When the crowd in the district court room dispersed for a lunch break, Bonnie Wallace remained behind with a book. Wallace, the vice chairman of the Llano County Library advisory board, had come to U.S. district judge Robert Pitman’s courtroom that day as a defendant in a First Amendment lawsuit. Over the past year she has emerged as one of the loudest voices in Llano, a sleepy Hill Country town of 3,500 about ninety minutes from Austin, calling for the removal of what she deemed “pornography” from the shelves of the county library. A few months after library officials acquiesced to her emailed demands to remove a series of children’s health picture books and other titles relating to LGBTQ and racial issues, county commissioners appointed Wallace to the library’s advisory board. Now she, along with other board members, the library director, county commissioners, and the county judge stood accused of violating Llano’s citizens’ First Amendment rights for pulling books from the library—a case set to go to trial in October 2023. 

The hearing that Halloween day was a preliminary one to determine if Wallace and the other co-defendants must return a dozen books to the library shelves immediately while the larger case winds through the courts. After the courtroom emptied, Wallace approached me. She handed me the book from her purse, which she thought proved her allegations that the county library had been housing pornography. The book, a graphic novel called Let’s Talk About It, is intended to educate teenagers on relationships, sex, and their bodies. The School Library Journal, a monthly magazine that reviews books for librarians, says it “is loaded with crucial information about consent, respect, consideration, and boundaries.” 

Wallace had her own review, and had plastered several pages with sticky notes of her commentary. Beside one illustration advising readers to safely consume porn by researching the actors and paying for content to make sure it was ethically made, a sticky note read, “internet is safe?” and “paying for your porn?” Beneath an illustration depicting two teenagers agreeing to delete nude photos they have texted each other, and alongside a graphic warning that explicit photos can last forever so all identifiable features should be masked if sending them, Wallace had placed a yellow sticky note on the page. “Instead of discouraging sexting?” it read. 

One legal concern that day was whether the defendants had the right to pull any book from library shelves. The defendants were also ready to debate the subject matter of the particular books they pulled—which has become the center of a years-long simmering conflict in Llano. The outrage first sparked during the summer of 2021, when Rochelle Wells, a realtor who would also later be appointed a member of the library advisory board, began advocating that a humor book for children, titled I Need a New Butt, be removed from the library in the name of “protecting children from molestation.” The county’s library system director Amber Milum, who said in the court hearing she thought the book was silly when she reviewed and bought it, pulled the book from the shelves under pressure and hid it in the library. In her testimony at the hearing, she said that Wells and another co-defendant repeatedly checked the book out to prevent anyone else from accessing it.

Then, in the fall, those who would become defendants in the lawsuit removed other books from the library shelves. They targeted works dubbed “LGBTQ” and “CRT” books, a list that included Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group, and Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which argues that America has a racial caste system. Amid the furor, Llano County Judge Ron Cunningham instituted a ban on librarians buying and stocking new and donated books. Soon after, the county commissioners appointed Wallace and other vocal critics to the library’s advisory board, which voted to close its meetings to the community, breaking with a decades-long tradition of welcoming public comment. Now, even the librarians can’t come to discuss library matters, and one former head librarian has been reprimanded for attending one. Today, at least twelve books remain pulled from the shelves in Llano, though defendants refused to answer exactly how many in the discovery process.

Wallace, who declined to be interviewed, and other defendants in the lawsuit say they are protecting children from obscene content. During the hearing, though, their argument has been different and procedural. Represented by Jonathan Mitchell, the lawyer who is credited for creating the state’s “abortion bounty” bill that effectively ended abortion rights in Texas before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the defendants argued that there’s no First Amendment issue in concern. First, they said, the removed books were damaged or not checked out regularly, so librarians rightly removed them, an argument many former Llano librarians deny. Second, they argued there is no need for a federal judge to order the books be returned because, after the plaintiffs filed suit, defendants placed the removed books in an “in-house” checkout system. The books are located in a back room that only staff can access, and they do not appear on the library’s online search system, nor did librarians advertise their relocation on the library’s website, in its newsletter, or within the library. 

A ruling on whether to grant a preliminary injunction, putting books back on library shelves at least temporarily, could come next month, followed by a full ruling next year. But as the case goes through the courts, the dispute over books is splintering the Llano community. “There are so many people that are divided,” lifelong Llano resident Myrna Mund, who taught elementary school for forty years, told me recently. “And it’s too bad because it’s such an asset. Any library is an asset to the community.” 

Llano, a largely Republican retirement community, exudes small-town charm. Main Street is dotted with shops boasting town pride in their namesakes, including the Llano Craft Distillery and the Llano River Creamery and Kitchen. Across the river, Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Que attracts loyal customers from far and wide with its famous “Big Chop.” And in the heart of town sits the stone-clad Llano Public Library. 

For many in Llano, the library was once a center of town life. As a child, resident Tina Castelan participated in the library’s summer reading program. As a teenager, she volunteered for that same program. Then as an adult, she took a job as the children’s section librarian before a promotion to head librarian of the Llano County Library in 2021. Now 29, she says her favorite part of the job before the recent controversies was leading story time every Thursday morning where town children, from infants to five-year-olds, would craft, sing songs, and listen to her read aloud. Castelan said that, contrary to public perception of her power, her job was mainly leading events and paper pushing. “It’s just sitting at your desk and staring into the void,” Castelan said. “What else do you want us to do? We can’t do anything.”

But in the summer of 2022, the work became much more difficult. Since 2021, the Llano library system has gone from eleven librarians to six. One retired early because of the new public pressure over the content of books on the shelves. Others have been forced out by county officials. The county fired the head librarian for one of its three branches, Suzette Baker, for insubordination in March. In the librarian’s dismissal papers county officials allege Baker was “allowing [her] personal biases, opinions and preferences to unduly influence [her] actions and judgments.” She contends she was fired because she vocalized her displeasure with what she viewed as an “illegal order” to ban books, which she repeatedly refused to do. 

The library’s nonprofit benefactor group, the Friends of the Llano Library, has also suffered attrition after the issue of book bans divided its members. In early November, the Friends’ president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer resigned, citing “escalating hostility” and “an antagonistic environment” at monthly meetings. 

Castelan says she no longer feels respected by many in the community. Some would come up to her at the library to discuss what they deemed pornography. Others would ask her why the county didn’t trust her. On social media, many residents demonized librarians like her. “This is disgusting and child pornography which should not be allowed as it’s illegal material and encourages illegal and immoral acts,” one resident wrote on a community Facebook page. 

Some in town suggest librarians are failing to protect children from “grooming.” Vivian Koener, who runs a hair salon in Llano, said she just wants to protect her two young daughters. “All my children’s lives, I’ve told them our private parts are to be covered up,” Koener said. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Oh, well, it’s just a bunch of Christians who hate homosexuals.’ I love this because it’s such a terrible argument. . . . Because I’m like, ‘No, we’re in disagreement with any sexuality being taught in pictures at a young age.’ ”

When the book ban controversy became more public, and when the national media began paying attention, Castelan began to worry that her nieces, who attend Llano’s only public school system, would face retribution, lose friends, or get made fun of because of her news appearances. She said the daily stress of the job made her lose hair, and that she’d often come home from work in tears. “(I’d) come home after work just feeling defeated,” Castelan said. “Why am I even here? Why am I even trying to make anything out of this?” she remembers thinking. 

Library conditions got so bad by September that Llano librarians sent a grievance letter to supervisors about short staffing and the continued ban on new books. Those who signed the letter alleged Milum “disregarded the librarians’ request for more staffing” in order “to not involve more individuals in the situation.” When she received no response to the grievance after a few days, Castelan submitted her two weeks’ notice. She was let go a few days later. 

Baker, the branch librarian who was fired, and Castelan both said the defendants weren’t open to any dissent. “They want somebody that will just do what they do,” Baker said. “They want little ‘yes’ soldiers.”

With Castelan and other public servants gone, the community no longer has a fully operational library to use. The current board members and other defendants have decided to close the main library building on Saturdays because of thin staffing, and some days the branches have to close during lunch, usually the busiest time of day. Castelan has faith that the plaintiffs will win the federal lawsuit, but feels something great has been inexorably lost. “We had so many great ideas. We were looking forward to all these programs,” Castelan said. “I didn’t anticipate any of this becoming like what it has.”