Editorial: Ashcroft’s ‘pornographic’ rule has Missouri libraries confused about what kids can see

One of the best things about childhood is getting to go to the library. Oh, sure, public libraries are for adults too — but for kids, they’re often magical. It’s not just all the thousands of books, but the stories within those books that spark the imagination. Getting a first library card is a rite of passage, a step into a wider world, a claiming of one’s own emerging identity.

For some Missouri kids, though, obtaining that first card has become slightly more difficult.

The board of St. Charles City-County Library in eastern Missouri last month approved a new rule that teens under the age of 18 must bring a parent or guardian with them to sign up for a library card. (Previously, 16- and 17-year-olds could sign up without a parent.) That probably won’t be a problem for most families, but for some young people whose parents are too busy with work — or who can’t be bothered — the new rule will be an impediment to their full enjoyment of the library’s offerings.

Librarians usually prefer to expand rather than narrow access to their materials. So what happened?

What happened is Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, who in May implemented a new rule threatening to pull funding from state’s public libraries over providing materials considered pornographic or obscene to minors. “Yes, we want to make sure libraries have the resources and materials they need for their constituents,” Ashcroft said in May, “but we also want our children to be ‘children’ a little longer than a pervasive culture may often dictate.”

That goal sounds potentially praiseworthy. In practice, though, the new rule has proven confusing and vague to Missouri’s librarians — What materials violate the policy? Does it count if minors are accessing a library’s digital services from their home? — and put them on defense, resulting in policy changes like the one in St. Charles.

They’re treading cautiously.

“Libraries throughout Missouri are taking various approaches in an attempt to comply with the rule,” said Kimberly Moeller, president-elect of the Missouri Library Association. “Many libraries have reached out to lawyers and to the secretary of state’s office for guidance, but there has been very little available, so each library is doing their best to comply.”

While the association is trying to help local libraries, she said, it “can’t give much advice to our colleagues since the rule is so vague and open to interpretation.”

The good news locally is that the Kansas City Public Library remains open to all ages. There is still no minimum age here to obtain a library card — one of the few big libraries in the state with such open access.

“There are many factors that parents/guardians may take into consideration when or if they’d like their child(ren) to have their own card and those differ from family to family,” the library says on its website. “Therefore, the library does not presume to impose age restrictions.”

But Ashcroft’s rule has produced some changes locally. The library now offers a form that parents can fill out to deactivate their child’s library card. And another new procedure allows patrons to request an “age designation” for some materials and exhibits — perhaps pushing items out of view of the children’s areas of the library.

So far, no one has utilized the new forms. But it is easy to see how they could be used or abused by the censorious-minded. Hopefully that won’t happen.

“Our goal is to have as open access as possible for teenagers and children,” said Crystal Faris, deputy director of youth and family engagement at KCPL.

We previously expressed concern that Ashcroft’s new rule opens the door to book bans in Missouri. That’s still a problem, but the real effects may be more subtle if no less pernicious: A slight narrowing of library access here, a bit of self-censorship there.

Missouri’s libraries are still magical. There is a danger, though, that the light is starting to dim.