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Library plagued by layoffs & reduced hours after community votes to cut funding over Pride displays

Stack of books on a table in a library
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A community in Arkansas is beginning to feel the effects of a drastic cut to its local library’s budget resulting from conservative backlash over Pride displays.

The Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library (CCJPL) in Jonesboro, Arkansas, has been forced to reduce its hours of operation, cut services, and lay off over a dozen employees. The cut has also had a dramatic impact on the library’s materials budget.

“It’s really sad,” CCJPL director Vanessa Adams told HuffPost. “There are fewer books and fewer e-books, which were really popular.”

According to Dean MacDonald, an advocate for CCJPL, local conservative opposition to Pride displays at the library’s main branch in June 2021 were “a huge catalyst and the main reason why the library was defunded.”

As staff and supporters told HuffPost, the displays, which showcased books by LGBTQ+ authors, different Pride flags, and children’s books featuring LGBTQ+ characters, were similar to those the library had mounted for years. But amid the recent nationwide push by conservatives to ban and restrict access to books by Black and LGBTQ+ authors, as well as efforts to characterize LGBTQ+ books as pornographic and events like drag queen story hours as a threat to children, CCJPL began receiving complaints about its Pride displays.

David Eckert, who served as the library’s director at the time and later resigned amid the controversy, told KAIT-TV in 2021 that the displays had been up for three weeks before he began receiving complaints. “I’m not exactly sure why there was a problem this year,” he said, “especially because before I started working here, we’ve always put this type of material out every June.”

While Eckert said that the library only received three formal complaints about the displays, compared to 30 emails of support, the backlash grew online and during an August 2021 library board meeting. The controversy mainly focused on displays in the library’s children’s section.

“When the children’s [Pride] display went up, that’s when it really hit the fan,” Adams told HuffPost.

During the August 2021 meeting, a proposal to allow the board to approve future displays and guest speakers failed. Another proposal to allow the board to approve “sensitive material” available at the library also eventually failed by a 4–2 vote.

Ultimately, however, a conservative group managed to get a measure cutting the library’s budget by nearly half onto the November 2022 ballot. While the group, Citizens Taxed Enough, positioned the measure as tax relief, in social media posts it indicated that it had targeted the library’s budget because of the Pride display in the children’s section. It also alleged, without evidence, that children could access pornography at CCJPL.

Adams said that CCJPL was “blindsided” by the measure, which was announced just weeks before the 2022 election, leaving the library and allies like Citizens Defending the Craighead County Library scrambling to get the word out to supporters to vote against it.

The ballot measure passed by just 48 votes in November 2022, and while CCJPL was fully funded through late last year, this past December, the library’s budget committee approved a $2.1 million cut – down to $2.6 compared to the previous year’s $4.7 million budget.

Adams said she has had to lay off 13 library employees across CCJPL’s eight branches and has been unable to replace two who have retired. All but the library’s main branch are now closed on Saturdays, and the library has had to scale back delivery of materials to the elderly and people in long-term care facilities, as well as courier services that bring materials requested by library patrons from one branch to another, HuffPost reports.

Adams, however, remains hopeful. She says the community has stepped up with increased monetary donations, and she hopes to get a measure restoring library funding on next year’s ballot.

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