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The Library Trust Matrix: Book Censorship News, January 26, 2024

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

This is the fourth in a series of posts that will offer insights and calls to action based on the results of three recent surveys conducted by Book Riot and the EveryLibrary Institute. The surveys explored parental perceptions of public libraries, parental perceptions of librarians, and parental perceptions of school libraries. The first post in the series emphasized how data overwhelmingly supports libraries and library workers. The second looked at how what’s happening in school libraries is foreshadowing the future of public libraries. The third on why library workers need to be their own advocates of the library.

85% of parents trust librarians. Librarians, both in schools and in public institutions, are among the top-ranked professionals alongside doctors, nurses, and teachers. There is, however, a difference in trustworthiness between school and public librarians. Where public librarians garner trust from 91% of parents, school librarians garner 80%. Given the ongoing battle over “parental rights” waged against schools, this 11% difference is not surprising. The popular discourse certainly impacts perceptions of school librarians, but so, too, does the fact that most parents have never met their school librarian. Only 41% state that they have, even though 96% of parents state that every school should have a school librarian.

There are myriad reasons why parents have likely never met their school librarian. First — and perhaps most important — is that it is likely there is not a full-time school librarian. In the 2020-2021 school year, 3 out of every 10 school districts in the country did not have a single librarian in any of their schools. The downward trajectory of the profession became apparent in data exploring school librarians between 2010 and 2019, where 20% of full-time school librarian jobs were eliminated. All signs point to this trend continuing through the pandemic, and it’s not because of reductions in school staff overall; indeed, in districts that reported losing school librarians, half gained teachers, 40% gained school or district administrators, and 33% gained instructional coordinators. This structural devaluing of the profession, unfortunately, aids in the perception that school librarians are not fundamental in the schools themselves, even if parents claim they want school librarians.

If schools do have a librarian, chances are that they are part-time. As of 2019, of the schools that employed a school librarian, 61% were full-time.

School librarians, who might also go by titles such as teacher librarian or media specialist, are highly trained, skilled, and credentialed professionals.* But the lack of jobs and, therefore, lack of visibility makes awareness of their expertise challenging to not only articulate but to literally see. They work school hours in the school building, but most of the time, they do not have their own regular class to teach. Instead, they serve as a teacher for all students, including those who might have teachers scheduling regular classes with the librarian or periodic sessions prior to a class project to help students find, evaluate, and understand the resources available to them. They’re there before class begins, during lunch periods, and after classes end to help students find and borrow materials that support both their education and their recreational needs. Though school librarians may try to have contact with parents, it isn’t going to be as easy or as frequent as teachers. Even at open house or back-to-school nights, it’s likely that parents are not prioritizing meeting the librarian in the same way they are their students’ classroom teachers.

Some blame belongs to the leadership teams in schools, too. If the administration or the board of education do not champion their school librarians or are actively aiding in the efforts to undermine them, then they are further invisible.

It is difficult to establish trust in a profession when you have not spent time utilizing it. But thanks to book banning, the visibility of the school library has come into greater public focus, and even those who’ve never stepped foot inside their student’s school library have been influenced by certain perceptions of the experts who work within it.

82% of parents, though, trust school librarians to select age- and content-appropriate material for their students. Likewise, a slightly higher percentage of parents believe that their child is safe at the school library (93%) than in the public library (92%). Even if they do not know their school librarian, they feel their student is safe in the library and that, for the most part, the collection has been managed professionally and appropriately.

We know what happens in school libraries will — and does — enter the public library. Right now, we’re seeing it occur in ways that, to the general public, might not be obvious. While public librarians may have a higher trustworthiness perception by parents, given that book bans are continuing to grow in numbers at public libraries, the reality is this, too, will change. But it won’t just be book bans that do it. There is a systematic dismantling of the profession happening that, in isolation, appears to be odd; in conjunction, they add up to a purposeful plot to delegitimize the profession.

It begins with claims that public libraries are full of pornography. With claims that public librarians are “groomers” or “pedophiles” for having books by or about LGBTQ+ people or for hosting events that celebrate diversity. These claims are then “backed up” with “research” from biased outlets who quote “experts.” We’ve seen this in the refusal to vaccinate and the refusal to acknowledge the science conducted by experts; the “I did my own research” calls come from folks who wouldn’t know how to evaluate a source if it smacked them in the face because they don’t have to care. The data they want, they can find, or they can make up. This is why information literacy is under attack — get rid of the means to teach people how to swim in a sea of “sources,” and they’re easier to persuade on any given topic. Going to Google has never been reliable without some kind of roadmap to what information is actually factual, but it’s only gotten worse these last few years.

Librarians do heavy lifting when it comes to teaching information and digital literacy. School librarians, in particular, take on an outsized role in this type of education. Remove the school librarians, and you directly harm the developmental and educational needs of students.

What makes a profession distinct from a trade or a job is that it is a group of people who agree to uphold certain common principles, standards, and ethics, alongside possessing specific skills and education in order to complete their work. More often than not, a professional body will help guide the ethics of the profession and set the standards by which professions must adhere — in some states, this might also include necessary licenses or certifications on top of a particular education. Not everyone works within a profession, and not anyone can step into the role of a profession.

So, it makes sense that another tactic being employed by book banners right now is to discredit the profession. The target is the American Library Association (ALA), the largest professional organization for librarians in the country. Not all librarians are members, but because it is primarily an organization run by professionals in the field, ALA seeks to address the challenges, the ethical issues, and the needs of those working as librarians.**

Book banners have turned ALA into the machine they need to take down and have done so by targeting the organization as a whole, as well as some of its most visible members. ALA President Emily Drabinski has been derided for over two years, with right-wing media regularly conflating her personal beliefs and practices with what the organization of nearly 50,000 thinks. They have crafted endless disinformation campaigns about Drabinski and the organization, and some have gone so far as to attempt to establish their own “professional library association” (none of the people involved in it have any professional background in librarianship except as provocateurs). Several states have called for and implemented bans on association membership by state and local libraries, stating that being members of ALA will mean forfeiting their ability to seek funding from the state. In some spaces, anything that could potentially be linked to the American Library Association — from its prestigious book awards to its professional trade journal and review resource Booklist — is unilaterally discredited as biased and unfit for use by those in the field.

By creating a villain of the biggest professional organization for library workers, book banners pound away at the institutions that establish and uphold librarianship as a profession. Librarians lose their place as experts in their field, with the skills, knowledge, and passion for helping connect people to vetted, accurate, verifiable information. To real facts.

Hope is not lost, though.

Returning back to the parental perceptions survey, it’s clear that even at its lowest, 4 out of 5 parents trust school librarians. Nine out of ten trust public librarians.

The opportunity is here to amplify this trust parents have in their public institutions. There is a lot to be said that even though most parents have never met their school librarian, they still trust them as professionals. They trust their abilities to select age- and content-appropriate materials for the collection. Rarely have parents or their children borrowed or been exposed to material that made either of them uncomfortable, further bolstering the reality that not only do librarians curate appropriate material but also that parents themselves are asserting their rights by teaching their own children what is and is not appropriate material for them to access. More than 8 out of 10 parents agree that librarians know the kinds of books kids will love, too: almost as if trained professionals in the field have dedicated time, energy, and resources into learning what their jobs are and how to do them well.

More, 78% of parents believe librarians care about the lifelong learning needs of the whole community. This number, right here, is what we need to turn to again and again when we look at the ways the profession is being misrepresented and vilified. The vast majority of parents believe the library is there to cultivate the life-long learning needs of its community.

And isn’t that the purpose of a library?

*Note: there are other people who work as school librarians, too. Oftentimes, there are people with the title librarian or media specialist who do not have the “typical” master’s degree or teaching credentials that are fairly standard across the field. This does not diminish their work, nor the work of library aids and assistants. Instead, the focus here is on the “typical” school librarian.

**Note: See above, but for library workers. ALA offers sections for a wide range of library workers, whether or not they have been degreed or accredited, to help them meet their goals and interests, too.

Book Censorship News: January 26, 2024

Before diving in, I want to link out to EveryLibrary’s database of all the bad library bills across the country for this legislative session. Among them is a particularly damning bill in Iowa that ties into everything mentioned above — the bill, SF 305, would make it against the law for libraries to use ALA’s resources, including sample collection policies. That is precisely the definition of professional disrespect and devaluation of expertise in libraries.

  • Katy Independent School District (TX) is requiring parents to sign permission slips for their students to go to the school book fair. Apparently, “not giving kids money” isn’t enough parental input on the matter. Book fairs are under attack, so this tracks, too. How long until the district announces SkyTree Book Fairs?
  • Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice was restricted in North Attleboro, MA, public schools. It’s banned in school libraries but can be in classroom libraries under the supervision of teachers. Yes, it’s 2024. Fewer than 24 hours after it was banned, though, the book was put back on shelf.
  • In Billings Public Schools (MT), Assassination Classroom will remain on shelves in school libraries.
  • Red Hood by Elana Arnold and Flamer by Mike Curato will stay in the teen section of the Ketchikan Public Library (AK).
  • Book of Mormon has been returned to school shelves in Davis Schools (UT).
  • “I just don’t think we should be giving [the library] that much money to be ruining our children’s lives when that is the parent’s responsibility. If a parent wants their child to read this, use their own money, go out and buy it for their own child. Let them read it […] The library is not standing on a good thing when it comes to our children.” The fight over funding in the Livingston Parish Public Library continues (LA).
  • Sherman High School (TX) banned a trans actor from performing in the school’s production of Oklahoma because of a transphobic rule they implemented where people can only play the parts that match their sex at birth. The actor has been reinstated after community backlash but…holy shit!
  • “Simbro said the January meeting was about reconciling materials in the library that were deemed inappropriate, which she reviewed. Two of the books brought up last month were Flamer and It Feels Good To Be Yourself. ‘I have taken them off the shelf for now,’ Simbro said. ‘Until we hear from the community to get your ideas, they will not be put back until this matter comes to a conclusion.'” This is at Camden County Library District (MO); yes, this is a book ban in service of listening to the community complain about made-up pornography in the library.
  • Nineteen Minutes will stay on high school library shelves in Catawba County Schools (NC). This process of reviewing complaints over 24 books by a board member took them TWO YEARS. More challenges may be coming.
  • People Kill People is being challenged in Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp (IN). We wouldn’t want a book about the damage done by gun violence to be available where gun violence could happen, would we?
  • “[T]he proposed change would require removal of material from public school libraries across the state if officials in three school districts deem it violates Utah code outlining pornographic or indecent material. That provision seemed to spark the most debate, spurring concern about loss of local control in gauging the appropriateness of books.” A new law in Utah would require schools to ban books from their shelves if at least three other schools in the state have done so. Uhhh.
  • Orange Beach City Schools (AL) are debating whether or not to ban eight different LGBTQ+ books from the district.
  • Hillsborough County School (FL) will decide whether or not to ban Identical from high school shelves. They initially kept the book, but the decision was appealed.
  • “The House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee on Thursday approved a bill (HB 7025) that calls for people who make objections to more than five instructional materials during a calendar year to be assessed $100 for each additional objection. The proposed fees would apply to ‘a parent or resident who does not have a student enrolled in the school’ where the material is located.” This is kind of a surprise to see out of Florida, honestly. But the kicker is the part about it being for those who do not have students enrolled in the school, so it’s not as broad as it should be.
  • Slaughterhouse Five and The Kite Runner will be kept on high school library shelves in Brevard County, Florida.
  • “Lawmakers could open another front in the culture wars by lifting criminal liability protections for schools and libraries for carrying books some consider obscene.” This is the state of West Virginia, and one of the books used as an example is a sex-ed book written for teenagers, Let’s Talk About It.
  • Davenport, Iowa, schools had 9 books they were going to remove when the state’s book ban bill went into effect. The bill is temporarily stayed.
  • In Broward County Schools (FL), one board member challenged two books, Forever and Choke. Forever will remain only on high school shelves while nothing will happen to the book Chokeit was never available or in the library at all.
  • Students at Rockingham County schools (VA) walked out in protest of proposed book bans in the district. The kids know their rights are being trampled.
  • Oklahoma’s Department of Public Instruction has been off the rails for a while now. It’s gone even further by appointing Chaya Raichik, creator of the Twitter account LibsofTikTok — which has spurred harassment and bomb threats in schools and libraries — to the education committee. One of the biggest bullies out there is given this position over anyone with half a lick of experience. I feel terrible for the students in Oklahoma.
  • Rolla Public Library (MO) will keep The Every Body Book in the children’s section, where it will reach its intended audience.
  • The battle over books wages on in Livingston Parish Public Library (LA). One challenger doesn’t understand why when she challenges books, they won’t just be removed or relocated. “Their innocence is gone,” she said of children who may access the book. “Doubts creep into them about church, about pastors, about parents.” If a book about queer people sitting on a bookshelf causes that, then there are other issues here that aren’t the book.
  • Metropolis Public Library (IL) voted to update its policies to be in compliance with the state’s new anti-book banning bill. I’m sharing this, though, because the public comments are something. Folks don’t get it and don’t want to get it. They’re so brainwashed by the rhetoric that a policy to protect access to information turned into a discussion about drag queen story time.
  • “Huntington Beach [CA] is moving ahead with creating a parental committee that would review and possibly stop children’s books it deems offensive from entering the public library.” The committee would include up to 21 adults…letting a few grown-ups with no expertise and with their own agendas decide the books in a collection. That’s not what a public library is.
  • Indian River Public Schools (FL) banned a book simply for referencing the American Library Association. That book is Alan Gratz’s Ban This Book and it was banned in the district alongside Banned Book Club.
  • Hernando Schools (FL) will keep five of the six books challenged in the district. Sold by Patricia McCormick, however, will be banned.
  • Here are all the books that an educator had to box up from their classroom in Conroe Independent School District (TX).