Library work has always had its challenges. In the wake of the pandemic, it became especially threatening for too many library workers. And now, amid a politically motivated, intensifying wave of book bans and attacks on the freedom to read, the threat level is escalating further.

This week, we learned more about threats targeting the Hilton Central School District in western New York that forced law enforcement officials to evacuate schools and cancel classes. What motivated the threat? Juno Dawson's This Book Is Gay being available in the school library. "In the threat, the sender accused school leaders of 'grooming' children," according to the local affiliate WHAM. The book is now under review, the report adds. Law enforcement has reportedly determined that at least two additional reputed threats were determined to be "hoaxes."

In response, the New York Library Association officials issued a statement calling for support. "The threats made to the Hilton Schools community and their superintendent are indicative of the rising culture of fear and hatred towards equal access to representation in library materials," the NYLA statement reads. "Amidst these threats, our commitment to the freedom to read and intellectual freedom remains unwavering. We strongly condemn any group or person who works to restrict the right to read of any person, especially our students who turn to their school libraries to provide an array of perspectives and voices during their most formative years. The perpetrator of this hate crime's only goal was to eradicate our students' fundamental right to read. This act is an unpatriotic effort to corrode our democratic society."

ALA has also issued a statement urging support for library workers in the wake of the threats. "ALA calls on community leaders and elected officials to stand with libraries and others who promote the free and democratic exchange of ideas to stand up to those who would undermine it," ALA president Lessa Kanani'opua Pelayo-Lozada said. “Every day professional librarians sit down with parents to thoughtfully determine what reading material is best suited for their children’s needs. Now, many library workers face threats to their employment, their personal safety, and in some cases, threats of prosecution for providing books to youth that they and their parents want to read.”

Meanwhile, an eerily similar situation occurred in Iowa, where The Iowa Press-Citizen reports that Northwest Junior High School (in Coralville) was also evacuated after receiving bomb threats over This Book Is Gay. And the report points out that the threats came on the heels of a popular right-wing social media account calling out the school for having the book in its collection. "The Libs of TikTok Twitter account, which has two million followers and is known for its anti-LGBTQ stance, published a Tweet on March 21 that denounced the school for having the book," the article reports. "It generated hundreds of responses, many of them graphically homophobic." The book has since been pulled from library shelves "for review," the report adds.

In Florida, WFLA reports that the Hillsborough County School Board held a special meeting this week at which it voted to ban This Book Is Gay from all public middle schools in the area, finding the book inappropriate. "Controversy over the book began last year when a parent filed a complaint because the book was available in the Pierce Middle School library," the report states. "A committee at the school reviewed the book and decided it should stay. Their decision was appealed, and then a district committee reviewed the book, and also voted that it could remain on library shelves. That decision was appealed, leading to Tuesday’s special school board meeting." The vote to ban the book at that special board meeting was 4-3.

The Advocate reports that the author of This Book Is Gay, Juno Dawson, is defending the book, published a decade ago as a guide for young people figuring out their sexuality. "I just want to say huge thank you to all the librarians and educators who are defending freedom of speech and the right for young LGBTQ people to see themselves in books," Dawson said in a recent Instagram video.

The escalating threats come a week after the ALA reported a shocking spike in book challenges in 2022, with its top 10 most challenged books (which has for years included This Book Is Gay, #9 last year) due to be released on Monday, April 24 during National Library Week. This week, ALA announced that Kelly Yang, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of books for young readers (including the Front Desk series), will serve as honorary chair of this year's National Library Week. “I am the product of amazing libraries and librarians, who saw me, supported me, and nurtured me,” Yang said, in a release.

In Lousiana, the Louisiana Illuminator reports that the St. Tammany Library Control Board has voted to keep five challenged books on library shelves after what sounds like a tense meeting. "Each of the four children’s books under review contained LGBTQ+ themes or characters," the report notes, adding that "all but one" of the comments seeking removal was filed on behalf of "a local conservative group behind many of the challenged materials in the parish’s library system." However, the report adds, "the majority of the public comments were against the removal of the challenged books. Many parents took to the podium to defend them as useful teaching resources."

In Virginia, the local NBC affiliate reports that the Spotsylvania County Public Schools superintendent, citing a "Virginia law signed by Governor Glenn Youngkin last year," has ordered 14 books removed from school library shelves due to "sexually explicit" content. The 14 books include Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize–winning Beloved. Critics say the move conflicts with the decision of book review committees that "read and discussed the books and decided all should stay on the shelves," the reports points out. "We’ve had 70-plus parents and educators make a decision, and the decision of one person can overrule all of them,” said one parent.

Adding to the tension in the Spotsylvania County Public School System, the local Free-lance Star reports that the superintendent also alarmed fellow board members by recently proposing the elimination of school libraries as a cost-cutting option should the county "fail to fully fund" the school board’s budget request.

In Missouri, local station KOMU reports that lawmakers in the Missouri House of Representatives have approved a plan to cut all $4.5 funding for public libraries as payback for Missouri librarians joining with the ACLU in a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of a new state law, Senate Bill 775, which bans libraries and teachers from sharing allegedly 'sexually explicit' material under the threat of criminal prosecution. "This is a scary time to be trying to manage everything in libraries," Otter Bowman, president of the Missouri Library Association, told reporters. The measure still requires another vote in the House before it heads to the Senate.

For patrons under the age of 18, it is a guardian’s responsibility to guide a child’s reading journey, not a state government. Nor is it the right of one parent or guardian to restrict access to materials provided to other patrons.

From Coda, an in-depth look at SB 775, the bill causing so much tension in Missouri. "Senate Bill 775 has led to the removal of hundreds of children’s books across the state and caused library workers to aggressively self-censor under the threat of incarceration," writes senior reporter Erica Hellerstein.

Also in Missouri, a controversial "protection of minors" rule proposed late last year by Missouri secretary of state Jay Ashcroft has failed to advance so far, and in Truthout, ALA president-elect Emily Drabinksi writes that the organization of library workers has been key. "Missouri librarians have been systematically preparing library workers for such challenges since at least 2015," Drabinski writes. "That’s the year librarian Colleen Norman—who is also the chair of the Missouri Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee—worked with her colleagues at Mid-Continent Public Library in Independence, Missouri, to develop a workshop designed to train front line library workers in the basics of intellectual freedom principles and book challenge defense."

In Texas, local affiliate KXAN reports on Senate Bill 13, a bill that would create “school library advisory councils” tasked with ensuring “local community values are reflected in each school library catalog.” The bill also would subject librarians and teachers to "criminal penalties for exposing children to harmful material," the report states.

In Indiana, the Indiana Capital Chronicle has an anonymous editorial against a bill, SB 12, "that would make it possible to charge Indiana librarians with a Level 6 felony," which, the piece notes, is the criminal equivalent to auto theft and strangulation. "As degreed, trained, and experienced library professionals, we recognize that not all items in every library are relevant, suitable, or appropriate for all groups," the editorial reads. "However, for patrons under the age of 18, it is a guardian’s responsibility to guide a child’s reading journey, not a state government. Nor is it the right of one parent or guardian to restrict access to materials provided to other patrons."

In Idaho, IdahoEdNews reports on a host of library-centered bills advancing in the legislature. HB 314 "seeks to prohibit harmful or obscene materials from public and school libraries...including a $2,500 fine for libraries found guilty of disseminating harmful materials." Senate Bill 1187 and Senate Bill 1188 "would require libraries to adopt policies to 'protect minors from harmful materials,' and calls for citizens’ commissions to review objectionable materials."

In Arkansas, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat & Gazette reports that Senate Bill 81, which would "create an offense for 'furnishing a harmful item to a minor' and strike a defense from state law intended to protect librarians from criminal prosecution under obscenity laws," passed the Senate by a 24-5 vote, and is now headed to Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders. "Spokeswoman Alexa Henning said the governor will sign the bill," the article reports.

In North Dakota, KX News reports that an amended House Bill 1205, which would ban public libraries from providing" explicit sexual material," passed the Senate by 39-7 margin. "The amended bill says libraries cannot keep offensive books in their children’s section. And by January 1, 2024, every public library must have a policy for how it reviews its collection to check for inappropriate content," the report states. The amended bill now heads back to the House.

At Book Riot, Danika Ellis fills in for Kelly Jensen for this week's censorship report. The opening features 100-year-old Grace Linn, who recently garnered national headlines for speaking against the removal of 80+ books from the school library at a Martin County, Fla., school board meeting. "One of the questions Kelly and other anti-censorship activists and groups receive the most often is, 'What can we do? How can I help?'" Ellis writes. "The Censorship Round Up archive is filled with so many ways to help, from voting to calling your representative to speaking up in school board and library board meetings and more. We also have an anticensorship tool kit. We even compiled and updated resources into an e-book: How to Fight Book Bans and Censorship. The resources are there. But it’s up to you to act, and Grace Linn shows exactly how to do that."

And finally, from PEN America, Nadine Farid Johnson, PEN America’s managing director of Washington and Free Expression programs, testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution on March 23, at a hearing titled “Free Speech: The Biden Administration’s Chilling of Parental Rights.” Johnson told lawmakers that we are "in the midst of the broadest attack on First Amendment rights in schools and universities" America has seen in generations.

"Much of what we are seeing now is not just parents being involved in their children’s classrooms. It is instead an effort to impose the wishes of a few onto entire communities, by enlisting the government to act as a proxy and engage in censorship on their behalf," Johnson testified. "Right now, in the U.S., measures aimed at silencing the exchange of ideas and open inquiry in schools are creating a climate of intimidation and fear that detracts from teaching and learning. We risk giving students only a sanitized, narrow education that will constrain their ability to understand and engage with the multiplicity of ideas, perspectives, people, and stories that make up our world." Johnson further warned of an "erosion of trust in our educational institutions, our education professionals, and one another" that risks undermining "fundamental elements of our democracy."

Fittingly, Johnson ended by quoting Grace Linn's school board testimomy from Martin County, Fla., from last week: "Banned books and burning books are the same. Both are done for the same reason: Fear of knowledge. Fear is not freedom. Fear is not liberty. Fear is control.”

The Week in Libraries is a weekly opinion and news column. News, tips, submissions, questions or comments are welcome, and can be submitted via email. Previous columns can be viewed here.