) and PEN America have both recorded no attempts to restrict access to books in 2023 in either Delaware’s public libraries or school libraries. However, both organizations warn that those numbers probably do not reflect reality. 

Both ALA and PEN have received numerous anecdotal accounts of book bans happening and not being reported officially. The organizations also admit that the official numbers do not include rampant silent censorship; that is, questionable materials and books unofficially being removed from shelves by cautious library workers under pressure from local right-wing activists. Silent censorship is a book banning activity that HB 299 is designed to prevent.

It has also been reported that Connecticut will be joining Delaware as the latest additions to the list of states seeking to legislatively protect their libraries from right-wing attacks.

Newsletter Sign-up