The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Texas librarians are on the front lines in a battle for the right to read

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DALLAS — “Librarians are the secret masters of the world,” wrote American Canadian author Spider Robinson. “They control information. Don’t ever piss one off.”

Texas has a lot of pissed off librarians these days, thanks to conservative attacks on the freedom of young people to read what they want.

In recent weeks, the bedrock democratic freedom to read has come under attack from Republicans in Texas. Last month, state Rep. Matt Krause (R) cobbled together a list of some 850 books centering on LGBTQ issues, race and sexuality and directed schools to report which titles appear in their collections and how much money was spent on them. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott doubled down, sending a letter to the Texas Association of School Boards demanding that the group root out “pornographic” material from school libraries. Abbott then went a step further, demanding that the Texas Education Agency investigate “the availability of pornography” in public schools and report any instances of such material being provided to a minor “for prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.”

Republicans have concluded that a manufactured moral panic over critical race theory and diversity in education can help them win elections, and Glenn Youngkin’s victory this month in the Virginia governor’s race has further encouraged them. No surprise that works dealing with sexual themes would be thrown on the fire — and that’s not totally a metaphor, alas; members of a Virginia school board said this month that they would like to see some books burn.

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Enter the angry librarians.

The American Library Association’s Bill of Rights affirms that books and library resources are for the “interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves” — and that applies equally to school libraries, as appropriate for education level. Texas librarians are organizing to push back on attempts to cut some parts of the community out of that mission.

This month, a group of Texas librarians on Twitter staged a takeover of the #txlege hashtag and boosted #FReadom. “One of the things that we are trained in is advocacy, since our jobs are always on the line,” said Sara Stevenson, a retired Austin librarian who is providing advice and guidance to small-town librarians in the state on navigating the current climate. “But now I worry librarians will self-censor.”

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, is worried about the long-term impact of this orchestrated national onslaught against books and libraries.

“It’s consumed our work,” she said. “We get three to five reports every day.” The American Library Association also provides support to individual librarians whose jobs are threatened over these issues. “Our job is not just about school curriculums, but about developing a love for reading,” she said. “We believe that parents absolutely have the right to guide their children, but no one parent should be telling the community what everyone else should be reading.”

This is not just about books. The explicit focus on works dealing with LGBTQ issues can be read as a backlash against LGBTQ visibility — about stripping young citizens of their rights to learn about themselves and to develop empathy for others. Books and libraries are among the few safe spaces where young people who want to explore their identities, and see those identities represented, can do so in private, without judgment or shame.

And many libraries already have procedures in place for challenging contentious books. For many school districts, an official challenge to a book can be made via a formal written complaint, which is followed up by a community committee that discusses the book and the challenge to make a collective decision.

“Libraries are little engines of democracy,” Caldwell-Stone said. But now those effective, existing processes are being trampled.

So far, Texas’s most famous librarian — former first lady Laura Bush, who has a master’s degree in library science from the University of Texas at Austin — has not weighed on the political attack on school libraries in her state. The Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries provides millions in grants to school libraries across the country so that they can improve their libraries and add more diversity to their content. This anti-book wave threatens the very ethos of Bush’s foundation. When I reached out Tuesday, a Bush spokesperson said she had no comment, but I am hopeful she will take a stand with her professional peers against censorship and for children’s right to read, even if it means standing against her own political party.

In the meantime, librarians promise they will keep fighting. We all should hope so, for they are on the front lines against what is looking to be a dark chapter for freedom of thought in America.

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