Amid a surge in book bans and a right wing attack on libraries, it has been an especially intense couple of years for school librarians. And that tension certainly appeared evident to reporters covering the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) annual conference, which concluded last week in Tampa, Fla.—ground zero for the book banning movement. (A recent Pen America report found that 40% of the nation's book challenges came from school districts in Florida.)
The Tampa Bay Times was among those covering the conference: "Among the many stories circulating at the national school librarians conference this weekend, there was the one about the Right to Read rally. Guests were told the Friday evening event would be held inside the Tampa Convention Center ballroom," the article begins. Why inside? "Amanda Jones of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, co-chairperson of the conference, said the issue was indeed security. 'We were very worried,' she said. 'I myself have had threats.' Welcome to life as a school librarian in 2023."
Local NPR affiliate WUSF also wrote about the conference: "The growing movement to limit access to books and library services is taking a toll on school librarians, said AASL President Courtney Pentland. 'There are people who are facing death threats, who are being doxxed with their personal home addresses and phone numbers,' Pentland explained. 'There are people who are being threatened with physical harm, people who get yelled at and called names, and that is very taxing and exhausting mentally. '"
The Pennsylvania Capital-Star reports that in Philadelphia, many students lack access to school libraries due to underfunding and understaffing. "In 2020, Egypt Luckey graduated from Building 21, a high school in Northwest Philadelphia affiliated with the Learning Innovative network, which emphasizes real-world learning experiences," the article states. "For the entirety of her high school career, Luckey never had a public school library available to her, and she thinks it put her at a disadvantage during the transition to college."
Also from The Pennsylvania Capital-Star, news that the Pennsylvania Senate this week advanced legislation that critics are calling a de facto book ban. "Senate Bill 7 passed 29-21," the article states. "It would require schools to identify sexually explicit content in school curriculum, materials, and books, create an opt-in policy to notify parents of the sexually explicit content by including a list of the book titles on a form, allow parents to review the materials, and require parents to give direct consent for their children to be provided or have access to sexually explicit content."
The Philadephia Inquirer reports that a judge has ruled for a parent in the Pennridge school district who has claimed that high school staff and officials have been improperly pulling allegedly inappropriate books from the school's library shelves and covering it up. "The judge, Jordan Yeager, ordered the district to both give [the parent] the records he sought last October and pay his lawyer’s fees, which are still being finalized," the article states. "But the decision went further than an order to turn over information. Yeager said the district had not just failed to respond to [the parent], but had deliberately hidden books checked out by staff—after administrators had acknowledged...that they were checking out books to review them under a new school board policy prohibiting 'sexualized content' in library collections. 'The district altered the records that were the subject of the request, thwarted public access to public information, and effectuated a cover-up of faculty, administrators, and other non-students’ removal of books from Pennridge High School’s library shelves,' " the judge found.
In South Carolina, the State reports that the state department of education wants to take the power to choose books and other materials away from local school boards. "The effort comes as some school libraries books have become a flashpoint for some parents and conservative groups," the article states. "It also comes months after state education superintendent Ellen Weaver publicly split with the state school librarians association over books in libraries." At an Oct. 10 meeting, Weaver said that she is "looking at a 'regulatory process' of library materials based on 'age-appropriateness' and 'alignment with the South Carolina instructional standard.'"
Also in South Carolina, local affiliate WYFF-4 reports that the Greenville Public Library is still wrestling with how to do displays after the library board ordered all displays be taken down for 90 days following complaints about displays during Pride Month. "Monday, like most recent library board meetings, drew a crowd as trustees closed the book on one policy and debated a new one that would allow for non-themed displays, meaning books on display with no common thread, displays for county-paid holidays, and new arrivals," the station reports. "While six board members voted in favor, a vocal minority of four pushed back and asked for a return to former rules to better represent the community. 'It is an impossible standard to say that we're never going to offend anybody who walks through those doors,' trustee Joe Poore said."
In the Arkansas Advocate, Tess Vrbin reports on an Arkansas state senator's threat to withhold funding from the Arkansas Library Association (ArLA) over its decision to decline an invitation to appear before the state legislature’s Joint Performance Review committee. There's just one small problem: ArLA doesn't receive state funds. “If they want to be independent of the state and decline all state dollars, that’s fine with me,” Vrbin reports Sullivan as saying, with Sullivan pledging to "withhold funding to ArLA until a representative appears before the Joint Performance Review or the Joint Budget Committee. "But the Arkansas Library Association does not receive state funding and never has," ArLA president Carole Coffey explained. “We are a nonprofit trade association.” Coffey added that she declined the request to appear before the committee because ArLA is a plaintiff in the suit to block Arkansas's 'harmful to minor" law, Act 372, which Sullivan sponsored, and parts of which were found to be unconstitutional and enjoined by a federal judge in July.
In Alabama, a report from local affiliate News19 details a meeting of the Athens-Limestone County Public Library Board of Trustees that became a discussion of pursuing new 'sexual content 'guidelines.
From Aspen Public Radio, a report on the Garfield County Public Library District's hosting of a "Freedom to Read” forum, which was organized in response to a petition from residents asking the library to restrict access to "several Japanese manga graphic novels," claiming they are pornographic. "GCPLD executive director Jamie LaRue began the night with a presentation about First Amendment rights and the history of libraries in America," the report notes. "The public then had about an hour and a half to voice their opinions. In order to get equal speaking time, the public lined up to speak in two different groups: those in favor of more restrictions and those against them. Each speaker was given three minutes to talk."
Over at Book Riot, Kelly Jensen leads her weekly censorship news roundup with a useful look at some of the lesser-known books being banned across the country—books that don't necessarily make the headlines or the major banned books lists. "In an era where thousands of books are being banned and thousands more challenged, how come we’re still only hearing the titles of a few and conflating those stories with the stories of every other author being censored right now?" Jensen writes. "They’re representative of some things but certainly not of all things."
MIT News writes up Oxford University librarian Richard Ovenden's recent talk at MIT, including a Q&A that touched on the connections between book bans and so-called cancel culture. “At this moment in our history, we should try to encourage discussion, and not debate,” said Ovenden, author of Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge. “We must try to move away from this idea that it’s a contest, that it’s a battle, and encourage and foster the idea of listening and discussion. And that's all part of the deliberation that I think is necessary for a healthy society.”
Open Access Week ends on Sunday, but maybe the biggest headline from this week is the sacking of open access pioneer Michael Eisen as editor-in-chief of the life sciences journal eLife "following his endorsement on social media of a satirical article expressing sympathy for Palestinians caught in the escalating violence in Gaza between Israel and Hamas." StatNews has a good report on the furor.
"The decision, which was called for by some corners of the scientific community, and ignited a subsequent backlash in others, highlights disagreements among researchers about institutions’ restrictions on free speech when science and politics collide," the article notes, adding that "at least seven editors at eLife and advisers to the journal have resigned in protest" of Eisen's dismissal. “No scientist should be fired over something like this because it really affects the freedom of speech within the scientific community, especially for early career and minority researchers,” Lara Urban, a biodiversity researcher at Helmholtz Munich, told StatNews.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports on Bay Beats, the San Francisco Public Library program for streaming music by local musicians, run in partnership with the famous Amoeba Records. "Listeners eager to explore the musical treasure trove do not need a library card to access the platform. However, for the over 450,000 San Francisco Public Library cardholders, downloading music from Bay Beats is free." Pretty awesome.
Finally this week, the New York Times writes about the push to restore net neutrality, which took a critical step forward last week. "The idea is that broadband customers should have access to any site without interference by high-speed internet service providers," writes Cecilia Kang. "The concept, coined more than 15 years ago by Tim Wu, a Columbia law school professor, was initially developed to stop cable and telecom companies that provide internet services from blocking or slowing down the delivery of sites like Google, Netflix, and Skype, which compete with them."
The new rules proposal is now open open to public comment, and a vote on the new rules is expected in 2024. As the FCC explains, "there is currently no expert agency ensuring that the internet is fast, open, and fair," after existing rules were repealed by the Trump administration's F.C.C. in December of 2017, despite a large public outcry. "As work, healthcare, education, commerce, and so much more have moved online, no American household or business should need to function without reliable internet service. This was especially true during the pandemic. Such rules would affirm—under Title II of the Communications Act—that broadband service is on par with water, power, and phone service; that is: essential."
As I reported for Publishers Weekly at the time, Tim Wu spoke to librarians as keynote speaker at the Public Library Association conference in 2018, and warned that ensuring a free and open internet was essential to democracy. “If we do one thing over the next few years it must be to restore net neutrality. It must be to restore our informational freedoms,” Wu told librarians, explaining that the “fundamental idea [of net neutrality] is that the user should decide what the Internet is” and that "the carrier shouldn’t get in the way.” The internet, Wu said “should be a medium in the true sense of the word."
So, why was net neutrality one of the first things the Trump administration went after? “I think it comes back to the idea that the free flow of information can be very threatening to those who wish to consolidate their power,” Wu said. “I think it comes down to the idea that the censorial instinct remains very strong.”