The library in Fincastle. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

In Spain, an unusual controversy has arisen. Those who frequent a nude beach on the coast of Catalonia are upset by an influx of sunbathers — sunbathers who insist on wearing swimsuits.

“What they don’t realize is that if there are a lot of them, they end up making us uncomfortable,” one nude sunbather told The Guardian. “It’s a lack of respect.” In response to this so-called “textile invasion,” the Naturist-Nudist Federation of Catalonia has asked the regional government to intervene. They want tourists to either strip down or leave.

Across the Atlantic, and across the Blue Ridge, Botetourt County does not have any beaches, clothing-optional or otherwise. Botetourt County, though, has a very different controversy: What books should be available in the local library and who should have access to them.

Since the beginning of the year, a group has been actively engaged in protesting some of the titles on the shelves. They’ve demanded removal of 59 books, only 13 of which the county actually owns, according to The Botetourt Bee. Many of the books challenged involve LGBTQ+ themes or characters. One activist has picketed Supervisor Mac Scothorn carrying a sign saying “Scothorn allows porn for children in libraries.” When that same activist picketed Supervisor Billy Martin with a similar message, the situation escalated and Martin now stands charged with misdemeanor assault and battery. The board of supervisors has passed a resolution in support of its libraries but that hasn’t quelled the controversy. 

At a recent Botetourt County Board of Supervisors meeting, Scothorn proposed that no one under 18 be allowed in the county’s libraries without a parent or guardian accompanying them. Exceptions would be made for 16- and 17-year-olds who have written permission on file with the library.  

The county’s library board meets Wednesday for what normally would be a somnolent and routine business meeting, but these are not normal times. I’ve already heard from people who plan to show up to speak. Scothorn told The Roanoke Times he doesn’t expect anything to happen but the fact remains: If Botetourt libraries were to adopt this provision, it would apparently have the most restrictive library rules in the state. 

Botetourt County is not alone. We’ve seen other library controversies in Appomattox County (where one library board member was fired, although she may be reinstated) and Warren County (where a group wants 134 titles removed and the county board of supervisors voted to withhold 75% of the library’s budget allocation). There’s a similar controversy simmering with the Pamunkey Regional Library (which serves the counties of Hanover, Goochland, King and Queen and King William) after Hanover County appointed someone who last year objected that the library’s display for “banned books” week was available to the general public, and not just adults. 

Across the country, public libraries have now become part of what gets shorthanded as “culture wars” between left and right. In Jamestown, Michigan, the public library was defunded after a controversy over LGBTQ+ books on its shelves. The library remains open on a reduced-hour basis — funded by private donations — but that funding may run out next year. 

This fall in Washington state, voters in rural Columbia County will vote on whether to even have a library at all. According to The Seattle Times, the library director moved the entire young adult nonfiction section to the adult section and moved all books related to sex education to the “parenting” section. That did not satisfy critics. 

“We do not trust their motives to move the books,” one library critic told the newspaper. “Now it’s up to [voters] to decide what our community standards are, and whether our library is an asset or a drain on our community.” 

It’s that phrase “community standards” that sticks in my head, and makes me draw the connection back to that nude beach in Spain. These are two very different types of controversies but they are united in this way: Both involve a struggle over what constitutes “community standards” — and they’re asking the government to decide which part of the community prevails.

"The Every Body Book" has is one that has generated the most controversy. Photo by Lisa Rowan.
“The Every Body Book” is one that has generated the most controversy. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

I certainly have no wisdom to offer to sunbathers in Spain but I will offer this observation as it relates to our library controversies: What we’re seeing here is an outgrowth of our increasingly polarized society. 

In one of her many controversial moments, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, called last year for a “national divorce.” I thought we tried that in the 1860s, but that’s beside the point. In many ways, that “national divorce” has already happened — or at least a trial separation. We haven’t separated along state lines but along political and social lines.

I grew up in an era where there were just three sources of national news every night, and most of us got it from Walter Cronkite. We had just two radio stations in Harrisonburg, and one of those went off the air at dusk (WHBG-AM always played “Dixie” before it signed off). We all got our local news from the same newspaper. For better or worse, we all had the same frame of reference. We heard the same news, listened to the same music, watched the same TV shows. That world is long since gone. I’m not pining for it, merely describing the changes and how they relate to our present situation. 

Sean Kenney, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia and a writer and editor for various conservative sites, is now involved in helping start a nonprofit online news site in Fredericksburg, to be called the Fredericksburg Advance. (There are two such startups underway in Fredericksburg, the other is the Fredericksburg Free Press; I have given informal advice to both on how to do what they’re trying to do.) In a recent email to potential supporters of the Fredericksburg Advance, Kenney wrote about how that media fragmentation plays out in society: “One person wakes up, watches CNN, reads The Washington Post, listens to NPR.  Another wakes up, watches FOX News, reads The Wall Street Journal, and listens to Joe Rogan via podcast. These two individuals bump into one another and have two extraordinarily different views on the world.”

Is it any wonder they can’t even agree to disagree?

We are all quite content to live in our own little bubbles and sometimes are shocked when we encounter people who see the world very differently from the way we do.

Even in the physical world — as opposed to the virtual one many of us live in on social media — we’re less likely to encounter someone with a different world view than we once were. Here are the numbers:

In 1976, the year of a close presidential election nationally, most localities in Virginia saw a winning margin somewhere in the 50% to 59% range — some for Gerald Ford, some for Jimmy Carter. Only one locality — Charles City County — saw the top candidate (Carter in that case) take more than 70% of the vote. The point is, almost every locality in the state was fairly close, so it was probably quite likely that Ford supporters knew Carter supporters and vice versa. I don’t have the data to prove it but I suspect that if they knew someone on the other side, they better understood why that voter had come to the conclusion he or she had — even if they felt it was wrong.

By 2020, the year of another close presidential election nationally, look at how much things had changed. Instead of the one 70%-plus locality we had in 1976, in 2020 we had 32 localities where one candidate took more than 70% of the vote — and 16 of those topped 80%. Petersburg topped out at 87.8% for Joe Biden, followed by 84.1% for Donald Trump in Lee County.

How likely is it that someone in Petersburg knows a conservative or someone in Lee County knows a liberal? Not very. We simply don’t know each other very well anymore. In some way, I suspect that plays into the current library controversies. So is this: Some on the right are more conservative than before, while some on the left are more liberal than before, so not only are we moving apart — we’re moving further apart.

We also have very few institutions in common anymore where we might get to know those on the other side in a non-politicized setting. Schools, libraries and sports are the three that come most prominently to mind and now all three are mired in controversies over whose social views shall prevail. (Some prominent conservative commentators openly cheered the defeat of the U.S. team in the Women’s World Cup; Trump taunted player Megan Rapinoe by name for missing a shot. Once we’d have considered that kind of behavior unpatriotic. Now it’s just routine commentary.) 

I don’t know how these library controversies would have played out in 1976 — the books most frequently challenged weren’t around then — but here’s what I do know:

In 1976, the three Virginia localities where the most pronounced library controversies have arisen today were all pretty close politically. Now they’re not. 

Appomattox County has gone from 50.8% Republican in 1976 to 72.3% Republican in 2020 — and 80.3% Republican in the 2021 governor’s race.

Botetourt County has gone from 53.1% Democratic in 1976 to 71.5% Republican in 2020 — and 76.3% Republican in 2021.

Warren County has gone from 49.4% Democratic in 1976 (Carter carried the county with a plurality) to 66.5% Republican in 2020 — and 71.9% Republican in 2021.

Depending on your political views, you might be outraged by these attempts to restrict what’s on library shelves, or you might be thrilled, but you shouldn’t be surprised.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at