by Carolina Flores
SAN ANTONIO- Libraries are full of resources for people in all walks of life, from technology classes for senior citizens to low cost printing services to college students.
In recent years, libraries have become lightning rods for public debate based on the appropriateness of the books stocked on their shelves and whether they are fit for public consumption, and subsequently if libraries are a worthwhile expenditure of tax dollars at all.
Defunding the public library system or limiting access to certain books is now common political debate. Often, the call to defund libraries is tied to the books they have in circulation, with the withholding of funds an indirect way to get libraries to comply with book bans.
The most recent instance of such measures occurred in April 2023 as the Texas Senate approved Senate Bill 13, a measure that defunds libraries who do not abide by certain processes and procedures for “harmful” or “indecent” material, often with LGBT-positive messages and those concerning race and racism.
This recent trend in defunding extends to a wide array of public services. According to the people who frequent them, libraries offer more than book selection: they offer community and a reprieve from home.
At the San Antonio Central Library, story time is hosted once a week. A woman reads to a circle of children about a frog who rides a bicycle. After the story, the children play around in the children’s area. The kid’s space has a computer and an infant crawling space, and play space with plastic toys and wooden blocks. The moms congregate and talk to each other.
Naema Vides, a mother of two, comes to the library once a week. In her view, libraries can be an equalizing force in neighborhoods with few resources, and giving moms a reprieve to get out of the house and talk to other moms.
“The most valuable thing a library offers is an escape from our house! You know, it’s somewhere that’s safe. It’s air conditioned. You can bring your children and you can socialize with other families.”
The social service aspect is important to Vides, but she also finds the book resources to be invaluable to her growing family, especially with her four-year old daughter’s changing interests.
“Our four year-old goes through phases where she’ll be super interested with a specific type of animal. We’ll check out as many books as we can until she gets out of that phase. And then she’ll go into another niche. Space or so. The library gives her more opportunities to love books, and to love new things.”
“The library gives her more opportunities to love books, and to love new things.”
Stephanie Stokes, a new mother, frequents the library for her daughter, but she recalls coming to the library to study for finals during undergrad.
“I think the library is for individuals and for those with families. I appreciate it more now, but I think it has always been a place to come for me.”
The Central library is located in downtown San Antonio. During the pandemic, the library was closed and has only recently opened its doors this month. There are 3-D printing stations, a recording studio, a Braille literature section, and a large Spanish-language and Latino author collection that spans a good part of the first floor.
Other branches, such as Forest Hills Library, have also been shut for similar amounts of time and are recently opening up amid the political discussion surrounding libraries. During the pandemic, the library rented books to those who placed orders online and sometimes delivered them via library van though its locations remained closed.
Kate Simpson, Director of the Children’s Library at the Central Library, is in charge of organizing story time and often interacts with concerned parents over their children’s media consumption and the books they are reading.
When asked about the book bans, Simpson says that the San Antonio Public Library (SAPL) system has been thankfully spared the outrage but that doesn’t mean she is not watchful of any developments.
“Yes, that is concerning. Thankfully, It has mostly affected the school libraries. We have a system in place where people can challenge a book, and we look into making a decision of whether to keep it or not.”
And while it is true that SAPL has evaded defunding measures, smaller county Texas library systems have been heavily targeted. Llano County recently held a vote on whether to close all of its library branches entirely concerning a decision on banned books.
In another threat to the library system, there is also the question of emerging popular streaming services such as Audible that are frequently heralded as free market library alternatives. In order to popularize its audiobook services and increase demand, the library hosts an audio book borrowing service through the Libby app where users can rent audiobooks from their phones. This makes renting audio books equally accessible as those with an Audible account, instead of formerly having to visit the library to get the CDs.
Every September, SAPL has a week celebrating Banned Books and its website directs concerned citizens to report book censorship. There are many threats to the library system today, but the SAPL system continues its services, pandemic or not, and withstanding the political debate.