As books are banned and challenged across the country, they might have a much larger impact than the removal of a few titles: They may be changing the makeup of entire school libraries, due to the chilling effect they create.
That’s according to new research that in 2022 analyzed hundreds of titles from more than 6,600 public school libraries across the country.
The contents of school libraries are not often public even as a record number of books continue to be challenged across the country. But the availability of books about topics considered controversial, such as race and racism, LGBTQ issues, and abortion in a school library varies widely depending on the community. Conservative areas are already less likely to have these books available for students. But with the recent increase in book banning, districts where books are challenged are staying away from acquiring newly published books that deal with controversial topics, particularly books about LGBTQ characters and issues.
This should be concerning for librarians and advocates focused on students’ access to diverse books and ideas, said Kirsten Slungaard Mumma, a postdoctoral fellow at the Wheelock Educational Policy Center at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development. Slungaard Mumma assembled data on the availability of hundreds of titles to examine patterns in the types and amount of books schools have and are buying by scraping libraries’ databases.
The study establishes what school libraries already had in stock before the recent push to challenge hundreds of books gained momentum in districts across the country, how that varied with the demographics of the community, and what the changes indicate about the impact of book bans on school libraries in general.
The chilling effect of book bans
Schools in districts that were subject to a book challenge in the 2021-22 school year were 55 percent less likely to have acquired one of the 65 books about LGBTQ characters published between June and August 2022, according to the study.
“These challenges have had what we call a chilling effect, reducing the probability that school libraries are buying materials that deal with LGBTQ content or characters,” Slungaard Mumma said.
“If it’s true that book challenges are affecting the types of books that school libraries are considering for their collections,” she continued, “that could have much bigger effects than whether a specific title was pulled from the library shelf.”
The number of challenged titles also matters, she found. Each new book challenged in a district reduced the probability that the district would buy a new book about LGBTQ characters by 4 percent.
Book challenges often did not take place in the most conservative areas, but happened more often in those that just leaned Republican, Slungaard Mumma’s analysis found. Books were also challenged more frequently in states that had laws restricting lessons on race or LGBTQ lessons, and in areas with conservative groups.
Conservative areas are defined in the study as counties which voted for President Donald Trump in the 2020 elections, and liberal areas were defined as those that voted for President Joe Biden.
“In really conservative areas, there’s probably a lot of consensus between families and the school about what kind of material is or isn’t appropriate. And so maybe those books aren’t as readily available, and they’re not attracting attention,” she said. “But in places that are conservative, but not as conservative, maybe you’re encountering more of those blocks. And maybe there’s more impetus for local political groups or parents or administrators to take these kinds of actions.”
Libraries in conservative areas have fewer books and, less diverse ones
School libraries in those areas generally have fewer books overall, and lower acquisition rates than libraries in liberal areas, which might also explain differences in access to books with controversial content.
Libraries in conservative areas also have fewer books on LGBTQ issues, race and racism, or abortion, and more Christian fiction titles and books by Dr. Seuss that are no longer published because of racist imagery.
“Local school boards and schools have a lot of authority to decide what types of content or stories or ideas that students encounter,” Slungaard Mumma said.
“Demonstrating that these patterns exist is something that we haven’t really been able to do in systematic ways before,” she added. “I think it was interesting, if not totally surprising to find that these patterns existed.”
Compared to a swing county, a solidly conservative one in one comparison was linked to a 20 percent lower probability that a high school has a title related to race and racism, and a 12.9 percent lower probability of havinga popular LGBTQ title, Slungaard Mumma found.
State legislation, particularly the “divisive concepts” laws that were passed in 17 states as a pushback to “critical race theory,” also have an impact on the kinds of books school libraries have. Libraries in the 17 states that have passed such laws are 46 percent less likely to have books related to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which centers the experiences and contributions of Black Americans throughout U.S. history. Some states also explicitly ban the 1619 Project or any related instructional materials.
However, divisive concepts laws are not associated with the number of titles on race or racism in a school library overall, which Slungaard Mumma said was surprising. Even in the most conservative counties, 96 percent of high schools had at least one title on race/racism, 95 percent had at least one title about abortion, and 94 percent had at least title about LGBTQ characters.