‘We’re Preparing For a Long Battle.’ Librarians Grapple With Conservatives’ Latest Efforts to Ban Books

Two members of the Virginia School Board called for book burning on Nov. 8.

During a board meeting that evening, the Spotsylvania County Public School Board unanimously ordered its school libraries to begin removing “sexually explicit” books, after a concerned parent raised concerns about titles available via a library app.

You can find the following: Lance-Stars for FreePublished Nov. 9, 2009:

Courtland representative Rabih Abismail and Livingston representative Kirk Twigg said that they’d like to see the books taken out of service burned.

“I think we should throw those books in a fire,” Abuismail said, and Twigg said he wants to “see the books before we burn them so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff.”

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While the school board is revisiting the decision after its attorney called it unconstitutional, the comments—and the fact that members tried to do such a review to begin with—are an extreme example of a trend that’s alarming librarians and free speech activists. TIME reached out to Twigg and Abuismail for comments but they did not respond immediately. Just a few months in to the school year and librarians claim that efforts to ban book are increasing. This is a significant development in the history to date to try to censor books.

At least seven states’ school libraries have taken out books that community members challenged since September. Among the books most frequently targeted are Toni Morrison’s The BThe Luest Eye (1970), George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto (2020), Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir (2019), Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy (2018), and Alison Bechdel’s Familial Tragicomic: The Fun House (2006). (2006). race and LGBTQ identities.

“We’re seeing an unprecedented volume of challenges,” says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Executive Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “I’ve worked for ALA for 20 years, and I can’t recall a time when we had multiple challenges coming in on a daily basis.”

Every school year, the American Library Association leads efforts to ban books. In fact, classics are regular fixtures on its list of top 10 most challenged books—from John Steinbeck’s Between Mice and Men to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But the latest challenges come at a time when school boards nationwide have been bombarded with questions about whether schools are teaching “critical race theory”—a decades-old academic framework rarely taught below the graduate level that scholars use to look at how legal systems and other institutions perpetuate racism and exclusion.

Learn more ‘Critical Race Theory Is Simply the Latest Bogeyman.’ Inside the Fight Over What Kids Learn About America’s History

“What you can see with book bannings is that they are tied to whatever is causing anxiety in society,” says Emily Knox, author of 21st-Century America Book Banning. Since the beginning of the 2021, conservative advocacy groups have been spreading misinformation about critical race theory—which has become a catch-call term for the history of racism—and working to help parents run for school board and challenge their schools districts over lesson plans or reading materials they feel are inappropriate. A total of 28 states have taken or proposed actions to limit how teachers talk about racism and sexism. According to Education Week.

Caldwell-Stone says what’s also new is the chorus of elected officials who are also calling for books to be removed from school libraries.

Glenn Youngkin was recently featured in a campaign advertisement featuring a mom looking to get elected as Virginia Governor. Beloved banned from her son’s high school. Und oOn Nov. 10, the South Carolina governor and Texas governor called for an investigation into their books. In Texas, where there’s a law designed to ban the teaching of critical race theory, Republican Governor Greg Abbott Phoned on the Texas Education Agency to “investigate any criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography,” while Republican South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster Singled out Gender Queer per a tip from “concerned parents” and called for a statewide investigation “to prevent pornography and other obscene content from entering our State’s public schools.”

Kobabe was nonbinary. He spoke out to Texas TribuneThis Gender Queer aims to provide “good, accurate, safe information” for queer high school students at a time when there’s a lot of misinformation about gender identity exploration online.

Learn more:‘Critical Race Theory Is Simply the Latest Bogeyman.’ Inside the Fight Over What Kids Learn About America’s History

TIME in 1981 reported that there was a similar effort to ban books across America. At that time, the bans were both a reaction to “everything-goes New Permissiveness gusted forth in the 1960s,” as TIME’s Frank Trippett put it, and part of the rise of Evangelical fundamentalism and the Moral Majority political coalition emboldened by the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as President. The magazine even covered a book burning in Drake, North Dakota which saw copies of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five James Dickey’s Deliverance,An anthology of stories with Joseph Conrad John Steinbeck, William Faulkner was destroyed. “I would think moral-minded people might object to books that are philosophically alien to what they believe,” Rev. TIME interviewed George A. Zarris from Illinois as a Moral Majority Leader. “If they have the books and feel like burning them, fine.”

But, from this era emerged a significant precedent which upholds First Amendment safeguards to school library shelves. In 1975, the Island Trees Union Free School District in Long Island, N.Y. banned of 11 books for being “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.” Former students challenged the decision, and the case made it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1982 that school boards cannot remove books because they don’t agree with them, describing libraries as spaces of “voluntary inquiry.”

“Thanks to the First Amendment, the U.S. has been remarkably, if not entirely, free of such official monitoring,” the magazine wrote. “Still, the nation has always had more than it needs of voluntary censors, vigilantes eager to protect everybody from hazards like ugly words, sedition, blasphemy, unwelcome ideas and, perhaps worst of all, reality.”

Learn more These are the Best Books of 2020 So Far

People have tried to ban books from schools libraries for years, despite the SCOTUS decision. Many school districts have had processes in place since the 1980s to address complaints about books left on shelves. A committee of educators, parents, and students might get together to read the books and evaluate them, for example—most of the time the books remain on shelves while the review is in process.

“The problem lately is that once again… political pressure has increased enormously, and in some cases [school districts]Are abandoning their policy. They’re pulling the books before they’re reviewed,” says Chris Finan, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. “We’re preparing for a long battle.”

Lisa Varga (Executive Director, Virginia Library Association) points out that social media and the Internet make stealing from students nearly impossible. “The majority of these kids have cell phones with unfettered access to the Internet, she says. “They can find more on their phone—that you know their guardians provide and pay for—that’s objectionable than they’re going to find in the books in their school library.”


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