Texas lawmakers are trying to micro-manage books in schools. Trust librarians instead | Opinion

When schools went remote at the beginning of the coronavirus era, parents were briefly in awe at teachers’ patience and skills. As schools remained closed and parents grew angry, educators quickly fell from grace, and 370,000 have left the profession since the beginning of the pandemic.

Even at that, school librarians experienced the steepest fall.

During my 15 years as a public middle-school librarian, I frequently received affirmation for my vocation to encourage young people to read. But ever since then-Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth published a list of 750 questionable books in fall 2021, Texas librarians have been put on the defensive.

School librarians fully support parents’ rights to monitor their children’s reading choices. In fact, some parents use the selection of library books as a way to facilitate conversations and even read books together. Problems arise when particular parents try to usurp this role from the professionally trained librarians and decide which books belong or don’t belong in the library — not just for their kids but for all children.

The library at Washington Heights Elementary School in 2016.
The library at Washington Heights Elementary School in 2016.

School librarians in Texas are required to hold master’s degrees (or be working towards them) as well as teaching certificates and are charged with curating their library collections. Each school population has different age levels, interests, needs and community standards, and the librarian’s duty is to choose suitable titles while making sure many points of view are represented.

A book’s inclusion in a library is not a librarian’s endorsement of the content. The book is there to provide access and choice.

Now, several Texas House members have introduced bills that would directly affect school libraries. House Bill 338, filed by Republican Rep. Tom Oliverson of Cypress, would skip the role of the librarian altogether by putting the onus directly on the book publishers. Under this measure, publishers would have to rate every book for age appropriateness and display these ratings on their covers.

The labels wouldn’t just rate for sexual content; they would even warn if a book might be too scary for a child younger than 7. How can anyone possibly decide this for all children? How would Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” be rated? It has monsters, yes, but it’s also adorable.

The consequence for a publisher’s failure to include the rating would be that its books will not be available for school libraries to purchase.

This demand on private companies certainly seems like overreach, and it would significantly slow down the process of getting new books into the hands of eager readers. And once again, we are faced with the question of who decides. Is it the publisher, who may be quite liberal or overly strict in standards? Will the publisher hire readers to count “dirty words” and “inappropriate” or “scary” scenes, or will the book be judged as a whole? Will every parent in every Texas community agree with these ratings? And why bypass the professional librarian in this process?

At the other end of the pendulum, we have House Bill 552 from Republican Rep. Ellen Troxclair of Austin. This law would remove the education protection clause, “repealing the affirmative defense to prosecution for the criminal offense of sale, distribution, or display of harmful material to a minor.”

This stems from the accusation that certain librarians are “groomers” for sexual deviancy. This threat will affect the contents of libraries, causing librarians to self-censor and limit books with mature or controversial themes, LGBT characters or racial conflict. Librarians cannot possibly read through every book acquired, so they will err on the side of safety and limit the choices of their students, especially when threatened with arrest.

During the last year and a half, I’ve watched clips of school board meetings that have been hijacked by Moms for Liberty and other organizations that ironically seek to curtail the liberty of students to select and parents to monitor their children’s reading choices. When schools have to compete with Tik Tok and every new app that comes along to get children to read in the first place, this manufactured fight against libraries is not just misdirected but harmful.

If you want to protect kids from bad influences, take away their phones, not their library books.

Sara Stevenson is a former middle school librarian in Austin and a member of the Texas Library Association and the American Library Association.

Sara Stevenson
Sara Stevenson