A display of banned books at the San Jose Public Library (Photo courtesy of San Jose Public Library via Flickr | CC-BY-SA 2.0/The Daily Montanan).
By Elaine S. Povich
Amid the national uproar about whether to allow students access to a wide variety of books, the superintendent of a Virginia school district this week proposed a sweeping solution: Get rid of school libraries altogether.
Mark Taylor, who leads the district in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, suggested at a recent school board meeting that eliminating libraries would be a cost-reduction measure, saving $4.2 million in anticipation of $18 million in budget cuts.
But parents were out in force at the meeting, and many decried the idea of cutting libraries, saying they are essential and eliminating them would be a disservice to children. None of the parents or community members were officially allowed to speak at the public meeting, but some stood in the back of the room holding signs with slogans such as “We Deserve Better” and “Fund our Schools!”
And just hours after the raucous meeting, veteran board member Dawn Shelley accused Taylor of using money-saving as a ruse to get rid of books.
“I think they think, ‘Well, if we remove the libraries, then we don’t have to deal with those books,’” she said in an interview with Stateline.
Another school board member, Nicole Cole, in a separate interview, agreed that closing libraries “is a further attack on our educators, our teachers and it’s banning books.”
Neither Taylor, nor the chair of the school board, returned calls seeking comment. But Taylor told a local television reporter that libraries are not necessarily vital, since “whole libraries are available on an app” on kids’ cellphones.
One day after the meeting, Taylor ruled that 14 books that had been challenged by a parent as inappropriate and containing “sexually explicit” content must be removed from school libraries and declared “surplus” property. The 14 include Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and “The Bluest Eye,” as well as “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen, a historical novel set in a Great Depression circus, and “Nineteen Minutes,” by Jody Picoult, which is about a school shooting. Taylor suggested the books be donated to other libraries.
According to the local Free Lance-Star newspaper, all the books had been declared appropriate for high school ages after reviews by committees that included parents. But the parent making the initial complaint, the paper said, had appealed that decision.
Spotsylvania County has been a hotbed of book banning for a couple of years, ever since it passed and then rescinded a plan to remove “sexually explicit” books from school libraries. One board member apparently suggested burning books as well, according to news reports at the time.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, made getting rid of “explicit” books and giving parents more say over public school curricula one of the pillars of his winning 2021 campaign. Taylor said in a memo that his decision on the 14 books was driven by a new Virginia law that took effect last year regarding sexually explicit content in public school instructional materials.
From July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022, 138 school districts in 32 states banned books, according to PEN America. These districts represent 5,049 schools with a combined enrollment of nearly 4 million students, the literacy group said.
PEN chalked up the effort to censor books as an outgrowth of both the fight against mask mandates in schools and the move against what opponents call the teaching of critical race theory, a graduate-level course of study that considers the role race has played in historical events and the direction of the country. The PEN report identified at least 50 groups involved in book ban movements, most of which formed since 2021.
The number of school libraries and librarians has been dwindling for decades. Between the 1999-2000 and 2015-16 school years, the latest comprehensive figures available, the number of school librarians dropped 19%, according to a School Library Journal analysis of National Center for Education Statistics data.
In Florida, GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, last year signed a law that allows parents to challenge any book on a school shelf and requires all books to be “suited to student needs.”
Some teachers say they’re not risking trouble. Rather than vet every book in their libraries to see if it meets the vague criteria — and risking a $5,000 fine if the books don’t — educators have been pulling down all the books or covering them to prohibit student access.
Some school districts are closing school libraries, removing books or eliminating media specialist positions. In some states, many schools already lack school librarians: The New Jersey Herald reported as many as a fifth of all districts in the state did not have a certified school library media specialist on staff during the 2018-19 school year.
The California Department of Education reported that only about 9% of California schools have a credentialed teacher librarian, full or part-time. Most work in high schools.
In Michigan, 92% of schools don’t employ a full-time, certified librarian, according to the education news site Chalkbeat, and the number of school librarians in Michigan declined 73% between 2016 and 2020. Several studies, including one about Michigan, correlate higher reading scores on standardized tests with the availability of libraries and librarians.
From Personnel Shortages to Legislation
Bills seeking to ban certain books from school libraries are popping up in multiple states this legislative session. In Indiana, a bill to prohibit school libraries from making available any book that “contains obscene matter or matters harmful to children,” passed the Senate and is under consideration by the House.
A bill in Mississippi that would have banned “obscene” material from libraries died in February. It also would have set up a “Commission on Age Appropriate Literacy” to decide what was obscene.
A Missouri bill would set up a procedure by which parents can object to books being used in schools.
A bill in West Virginia would prohibit stocking any book in a school library that contains references to a sex act between “persons of the same or opposite sex.”
And in Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear allowed an “anti-obscenity” bill to become law without signing it. The law requires schools to come up with a complaint policy for parents to challenge books and materials as harmful to their kids.
With all the attempts to ban or challenge books, bestselling horror author Stephen King has some advice for curious students. In a tweet, King suggested going to the nearest bookstore or non-school library and “find out what they don’t want you to read.”
Elaine S. Povich is a reporter for Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, where this story first appeared.
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