Conservatives have made libraries a target of extreme ire over the past several years, as in the moral panic over drag queen story hour events, now common from Idaho to New York. But it’s school libraries that are likely to get an extra level of right-wing scrutiny in the year ahead, thanks to a group born from Moms for Liberty. Courting a child star, former Trump officials, and a tech billionaire as their North Star and potential influencers, “Moms for Libraries” is hoping to entrench itself this year in libraries across the country.
The Moms for Libraries campaign, which appears to have been launched in 2022 but driven into a new gear last month and during the early days of 2023, is part of that much larger and better-known national group Moms for Liberty, whose financial backers are largely unknown and which is organizing conservative women to influence and/or take over school boards. On the surface, Moms for Libraries prompts supporters to purchase copies of books from a handful of small conservative publishers it’s chosen, such as Heroes of Liberty, which released a book in December valorizing Elon Musk. “This month has been an amazing month for freedom, thanks to Elon Musk and the Twitter Files,” a post promoting the book on the publisher’s Facebook page begins. Moms for Libraries said in January that it will be distributing the book to students “across the U.S.,” joining several other titles it’s promoted as ways to inject its agenda into libraries.
Another Moms for Libraries partner, Brave Books, recently used a book by former Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron to fuel a misinformation campaign that libraries are discriminating against Christians. Late in December, Cameron alleged discrimination by the Indianapolis Public Library, which he said refused to host a promotional reading for his book. Cameron had previously complained that if a library hosts drag queen story hours, why won’t it host him?
The Indianapolis library refuted Cameron’s claims, stating that it is their programming staff who organize library events such as story hours, not outside publishers, who are welcome to rent rooms for their own promotional programs. Contrary to Cameron’s statement, Brave Books had rented a room for an event. And indeed, the Indianapolis event went ahead as planned in the rented room. Afterward, Brave Books celebrated by castigating other libraries, posting on Twitter, “No longer will Christians be silent,” and Fox News hosted Cameron, during which he threatened legal action against the library anyway, a victory lap over nothing. Before leaving the library, though, Cameron posed for a duo-selfie with a Moms for Libraries member, who said he offered his thanks to their group.
Catherine Rahimian, founder of Moms for Libraries, started off as the founder of the Moms for Liberty chapter in Orange County, California. “Catherine’s roots in the liberty movement date back to her teen years volunteering for local campaigns in her home state of Indiana,” reads her board member bio for the Gavel Project, “an Anti-Woke non-profit” which has sued schools to block masking and vaccine policies. In a January interview on the Moms for Liberty podcast, Rahimian paints a dire picture, positioning Moms for Libraries as the solution. Children aren’t interested in reading, she argued, the result of a lack of library funding. At the same time, she claimed that when libraries rely on private donations, that money can come from certain unnamed organizations that aren’t doing good work. “It’s disappointing we don’t have the library funding we need to really get kids into reading.”
Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice, the podcast host, echoed Rahimian’s claim of outside interference in libraries, but she named names. “Some of the things that I’ve seen as far as the American Library Association and some of the folks that are involved today, I know they have a new president who is a self-proclaimed Marxist—literally, saying in a tweet, I can’t believe how exciting it is to have a Marxist that has been elected to head up the library association.… You want kids that are reading, but what’s in the libraries?” In response, Rahimian promoted books by her organization’s partners, like Why America Matters by Ben Carson, on “unity,” and another book that she said is “a counter to gender ideology books,” called Elephants Are Not Birds.
Aside from using ALA president-elect Emily Drabinski’s politics to do some straight-up red-baiting, the main reason Moms for Liberty is focused on her and now on libraries more directly is that Drabinksi has been vocal about the anti-democratic aims of groups like Moms for Liberty. “What the right gets right about libraries is that they matter,” wrote Drabinski last September, “and that any vision of a fully privatized and corporatized society requires dismantling those institutions that have survived, if barely, from the Reagan era until today.”
“Moral panics often serve as cover for organized abandonment and violent attacks,” Drabinksi continued. Moms for Libraries, like Moms for Liberty before it, uses the reality of disinvestment in public libraries as an opportunity to argue for the private control of libraries. No wonder they have attracted allies like Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education, who said in July at a Moms for Liberty national conference, “I personally think the Department of Education should not exist.”
On one level, Moms for Libraries may seem to be not much more than a way to push a promo code for conservative publishers—one that has managed to get only about 5,000 books donated to it to distribute to schools. But the group’s mission is to turn libraries into the kind of battle fronts it can command, from social media to Fox News, as it has before with school boards. School librarians witnessed the toxic environment that Moms for Liberty has stoked, and on which Moms for Libraries is now focused, using the massive, apparently well-resourced network that Moms for Liberty has built so quickly. This is not a conservative bookmobile. Parents “woke up,” said Rahimian in the Moms for Liberty podcast interview. “The lockdowns and the virtual schooling really opened parents’ eyes,” including her own. “That’s how I was born into the Moms for Liberty world.”
This article has been updated.