Thanks to restrictions, librarians can’t buy new books for students
Jan. 22, 2023 Updated Sun., Jan. 22, 2023 at 6:02 p.m.
A school librarian looks through titles at a book giveaway held for educators in Florida last summer. The mothers who organized the event hoped to make it easier for school librarians to get their hands on titles amid a near-total block of book orders under state law. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/For The Washington Post)
In one Texas school district, school librarians have ordered 6,000 fewer books this year than the year before, because under a new rule parents must have 30 days to review the titles before the school board votes to approve them. In Pennsylvania, a school librarian who must now obtain her principal’s consent for acquisitions has bought just 100 books this school year, compared with her typical 600.
And throughout Florida, many school librarians have been unable to order books for nearly a year, thanks to their districts’ interpretation of a state law requiring librarians to undergo an online retraining program on “the selection and maintenance of library … collections” – which was not published until this month. Julie Miller, a librarian for the Clay County School District, has not been permitted to order a book since March 2022. In a typical year, she would have ordered 300 titles by now. Instead, she has had more than a hundred conversations with disappointed students seeking fresh titles, she said, especially the latest books in their favorite fantasy series.
“It puts me in a terrible position,” Miller said. She has had to brainstorm a novel use for the 40% of her budget formerly devoted to books: “This year, I’m going to replace all of our chairs in the library.”
States and districts nationwide have begun to constrain what librarians can order. At least 10 states have passed laws giving parents more power over which books appear in libraries or limiting students’ access to books, a Washington Post analysis found. At the same time, school districts are passing policies that bar certain kinds of texts – most often, those focused on issues of gender and sexuality – while increasing administrative or parental oversight of acquisitions.
Typical are the new rules in the Keller Independent School District in Texas, where, starting this school year, librarians who hope to order books must complete a Google form asking them to flag any problematic content, including “passionate and/or extended kissing” or “discussion or depiction of gender fluidity,” according to a copy of the form reviewed by the Post. Then, librarians must submit the list of requested texts to the school board for a 30-day public viewing period, during which parents can investigate and challenge the proposed purchases. Finally, the full school board will vote to approve or reject every item on the list.
Students are upset, especially LGBTQ students, said a Keller employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional retribution. “They want to see themselves in books, they want to see themselves reflected, and they’re not able to.”
Keller district spokeswoman Dinene Rusler wrote in a statement that the book selection “process we have in place … allows librarians to take the lead in curating our libraries, while inviting our community to provide input and to partner with staff to protect our students.” She added, “Books are not removed simply because they feature LGBTQ characters, and there are still books available that include these characters.”
Some praise the more stringent book-purchasing guidelines. A school librarian in Florida noted that staffers in her district, Osceola County, are poring more regularly and extensively through professional reviews of the books they want to buy.
And Rick Stevens, a Florida pastor who serves on a book-reviewing subcommittee of conservative education advocacy group the Florida Citizens Alliance, said school librarians should welcome the extra pairs of eyes, which he believes will lead to more “pristine” school libraries, stocked solely with texts devoted to the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic.
“Sexual issues and sexuality – our children don’t need to be introduced to that,” Stevens said. “We don’t have to feel a responsibility to provide every kind of material for students.”
It is difficult to gauge exactly how much school book orders have plunged amid this wave of added regulation, but the available data suggests a significant drop. Steve Potash, president and CEO of OverDrive, which supplies e-books and audiobooks to more than half of the nation’s roughly 16,000 school districts, said his company lost millions of dollars in sales in 2022 as school library orders took a nosedive. He declined to be more specific.
Potash noted the dips were especially steep in Texas and Florida, where debates over what children read and learn – about race, racism, history, gender and sexuality – have been fierce. Potash said he is girding for a further drop this year: “It’s troubling. It’s impacted not only our business, but the authors and the readers and the students.”
Conversations with 37 school librarians across 21 states suggest they are facing heightened scrutiny and a thicket of red tape – where before they had wide latitude to choose the books they thought would best supplement the curriculum and stimulate students’ literary appetites.
And librarians say they are less willing, these days, to buy books dealing with difficult aspects of American history, race, racism and questions of gender identity, especially texts focused on the experiences of transgender people. Potash said OverDrive sold far fewer of these kinds of books last year.
John Chrastka, head of library political action committee EveryLibrary, warned that the impairment of librarians’ ability to purchase books will lead to out-of-date collections that do not match school curriculums and are less likely to spark students’ enthusiasm for reading.
“We know very clearly from the research that a key driver for individual reading success is self-directed reading, when kids pick up a fun new book that interests them,” he said. “There will be gaps in learning.”‘They used to say, “Just buy the books.”’
Hurdles to book ordering have emerged across the country. Most systems replace setups that allowed librarians – who must obtain master’s degrees, teaching licenses or both in all but three states – far-reaching autonomy over text selection, so long as they consulted peer-reviewed journals to establish books’ literary merit and age-appropriateness.
In Virginia, the Roanoke County district now requires that several staffers read and review every book suggested for purchase before allowing parents two weeks to scrutinize the titles. In South Carolina, the Horry County school system is mandating that a special committee, including four parent members, sign off on all book orders. In Pennsylvania, the Central Bucks School District debuted a policy this fall under which librarians must publish lists of desired books online “for parental review” before obtaining purchasing permission from an administrator designated by the superintendent.
In other places, informal changes to book-ordering policies have taken root. One Tennessee school, for instance, is “no longer allowed to have a book fair,” the campus librarian wrote in a survey conducted by her state librarians’ association. And Melissa Corey, the president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians, said several librarians have told her this year about “submitting a book order for approval, and the principal hands the order back with multiple titles crossed out.”
Ciro Scardina, a school librarian in Brooklyn, said that frequent delays or denials of book purchases also make it harder for librarians to prune their collections of inaccurate information, as well as replace worn-down classics with fresh copies.
“What do people do when they’ve read those books already, or they’re out-of-date, or they don’t look very attractive?” he said. “No one is going to want to visit the library.”
Lack of enthusiasm for the written word can have consequences spanning students’ lives. As a U.S. Education Department review of decades of research into independent reading concluded, “students’ reading achievement has been shown to correlate with success in school.”
One school librarian in Florida’s Monroe County, who has not been allowed to purchase books since last year, said her district is already seeing decreased student interest in and demand for books. The librarian, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job, said circulation is down “dramatically” this year compared with last year because she cannot give students the just-published titles they desire: Students checked out nearly 3,000 titles between August and December 2021, but just 1,800 between August and December 2022.
“The kids who asked for books back in September are still waiting, and they’re just not reading in the meantime,” she said. “I feel like I’m handcuffed.”
On her desk, the librarian keeps three pages of paper that students have covered with the scrawled titles they’d like to read, if only she could order them.
Still, Michelle Jarrett, president of the Florida Association of Supervisors of Media, which supports school library administrators and programs statewide, said the rethinking of book ordering processes, although worrying to her in many respects, has had some upsides.
For one thing, she said, school librarians have become very diligent about ensuring every text they purchase boasts a favorable review from a professional library journal. “That’s something they should have been doing all along,” Jarrett said.
“And the realization that library media specialists are important has really come to light through this,” she added. “They used to say, ‘Just buy the books.’ And now they’re realizing that requires a lot more in-depth work.”
Over the past two school years, the number of attempts to remove books from schools has skyrocketed to historic highs. Of the thousands of titles targeted, an overwhelming majority were written by or about people of color and LGBTQ individuals, according to the American Library Association and PEN America.
OverDrive’s Potash said the book banning movement, in combination with increased oversight of library purchases, is shifting librarians’ purchasing habits: His group sold fewer titles dealing with race, racism, LGBTQ issues and especially transgender characters in 2022.
“Unfortunately, even the categories in some markets on American history and the impact of slavery are also down,” Potash said. (More than a dozen additional school book suppliers contacted by the Post did not answer or declined to answer questions about trends in school book ordering, citing proprietary sales data or saying they did not track school library purchases.)
Kirsten Slungaard Mumma, a postdoctoral fellow at Boston University studying education, spent roughly six months reviewing the school library catalogues of 6,600 districts across the country. She used web-scraping tools to check the catalogues for book titles that “have been labeled as contentious.” Brown University published her working paper in December. Among her findings are that school libraries in states with laws circumscribing instruction on race and LGBTQ issues are less likely to stock books addressing those topics.
And she found that librarians in school districts that witness book challenges are less likely to order titles featuring LGBTQ characters.
“This is strong evidence of a chilling effect,” she said in an interview.
Anecdotes gathered from nearly two dozen states suggest an atmosphere of creeping fear in which librarians are second-guessing themselves, removing anything likely to elicit disapproval or controversy from their book lists. Many school librarians shared their stories on the condition of anonymity because their districts do not permit them to speak with reporters.
A librarian in Pennsylvania said she no longer feels as if she’s able to order books mentioning violence, guns or mass shootings, even though students’ interest in those matters is spiking after the mass killing in Uvalde, Tex.
Kansas City Public Schools librarian Rebecca Marcum Parker said that, despite intense student demand for manga books, she is reluctant to order the graphics-heavy books because she will have to inspect every single drawing within, hunting for images that could be construed as sexual, to comply with state law.
Heather Perkinson, president of the Maine Association of School Libraries, said this is not how most librarians want to do their jobs – or how they used to do their jobs, just a few years ago. Many librarians chose the profession because they believe books are both “mirrors and windows,” she said, referencing a well-known argument from academic and children’s literature researcher Rudine Sims Bishop that books must reflect children back to themselves while exposing them to other lives.
“These are all new defensive behaviors,” Perkinson said. “It’s quiet censorship. It’s censorship from within.”
Meanwhile, in Florida’s Clay County, Miller is mourning the loss of her most avid reader.
The student, a sophomore, checked out 301 books last year, far and away the most of any child at school. He spent every lunch inside the library, bent over a book. When she told the boy he was “top patron,” he blushed and smiled. Enamored of the title, he began swinging by the circulation desk every few weeks to ask whether he was still “number one.”
But this year, the student – a huge manga fan – ran into a problem. He finished all of the school’s manga books, and Miller, constrained by her district’s interpretation of state law, was unable to order more. At first, the 10th-grader tried rereading his favorite titles, but that soon grew stale.
After a few weeks, he stopped coming to the library.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.