Book challenges and bans leveled on children’s and YA materials in school and public libraries have been in the headlines for a couple of years now, part of a news cycle fueled by the heat of the politically motivated culture war gripping our country. The spotlight on this issue burned especially hot in April when the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom released its annual list of the top 10 most challenged books, revealing that there were 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022, the highest number the organization has ever recorded. According to ALA, 58% of those challenges “targeted books and materials in school libraries, classroom libraries, or school curricula.” In other recent tracking data, PEN America’s latest Index of School Book Bans found that in the first half of the 2022–2023 school year, there were “1,477 instances of books banned affecting 874 unique titles,” which is up 28% over the prior six months. These bans occurred in 37 states, with Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina topping the list.

We spoke with some school librarians about the effects of book banning on their work, and how they are finding and offering support during this stressful and troubling time in their profession. Given this exceptionally tense climate, a number of school librarians declined to speak on the record for this story.

“It is exhausting,” says Kim Fields, school library media specialist at Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Fla. “Each day our governor comes up with new ideas, new demands, new terrible backwards steps. Essentially, this is an attempt to indoctrinate all people who do not conform to conservative Christian beliefs.”

Fields explains that the biggest push behind the spate of Florida legislation designed to censor curricula and ban books is coming from the group Moms for Liberty, which she notes was founded in her state’s Brevard County in 2021. The conservative nonprofit’s purpose is to “fight for the survival of America by unifying, educating, and empowering parents,” according to its website. Most recently, the group has put its mission into action by organizing its nationwide network of chapters to advocate—often via school boards—against mentions of race, LGBTQ rights, discrimination, gender and sexuality, and other related topics in school curricula.

In Hillsborough, Fields says, “we have one MFL member on our board and she is very vocal. We recently had our first official challenge of a book [This Book Is Gay], and she swayed the school board vote [resulting in a ban] at the very last second. The last board meeting I listened to—they occur during school hours, so while we cannot attend, we can listen to a livestream or recordings to stay up to date—had 58 speakers lined up. It was horrible, but like a train wreck you cannot turn away from.”

Shadows over the Sunshine State

Looming particularly large for Fields and fellow Florida librarians is the recent passage of Florida House Bill 1069, which serves as an expansion of the state’s “don’t say gay” law and goes into effect July 1. The new law mandates requirements for instruction and materials relating to human sexuality and reproductive health, and it will also dictate the use of pronouns and terminology related to sexual orientation or gender identity deemed acceptable in schools. Equally distressing to many librarians, the law also defines “classroom libraries” and delineates new standards for book challenges.

“The language of this bill is concerning for those who want to inspire readers and make sure students have access to appropriate, respected books about subjects of their own interest,” says Suzy Tkacik, media specialist at Pride Elementary in Tampa. “Among other things, it requires that every book in every classroom be cataloged, made searchable to the public, and vetted and approved by a licensed school media specialist. With more than 60 classrooms in my school, this will require hundreds of hours collectively to accomplish.”

Fields agrees that the scope of work created by the fast-approaching legislative shifts is burdensome. “It makes the library media specialist responsible for maintaining and approving all classroom books beyond those in the approved curriculum,” Fields says. This includes any donated books or Little Free Libraries on school property.

Tkacik notes that some of the teachers in her school fear losing their job or their teaching license over books in their classroom libraries. “I have heard from more than a few teachers that they plan to just remove their classroom libraries rather than face the scrutiny that Florida HB 1069 threatens,” she says. “This is absolutely heartbreaking to hear.”

She explains that access to both the school and the classroom library is vital for students. “Classroom libraries serve a different function than a school library. Free choice is perhaps the most important factor in inspiring independent reading, so any time we limit access to appropriate choices, we limit opportunities for kids to learn to love to read.”

Tkacik adds that when kids “can’t find themselves, their interests, or what makes them curious” in books, they can easily search for that material somewhere else, with potentially harmful results. “Books in school libraries and classrooms have been thoughtfully curated by librarians and teachers for their particular audience.”

Under the new law, Fields says, the process for challenging books will change. “Books that are challenged in any way by any person must immediately be removed or ‘quarantined.’ Any protest of any book will make this happen.”

Previously, challenged books remained in the library until the challenge went through all the proper channels and a decision was made. Like Tkacik, Fields notes that, faced with this kind of censorship, “many teachers are choosing to box up and take home all of their available books. The wider scope of this means less access to books for kids all around. It will be illegal to carry most of what we have now, especially at the middle and high school levels.”

Something’s got to give

Censorship efforts such as legislating what is taught in schools and which materials are permitted to be there have a chilling ripple effect that has already impacted what the day-to-day work of a school librarian or media specialist looks like.

“The heavy slate of new legislation in my state has added another layer of work and stress to an already overwhelming list of duties,” Tkacik says, noting that her responsibilities include technology maintenance and repair, instructional technology, and school communications, in addition to managing a library of roughly 10,000 volumes and teaching classes every day. “I think school media specialists already juggle about three full-time jobs in our one job—as do most teachers and school administrators. The new legislation means more state training, more time substantiating our book choices by requiring external reviews for each item, and now ongoing time needed to review and approve every book in every classroom library.”

The strain is taking a toll. “Our mood now is dark,” Fields says. “We are angry. We are frustrated. We are insulted; our degree, required by the state, means less than one parent’s right to choose. They will now mandate what is selected based on their biased personal beliefs, and not our professional degrees.”

She points out an even more rattling juxtaposition. July 1 will also usher in Florida’s Constitutional Carry law, which allows individuals to carry concealed weapons without obtaining a government-issued permit. “People can carry guns as they choose, yet children will not be able to read books deemed inappropriate by someone else,” she says. “Our children will be in more danger than ever. It is just bizarre.”

Looking beyond this pivotal summer, Fields admits, “I do not know how much fight I have left in me. Attacks on all sides will wear a person down. I think that next year will be my last. But what scares me the most: What if all librarians here in Florida feel this way? What happens to this generation of readers? Who will fight for their rights under our national constitution?”

This emotional and physical stress overload is not limited to school librarians in states with the most book challenges or restrictive education laws, either. “Without a doubt, the current climate in libraries and education has influenced my work as a school librarian,” says Steve Tetreault, school library media specialist in the Holmdel Township School District in Holmdel, N.J. “I find myself second-guessing many of my decisions about what to include in displays, and what purchases should be made.”

Like many of his colleagues, Tetreault strives to provide unfettered access to a wide range of materials. “There are some items that, while not the right ‘fit’ for some students, are just right—or maybe even essential—for others,” he says. As an example, he cites research studies from the Trevor Project and other sources that have found that LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to die by suicide than their non-LGBTQ peers. “I have heard parents of LGBTQ+ teens who have attempted or committed suicide share how important having support materials available can be for some students.”

Tetreault has also heard other marginalized students discuss various forms of discrimination they have encountered from their peers. “Providing materials where these students can see themselves and feel seen and represented is important,” he says.

“Trying to serve students in need without hanging a target around one’s neck has gotten difficult,” Tetreault adds. “The climate created by book bans has also led to some internal discussions about collection development and policies for both curating and removing books from the collections of all the libraries in the district.”

Where to find help

School librarians across the country routinely say that standing in solidarity is critical to their success, especially in trying times. Fields and Tkacik both praise their district library services administrators in Florida for the steady, passionate support they provide. In New Jersey, Tetreault notes that the New Jersey Association of School Librarians established a Rapid Response Team that will organize volunteers willing to mobilize to defend school librarians and education in their area. Many other resources are available nationwide, and an array of library and education organizations stand ready to help librarians facing censorship issues.

The American Association of School Librarians guides its members—and nonmembers, too—to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, says AASL president Kathy Lester. “OIF has the expertise to provide confidential, specific support,” she says. “We also encourage everyone facing any type of challenge to report to OIF.”

Lester says her organization has focused on building community as a way for members to share and support each other via the group’s board meetings or chapter assembly meetings as well as in numerous blog posts in AASL’s KnowledgeQuest newsletter. She hosted a town hall about supporting school librarians navigating challenges last October, and she and AASL president-elect Courtney Pentland have crowdsourced a list of “Resources for School Library Professionals for Action and Safety During Challenging Times.”

Additionally, AASL has teamed with ALA on a number of initiatives surrounding the issue, including an ALA Connect Live Session cohosted by Lester and ALA president Lessa Pelayo-Lazado during National Library Week in April and two webinars earlier this year, created in collaboration with OIF.

“I have spent time with AASL working diligently and collaboratively for about two years with ALA public policy and advocacy staff, as well as staff of Sen. Jack Reed’s and Rep. Raúl Grijalva’s offices to introduce the Right to Read Act in October 2022, and then to reintroduce the Right to Read Act 2023 during National Library Week in April 2023,” Lester says. “We are proud that the bills have been endorsed by ALA and AASL, as well as the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, National Council of Teachers of English, and PEN America.”

For the AASL President’s Program at ALA Annual on June 24, Lester will be moderating a “Freedom to Read Ambassadors” panel discussion. “We’ll be talking about speaking out for the freedom to read and why it is important for all students to have access to a wide variety of books and information,” she says. The panelists include author Kelly Yang (Front Desk); Sonja Cherry-Paul, educator, author, and adapter of Stamped for Kids; Amanda Jones, 2023 winner of AASL’s Intellectual Freedom Award; and Becky Calzada, cofounder of the #FReadom group.

More generally, in terms of supporting fellow librarians, Tetreault notes that more transparency could help clear up some of the misinformation and misunderstanding that drives parents’ concerns in book banning cases. “The more the community is engaged with and aware of how the school library serves all its students, the lower the chance that community members will believe mis- or disinformation,” he says.

Another big problem Tetreault sees is that “so many efforts to counter book banning efforts are reactive, rather than proactive,” he says. “Building a support network before challenges arrive is the best way to prevent those challenges in the first place.”

In speaking with numerous librarian friends who are personally facing book banning efforts, Tetreault hears a common rallying cry. “They’ve all shared similar advice: get ready, get active, and get loud—whether literally or figuratively.”

Similarly, Tkacik’s advice for librarians also stresses preparation, knowledge, and courage of conviction. “We need to understand the laws and make the most of our abilities and expertise rather than be frightened by the threat of repercussions,” she says. “While new legislation brings challenges and adds to our workload, our students need and deserve access to diverse, rich, meaningful texts, which provide windows, mirrors, and doors to our world. We can’t let fear hinder the choices that we provide.”

Despite Fields’s feelings of frustration and defeat, she says she still has reason to hope. She recalls a quote she recently read, in which Maya Angelou refers to the song lyric, “Every storm runs out of rain.” “That’s what I believe,” Fields says. “For now, I continue to fight in my own way to supply a book for each reader I have in my care. It’s exhausting, appalling, terrifying, yet there’s determination, too—to keep on giving our kids every chance we can.”

For a list of Lester’s advice for librarians facing censorship, click here.