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US students want new books – restrictions

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. Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post.

Hannah Natanson, Students want new books. Thanks to restrictions, librarians can’t buy them, The Washington Post, 22 January 2023

Schools are struggling to keep their shelves stocked as oversight by parents and school boards intensifies.

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 okay 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 percent 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.

Cries to remove books from classrooms and library shelves is nothing new. Some of what has shifted are the storylines, characters and authors being silenced. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Illustration: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post). Click here to view video.

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.”

The district 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.” It continued: “Books are not removed simply because they feature LGBTQ characters, and there are still books available that include these characters.”

The Keller Independent School District policy on book selection.

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 curricula 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 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.

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