Parents at school board meetings are reading excerpts of school library books they think are too explicit.
Culture wars shift to the school library, including here in Western New York
Culture wars that moved to schools during the pandemic have shifted from masks and vaccines to library books.
A bomb threat made against Hilton Central Schools near Rochester last month cited a school library book with an LGBTQ+ theme.
And the national effort to shed a greater spotlight on what advocates believe is improper content available to children has taken hold in the Buffalo Niagara region.
Parents don't know how objectionable child literary works have become – and "we certainly didn’t know they were in the school library,” said Jackie Best, head of the Erie County chapter of Moms for Liberty, a national organization founded by two former school board members in Florida.
Challenges to library books have occurred for decades, but have shifted from “The Catcher in the Rye” to “This Book is Gay.”A record number of school library books were challenged last year, most of them written by someone who identifies as LGBTQ+ or that include LGBTQ+ characters. Also high on the list are works with sexual content or characters of color.
How do books considered good literature by some but objectionable to others end up in the school library?
“It's tricky to try to determine what one family is going to be comfortable with,” said Laura Penn, a librarian at Akron Central School District and president emeritus of School Librarians’ Association of Western New York. “My place is to provide access to information. The family ultimately is where the decisions are made about what they’re comfortable with.”
Penn and other librarians say they choose books in a number of ways. They read reviews in library journals, check out professional learning networks and vendors. They also ask students what they would like to read. And they know their community’s interests, be it sports or hunting or music.
“It’s so important that everyone finds themselves on our shelves,” said Chris Harris, a senior fellow with the American Library Association for youth issues and school library system director for Genesee Valley BOCES.
Each school district has policies on how instructional and library materials are selected, and how to challenge them.
A challenge occurs when someone questions why specific material is available in a school library. School districts have policies about what to do when that happens, including having a committee read the book and recommend what should be done. The material is removed or restricted in the library when there is a decision to ban the material.
Best said the matter got her attention last year, when another parent told her about a book on a summer reading list for a class that Best’s high school-age son was taking. Most of the books on the list had lots of sexual content, she said.
The county Moms for Liberty chapter now has a list of 80 books it says would have the equivalent of an R-rating, and is checking school libraries to see if they have the books. The chapter lists high schools that carry them on its Facebook page and website, with the heading “#Porninschools Exposed.”
Members compiled the list by looking at websites that rate books based on the objectionable content, Best said.
Activities of chapter members include reading passages from books at school board meetings and posting book reports on the chapter Facebook page, steps recommended by booklook.info, a group that said it originally formed as a Moms for Liberty Book Committee.
Releasing excerpts and reports on Facebook several days apart draws attention to the group’s Facebook and “gets people engaged with outrage,” according to booklook.info.
Best said chapter members generally don’t want to ban the books, although there are a handful of books they have asked be removed. They want warning stickers on books with explicit content. They also want parents to have the option to approve what materials their children can check out of the school library.
“It’s not that these are all garbage books," she said. "Are they age appropriate and do the parents know? No one cares to ask us, but we’re not trying to ban books.”
Best said the chapter has had no success with school districts.
“I think it proves the absolute disconnect that school districts have with parents,” she said. “We’re being very reasonable. Let’s have a conversation.”
Book challenges are not as successful in New York State as other parts of the country, but the executive director of the New York Library Association sees “very real climate change” around book challenges, along with more pushback against certified professionals who are trained to select books.
“Libraries are primarily about access to information, providing access to information equitably. That’s our goal,” said AnnaLee Dragon. “The overarching message here is that you get to decide what is right for your family and your children, but you don’t get to make that decision for everybody else’s family and children.”
Collection development starts with an evaluation of the library’s resources and bringing science and history resources up to date, Harris said. Librarians also rely on professional review journals and other reading professionals around the country. They look at award lists, recommended books from experts and groups such as the Junior Library Guild to vet materials.
“It all comes back to that professional judgment, that master’s level training. They’re not just randomly buying books,” Harris said.
In addition to having a master’s degree in library science, public school librarians also are certified teachers.
In addition to overseeing the library budget, librarians work with classroom teachers to support what is done in the classroom.
“They're entrenched in curriculum too, because they have to work across all curricular areas,” said Brian Mayer, coordinator of the School Library System and media services at Erie 2 BOCES. “They also look to identify needs of the student population, they look at identifying the community itself, looking at data to see the shifts in growth and community to make sure that the collection is always welcoming and reflective of the community.”
According to state regulations, school libraries must “meet the needs of the pupils, and shall provide an adequate complement to the instructional program in the various areas of the curriculum.”
New York State has clear guidelines on what information should be included on sexuality and health, Harris said, including “individuals have a right to information that can make their lives healthier and happier” and “sexual orientation is a component of a person’s identity.”
“When people are saying ‘Why would a library buy this?,’ (it's) because the New York State Department of Education tells us to," she said.
One of the books on the Moms for Liberty list is “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” a graphic novel by Maia Kobabe. It was the most-banned book in school libraries in the U.S. last school year, according to PEN America, a nonprofit founded in 1922 dedicated to protecting free expression.
Record book challenges last year
The American Library Association recorded the most book challenges last year since it started compiling information about library censorship more than 20 years ago. More than half, 58%, were in school libraries.
An overwhelming majority of challenges cited multiple books. Before 2021, most challenges were to remove a single book.
That’s similar to the findings of PEN America, which reported 2,532 instances of books being banned in schools last year, affecting 1,648 unique book titles.
Because of the increased attention and controversy over school library books, several librarians said there is a real potential for librarians to refrain from selecting some books they believe would cause an issue.
Concerns about school safety grew last month, after Hilton Central Schools received several bomb threats because “This Book is Gay,” by Juno Dawson, was in the high school library.
“Librarians are scared," Harris said. "They’re scared of losing their jobs. They’re scared of violence and attacks against them.”