The Librarians Fighting Book Bans
S1: I was a big library user growing up because it was really a refuge for me and a place where I just found ideas that connected me to the world but also broadened my perspective.
S2: Carolyn Foote loved libraries as a kid. When she got older, she became a school librarian and she loved that too.
S1: And just the students passion for reading really matched my own when I was growing up, and I felt like being in communication with that all the time could just be very, very powerful.
S2: I think people sometimes think of the school librarian as the person who helped them find the shelf with the book about Mesopotamia for their social studies report.
S2: Can you tell me what else the librarian is like when people picture a librarian? What do you hope that picture looks like?
S1: What I hope that they think of as someone who’s passionate about books and getting books in the hands of readers, but also passionate about how to help students ask good questions, become information literate, get involved in STEM and engineering. A lot of libraries now are very active, dynamic places, and librarians are sort of guides to that world of information.
S2: A Guide to a world of information. But lately, some parents and politicians have desperately tried to limit what kinds of information a school librarian can guide kids to. They’re not just protesting specific books, but entire themes. Carolyn Foote was a district librarian in the suburbs of Austin, Texas, for about 30 years. Last year, not long after she retired, a Texas Republican state legislator named Matt Krauss launched an official inquiry demanding some information from school libraries in the state.
S3: The move comes after Republican lawmakers passed two bills that limit how teachers can discuss race and sexuality in the classroom.
S2: We’re going to see what those districts respond with. He wanted them to reveal whether they carried any titles from a list of 850 books he’d compiled, books that he claims might make students feel discomfort.
S1: The list was heavily dominated by LGBTQ titles titles about race, titles about sex, education, Supreme Court cases.
S2: There’s been instances we know around the state where parents have gotten involved and been very upset and frustrated with certain materials that had been in some schools and they’ve gotten them removed.
S1: I was surprised, angry, horrified, worried about the ramifications of what could come. It felt like a Pandora’s box.
S2: There have always been arguments over what kinds of books are appropriate for kids. But attempts to ban books in school libraries around the country surged last year. Today’s librarians sometimes feel like they’re defending the very concept of knowledge. For Carolyn and some other librarians in Texas. Playing defense wasn’t enough. Today on the show, what is driving the book Banning Boom and what happens when librarians start fighting back? I’m Seth Stevenson filling in for Mary Harris. You’re listening to What Next? Stick around. Last year, attempts to ban books in the US reached the highest level since the American Library Association started tracking this stuff 20 years ago. You’ve been in this world for a while. Does it feel like this has reached a new level?
S1: Oh, definitely. I mean, I was in education for 40 years and 29 years of that as a librarian. And it’s definitely unprecedented in my experience. And, you know, libraries, principals, school boards, superintendents are just fending off not only formal complaints that have been filed, which is what ALA was counting, but also informal complaints, email complaints, comments at school board meetings. The atmosphere is just. One that’s very difficult and it is a little bit overwhelming, to be honest. In many school districts, the amount of challenges that are coming.
S2: Why do you think the conversation around books and kids is so intense right now? What’s going on?
S1: You know, I think there’s a lot of factors. Parents coming out of the pandemic and they were maybe more a little more involved with what their students were learning because they were at home, maybe helping them with some of their school work. So I think that’s a small factor. Typically, most of the challenges that I’ve seen and kind of historically have been more middle school, elementary school where people are feeling more protective of their children. But by the time students are in high school, you know, a lot of parents have always supported academic, intellectual freedom for students because they understand that they’re college bound or work bound after this point in their lives and they want them to be prepared. I think another factor, honestly, is political. Everyone saw the Virginia governor’s race and how the book Beloved and concerns about it became central to that race. And then I think a last factor is we’re seeing more young people identify as LGBTQ than we have in the past, probably because they feel more comfortable and being open. But we’re also seeing our demographics as a country changing. And in different states, it’s changing. And so I think whenever those kinds of changes have happened in our society over time, there’s a lot of fear around them.
S2: You see. Talk about how this is about so-called parental rights and it’s about giving parents control over what their kids read instead of giving schools or librarians control over what the kids read. How do you respond to that line of reasoning?
S1: Libraries already have processes by which parents can help define what their child is reading. For example, in library software, there’s places where you can put a note in a student’s record like you don’t want your child to read comic books, you want them to read something else. And English teachers in their classrooms have policies that if a book is assigned and a parent has a concern about it, that an alternate book is a sign. So schools have already been addressing concerns that parents might have about their own child. But a parent gets to decide for their own child. They don’t get to decide for everyone’s child because public schools serve all families, all types of families, all types of kids. And it’s important that the library shelves reflect that so that all students feel like they belong.
S2: I looked at the list of books that are most frequently being challenged right now, and as best I can tell, they almost all involve LGBT themes. Or if not that, then issues of race. And a lot of them both those things. Is that the pattern that you’re seeing or those the books that are being objected to?
S1: Oh, for sure. And we’re definitely seeing that in challenges around the country, although there is a little bit of a Trojan horse activity going on that are that’s the way I think of it. So a lot of times the complaints, especially at school board meetings, are centered around a few books, often the same books all over the country that some parents might consider mature, and some of them are about heterosexual characters. But behind that, all the lists that are being circulated are full of books about LGBTQ topics, LGBTQ characters and authors, authors of color, books about race.
S2: I wonder if there are any books that have come to your attention where you’ve thought, you know, actually, maybe a teenager shouldn’t be reading that book.
S1: I don’t tend to get in discussions of particular books because, of course, that ends up being, you know, an endless debate. But I will say that I think one of the concerns or the things people are having trouble adapting to is that literature and young adult literature has changed over the last 40 years. We’re not in the days of the Baby-Sitters Club anymore. Publishers have made an effort to look at their own institutions and to be aware of diversity of authors and making sure more voices are being heard and being published. What’s available to people has changed, and their exposure to the world has changed and the world has changed. And our students live in that real world. And you hardly ever hear a student asking for a book to be banned or challenged at a school board meeting.
S2: One of the books on that list of 850 books was The Cider House Rules by John Irving, which I read and loved as a teenager in high school. And that book is about a doctor who’s an abortion provider and wasn’t simplified. It wasn’t propaganda and acknowledged. It’s a complicated, difficult issue to think about. And it really shaped me to read that. What does the world look like if no teenager is ever allowed to read a book like that that’s rich and complicated and about a difficult topic?
S1: I think that’s a wonderful question. And there are so many complicated things in our world that books help students grapple with. Part of the power of books is helping us with Windows. As Dr. Reading Sims Bishop talks about Windows into other people’s experiences and books like that that help people see those experiences through a whole different lens, helps them become better citizens, really, in our democracy, because understanding something from multiple viewpoints just makes you better a better citizen, a better worker, a better voter.
S2: There are lots of classic pieces of literature like Shakespeare plays, or you could even say the Bible, where there are mature themes, explicit themes, violence. Is anybody objecting to those kinds of books?
S1: No, they’re not. And you bring up a very good point. There’s some hypocrisy going on in all of this that just needs to continue to be called out. I was talking to my sister about this actually the other day, and her son is in high school and he said, oh, my gosh, he’s reading Macbeth. I mean, talk about something that someone could complain about. Huckleberry Finn was burned, you know, when it first came out. And people at the time were very offended by his character because he wore shorts and talked in slang and he ran away and he didn’t obey the adults. There’s the saying that there’s something in a library to offend everyone. And certainly many classics have the ability to offend people.
S2: Taking a quick break here. Back in a minute with my guest, Carolyn Foote. Let’s talk about the fight you’re embarking on. What are you doing to push back on these broad efforts to take books off of the shelves?
S1: So I’m part of a small team of librarians in Texas. We call ourselves the Freedom Fighters. That’s FERPA domain fighters. We started shortly after Matt Krauss released his letter in Texas, and then our governor sort of doubled down because we felt like librarians were being mischaracterized, first of all. And we also knew that the impact of censoring these types of titles would have on students. And then we were brainstorming what we could do to raise the visibility of great books and diverse books. And my colleague called me one night with the idea of what if we took over the Texas ledge hashtag for a day, which is Texas law, and it’s frequently used in Texas by reporters and legislators to track what’s going on. So we notified people quietly behind the scenes in our librarian groups, author groups, people we knew and asked them to join us on November 4th and to tweet out something about a positive impact of a diverse book on their lives and include a picture of the book cover if they wanted to, and use our hashtag and the Texas pledge hashtag. And to our astonishment, we had over 13,000 tweets that day and trended sixth on Twitter. And after that, we got more organized. We formed a Twitter account. We set up a website with resources for people. We’ve had weekly and monthly actions that people could get engaged in. And so it’s just sort of exploded from there.
S2: You’re talking about using Twitter and websites. If you’re my age, you remember the librarian helping you riffle through the card catalog in the giant filing cabinet. Right. Technology obviously is a lot different now and you’re using that to get your message out. But there are other elements of technology that come into play here. There are e-book systems that the students can use to access books, I guess. And does that make the fight different? How does that change censorship battles from how they used to be sort of previous technology?
S1: It makes it both easier and harder, I guess. I mean, we saw recently a school district in Tennessee took down their entire e-book system of like over 10,000 books because a parent had complained about one book title in it. Another school district in San Antonio, Northeast DSD, pulled down 400 of their e-books that were on Krauss’s initial list for review, and so they were unavailable to students at Public Library in L.A., got rid of their e-book provider and picked a different one because they were upset with, you know, what was included in it.
S2: In some of the schools I went to growing up, there was only one librarian and they were sort of there by themselves in the library. Can librarians feel kind of isolated when there’s conflict like this, going to kind of feel out there on an island?
S1: Exactly. And that was part of our goal in starting our freedom fighters group, actually, was to let librarians know they weren’t alone in the midst of these big challenges. We’re all experiencing this together. So every librarian you support or every teacher you support behind the scenes, that’s the person working one on one with the students who want to have access to books and ideas that are important to them.
S2: Is there a risk for a librarian if they start being seen as not sort of politically neutral?
S1: There’s definitely a risk. But I want to point out that in many state library standards, like in Texas and around the country, defending intellectual freedom is actually part of the job description. A library is intended to be and is seen by the Supreme Court as a marketplace of ideas. A place where you have controversial ideas on the shelf and that materials can’t be removed just because of the ideas within them. And what we really believe in is civil discourse. And I always say, you know, librarians have books for everyone, from vegetarians to hunters. But the whole point is to provide a wide variety of viewpoints and let the reader decide. And it’s one of the few places in a school where students have complete choice and inquiry. And I want to circle back around to the policies and remind people that policies protect everyone, because it’s just as possible that parents that are opposed to people having access to guns might come to a school and want to pull books where a character is a hunter or a character is learning how to use a gun because he wants to go to the police academy or whatever. So it’s just as possible that challenges can come from any direction.
S2: Where do you see this heading? What’s on the horizon in this fight?
S1: It’s very worrisome because a lot of things are getting rolled up together. Right. Concerns about divisive concepts or critical race theory bills, parental bills, the whole issue and muddling of sex education in schools, they’re all getting sort of rolled up in this ball right now. And it’s being seen as a political wedge, honestly. And recent polls like a CBS poll, USA Today polls show that Americans do not support banning books, especially books about race and racism. But the majority is also exhausted from fights over everything under the sun. And there’s just been so much exhausting news. We have to have a fire for our democracy. We have to light that fire in our belly to defend intellectual freedom.
S2: Carolyn Foote, thank you so much for coming on the show.
S1: Thank you. It was great talking with you today.
S2: Carolyn Foote is a former librarian for schools in the Austin, Texas, suburbs. That’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Carmel Delshad and Alena Schwartz with major help from Anna Rubanova and Sam Kim. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. I’m Seth Stevenson. Mary Harris will be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.