Almost two thirds of library staffers think no topic should be off limits when it comes to library books, at a time when thousands of book titles about LGBTQ+ characters, race, and racism, and those containing sexual content have been removed from school libraries.
That’s according to 1,730 library personnel who participated in a nationally representative survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in April. The survey includes responses from 994 librarians, 434 library paraprofessionals, 189 library directors, and 113 employees with school-library-related jobs. The survey asked library workers about how book banning has impacted their district over the past two years.
As book bans have spread to at least 32 states across the country, with more than 2,500 unique titles being temporarily or permanently removed in 2022, librarians are feeling the pressure of these bans, even if they don’t happen in their districts.
Jennisen Lucas, a librarian in Wyoming’s Park County School District and a survey respondent, said she has experienced pressure many others have felt over book challenges over the past two years.
During that time, community members in her district have challenged four books that include LGBTQ+ characters or deal with the topic of racism—alleging that one was inaccurate and that the three others contained sexual content, according to Lucas. Through a review committee, Lucas and the Park County school board determined the books are appropriate for students and kept all four in school libraries, she said.
“I have felt the pressure, and my heart hurts for the people who have it so much worse than I do,” Lucas said.
“It’s infiltrating every community, and people are starting to vilify librarians. And they are talking that way in my area as well.”
The steps library personnel have taken in response to book banning controversies
Due to book ban controversies, 53 percent of school librarians and media professionals said they are less likely to choose titles that could be considered controversial, according to the survey. More than a quarter of library personnel are also considering leaving the profession entirely due to the stress caused by book bans. And finally, almost 20 percent have taken steps to safeguard their physical safety from threats surrounding these controversies, according to survey data.
For most library staffers, about 71 percent, there have been no personal consequences from book challenges. However, 21 percent said their professional judgment has been questioned, and 8 percent said they’ve feared losing their jobs.
Not all library personnel have faced book challenges in their districts over the last two years. Sixty three percent said no books have been challenged in their libraries over the past two years. However, in sharing anonymous responses, several respondents said they were concerned about book banning nationwide even if it didn’t affect their district directly.
That’s the case with Beth Morris, a survey respondent who works at Madera Unified School District in California. Madera has not faced any book challenges, but that may be because librarians already had a system of flagging books containing violence, graphic sexual content, or horror, for parental approval, Morris said.
If a student wants to read one of these books, they need to get a generic consent form signed, which does not include the title of the book, Morris said.
Some popular books that students have to get a parental consent form in order to read she said include the Twilight series, the Harry Potter books, and some Stephen King titles, for including themes of mystical creatures, magic, and horror respectively.
Morris said she’s still worried about the escalation of book banning across the country.
“I don’t think any books should be banned, because I feel that all books have merit,” she said.
“It should be the parents’ discretion, if they want their child to read the book or not. I don’t feel that the library should censor the book.”
Which books are commonly challenged, and what happens to challenged books?
Several titles that survey respondents listed as being challenged or removed are among the most banned books across the country, according to lists by the American Library Association and PEN America, a free speech advocacy group that tracks book bans.
Those include books such as Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, which was mentioned 52 times when library workers were asked to list challenged books in their districts; Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, mentioned 27 times; and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, mentioned 24 times.
Some other challenged titles that library personnel mentioned haven’t appeared on the most banned lists so far, such as Drama by Raina Telgemeier, a graphic novel about a middle school student, and several Dr. Seuss titles.
Many of the books respondents said were banned frequently were about LGBTQ+ issues, or contained LGBTQ+ characters, according to the survey data. Some were about race and racism.
Some outliers challenged in a handful of districts included comic books about characters such as Batman or Spider-Man, and the Harry Potter series, according to the responses.
In general, when books are challenged, 44 percent of library staffers said districts kept the challenged titles in school libraries, and 38 percent said at least one book was removed.
Parents’ influence on library books
Librarians largely want to work with parents to accommodate their concerns and requests about what books their child should have access to, Lucas and Morris said. Over the years, both of them have had conversations with parents, which never turned into district-level book challenges.
The part that stresses out librarians is when a community member or parent asks for a book to be entirely removed from schools, as opposed to just restricting access for their child, both of them said.
A majority of library personnel who responded to the survey—56 percent—said parents can prevent their children from borrowing specific books, 41 percent said parents can stop their children from borrowing any books whatsoever from school libraries, and 14 percent said parents can prevent their children from accessing school libraries, physically or online.
About 90 percent of respondents said parents have little or no influence on selecting library books. Most library workers—about 55 percent—said parents should have the same amount of influence that they currently do when it comes to choosing what books should be in school libraries, and about 40 percent said they should have less influence than they currently do.
Library personnel are also split on how much influence they think parents should have on what school library books their kids are reading, with 38 percent saying parents have little to no influence on their child’s book choices in their districts.
Sixty-five percent want to maintain that degree of parental influence, 18 percent want parents to have more choice in choosing what their child can read, and 16 percent said parents should have less influence than they do now.