Reading & Literacy

An Iowa District Used AI to Figure Out Which Books to Ban

By Eesha Pendharkar — August 21, 2023 7 min read
A wall of 19 banned books with a bright blue AI button illuminating over top.
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An Iowa school district used artificial intelligence to determine which books to remove from school libraries, in an attempt to comply with a state law that bans library materials with depictions of sex.

Mason City Schools removed 19 books from school libraries, after the assistant superintendent entered a list of about 50 commonly banned books across the country into ChatGPT, an AI tool that can generate instant responses to a wide range of prompts, and asking it to determine which books contained depictions of sex acts.

While book bans have proliferated across the country over the past two years, this is the first time a district has relied on artificial intelligence to determine which books should be removed from school libraries, according to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

“We can’t rely on AI as a definitive tool, or maybe even a great tool, until it’s better developed,” she told Education Week.

“So, I think we always need to look to the individuals who’ve trained to do this work, who’ve educated themselves, spent time earning degrees, working with kids, gaining the experience to understand exactly what is needed for a student to learn and grow,” she said.

Iowa’s equivalent of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law imposes restrictions on lessons or materials about gender identity and sexual orientation, and does not allow any books that describe or contain depictions of sex. Several states have introduced versions of a “Don’t Say Gay” law, after Florida passed its initial version in March 2022.

The law in Iowa went into effect on July 1. It lists consequences for districts and employees if they knowingly violate it, but districts have until Jan. 1, 2024, until the consequences start being enforced.

Mason City Schools Superintendent Pat Hamilton said the district had never banned books before, or even received book challenges from parents. He says the law has put Iowa districts in the difficult position of having to comply with the new requirements even if they don’t believe they need to remove any books from school libraries.

Administrators didn’t think they had the time to review each book before the start of the school year, which is why the district relied on AI, Hamilton said. The district knew that the consequences of violating the law would not start until January, but administrators still decided to remove books going into this school year, Hamilton said.

“We don’t want to ban any books, but we have to comply with Iowa state law,” Hamilton said. “And we have received no guidance from the state.”

What the Iowa law bans

In February, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds spoke at an event hosted by the right-wing parent group Moms for Liberty, and vowed to pass legislation banning LGBTQ+ materials in schools and policies allowing students to socially transition without their parents’ consent, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

“The last few years have provided so many reasons to be in this fight in the arena for kids,” Reynolds said at the February event, the Dispatch reported. “And maybe for you, it was how they were kept out of school wearing masks for no good reason. Maybe it was demonizing our country. Or an obsession with race in the classroom … I guess my message to you is, stay involved because parents and freedom still matter in Iowa.”

She signed Senate File 496 into law on May 26 this year. The law bans lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity for grades K-6, mandates administrators to inform parents if students ask to use pronouns or names that do not align with their sex assigned at birth, and requires that all library materials are “age appropriate.”

According to the law, “‘age-appropriate’ does not include any material with descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act.”

The law includes consequences for districts and individual educators for violating it. For the first violation of the law, the department of education will issue a written warning to the board of directors of the school district or the district employee. If the department finds that a district or an employee knowingly violated the law, the superintendent or employee can be subject to a hearing conducted by the board of educational examiners, which may result in disciplinary actions, according to the law.

“I’m more concerned about how [the law] affects teachers, and not me,” Hamilton said. He said the district removed 19 books so teachers could feel protected and not at risk of violating the law.

In early July, the Iowa department of education said guidance is on the way after initially telling media that districts would have to consult with their lawyers on how to comply with the law, according to the Des Moines Register.

Some districts were waiting for this guidance, but others, such as Mason City, Forest City, Urbandale, and Norwalk, removed books they believed violated Senate File 496, according to the Register.

On July 28, the department published a summary of newly passed state laws, including Senate File 496. That summary does not include tips for districts to comply with the law, and is the only document the department sent EdWeek in response to questions about guidance.

“As always, each school district is required to create their own policies and procedures for book selection and reconsideration that comply with Iowa law,” said Heather Doe, communications director for the department.

Mason City Schools had never removed books from libraries

The district has a policy for reconsideration of instructional material, which requires anyone raising objections to a book or other material to fill out a form explaining why they object. The form is then sent to the superintendent, who will convene a reconsideration committee within two weeks of receipt of the form, and the committee will make their recommendation to the superintendent within five school days of meeting, according to the policy.

“We had a book challenge process and we had no challenges in our district. But now we have to comply with the law,” Hamilton said, explaining that even if a committee decided that the 19 books should not be removed, the district would risk violating the law if they kept books containing descriptions of sex acts.

“The state of Iowa doesn’t care about the educational value of these books,” Hamilton said.

So the assistant superintendent entered the list of almost 50 books into ChatGPT, asking, “Does [the book] contain a description of a sex act?” In 19 cases, the AI tool said yes to that question. However, when EdWeek ran the names of the banned books through ChatGPT, the answer sometimes included recommendations like this one, to consult with educators before deciding to remove any books: “If you have concerns about the content, it’s recommended to read reviews or consult with educators or parents before deciding if it’s appropriate for a particular reader.”

Hamilton said he cross-checked the list of 19 books with BookLooks.org, which is a website run by parents who review books to confirm that the books AI flagged had descriptions of sex acts.

Caldwell-Stone from ALA said the district should’ve followed their policy, and consulted with librarians and educators instead of relying on AI or websites such as BookLooks.org.

“That might have meant that it might have taken a period of time to reach conclusions about books, but at least the evaluation would have been done under processes that involve those who would look beyond keywords or crude rating systems,” she said.

The 19 books flagged by AI

Caldwell-Stone said many of the books on the list add value to readers of different ages, and removing them based on a ChatGPT screening amounts to censorship.

“They were using the crudest tools to define what should be available to our young people, but ignoring the years of experience and expertise developed by professional educators and professional librarians,” she said.

Animation of the cover of 19 books that have been banned.

Here’s the list of 19 books the district removed from school libraries, as listed in the Globe Gazette.

  • Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan.
  • Sold by Patricia McCormick.
  • A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas.
  • Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson.
  • Tricks by Ellen Hopkins.
  • Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison.
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green.
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
  • Crank by Ellen Hopkins.
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker.
  • Feed by M.T. Anderson.
  • Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger.
  • Gossip Girl by Cecily von Ziegesar.
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.

(Hamilton declined to send EdWeek a list, pointing instead to the one printed in the Gazette.)

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