When a social media debate broke out over books on the Marblehead Veterans Middle School library shelves last year, librarian Elizabeth Lutwak did not remove the books from the shelves. She spent much of her 14-year career there getting a procedure written for handling book challenges, and she was following it.
“Until an actual challenge was filed, the books should stay where they are,” Lutwak recalled. No challenge was filed, and the books stayed.
Now students are facing a greater threat to their library. Lutwak retired, and the district is considering not replacing her. That means no librarian to defend against book challenges — or to buy books, replace outdated books, or help students select books. It may mean losing a state-subsidized e-book platform and databases, with online encyclopedias, news stories, and historical research, that are accessible through licensed school librarians.
At a time when students are struggling with literacy, eliminating librarians doesn’t make sense.
As policy makers consider how to respond to book challenges, it is worth looking at how to strengthen libraries, particularly school libraries, to make sure all students have access to materials they want and need.
Growing attempts to challenge books, driven by societal culture wars, are real and dangerous. According to the American Library Association, there were 45 attempts to restrict books in Massachusetts in 2022 affecting 57 titles. No other year in the last decade had more than 10 challenges. Nationwide, the ALA reported 350 requests to remove books in 2019 and 1,270 in 2022. While previous challenges tended to involve concerned parents, there is now an effort by conservative advocacy groups to seek out libraries with books they disagree with.
Many of the books are about race and sexuality, particularly LGBTQ identities. But an ALA list of challenged books in Massachusetts also includes Jewish American author Dara Horn’s provocatively titled musing on antisemitism “People Love Dead Jews” and Lebanon-born author Wafa’ Tarnowska’s children’s book “Amazing Women of the Middle East,” with profiles ranging from storyteller Scheherazade to astronaut Anousheh Ansari.
Attempts to limit access to books harm any society that values education and free speech. Different books appeal to different readers, and in a healthy society, anyone can go to their public library and choose books that appeal to them. Parents can select books for their children, and school librarians can curate collections that fulfill students’ needs.
Personally, I disliked Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer,” the most challenged book nationally last year, which seemed gratuitously sexually explicit. But I enjoyed George Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” the second-most challenged book, a thoughtful memoir by a Black queer man about how those identities shaped his life.
Illinois made national headlines in June when Democratic Governor JB Pritzker banned book bans, conditioning library funding on the adoption of a policy like the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which prohibits book removals because of “partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”
Similar bills are being considered elsewhere, including in Massachusetts. State Senator Julian Cyr sponsored a bill that would set standards for municipal and school libraries to ensure book removals are not based on political or partisan views. It delineates a process for school-based challenges and protects librarians from retaliation. State Senator Jake Oliveira would condition state funding on libraries adopting policies that prohibit partisan or doctrinal book bans and create a fund to fight challenges. State Representative James Hawkins’s bill would establish state standards for libraries.
All of these bills demonstrate state support for libraries. Yet they also raise questions, like how to decide whether a challenge is partisan or doctrinal. Establishing statewide processes is challenging when local libraries are diverse. More broadly, the bills may not do enough to ensure that every library has not only a policy statement against partisan book bans but also the resources and knowledge to implement one.
A vital first step is ensuring every library has strong public policies related to book selection and reconsideration. For example, in some districts, challengers must complete a form detailing their relationship to the library, whether they read the book, and their concerns. Schools should have a reconsideration committee formed to review challenges. The state could recommend best practices, provide sample policies, and urge districts to pass policies.
More important — and much harder — is ensuring every school has access to a licensed librarian. Librarians are trained to select books based on the school curriculum, student population, and reviews. Librarians have access to research databases and expertise in teaching media literacy. A librarian can provide context for challenging material and offer students age-appropriate materials. And a librarian can help respond to challenges.
Yet a 2018 study by a legislative commission on school libraries found that only 80 percent of Massachusetts school libraries have a licensed school librarian.
A Boston Public Schools strategic plan for improving library access found that in 2021, of 123 public schools, only 49 had a library with staff.
Georgina Trebbe, librarian at Minnechaug Regional High School in Wilbraham and advocacy chair for the Massachusetts School Library Association, said the number of school librarians registered with the Massachusetts Library System dropped from 956 in the 2018-2019 school year to 865 this July 1, with around 1,800 schools in Massachusetts. Because high schools must have a librarian to maintain accreditation, elementary and middle schools are more likely to cut librarians. Of 911,000 students in Massachusetts in the 2021-2022 school year, 450,000 lacked access to a licensed school librarian, Trebbe said, citing state statistics.
Good school libraries are correlated with higher student achievement. Massachusetts School Library Association president Barb Fecteau said a librarian is vital to ensuring the school has a collection that supports the curriculum and the student body. At Beverly High School, Fecteau stocks books that help gay teenagers understand their sexuality and help teens handle stress and manage money. She recently added a biography of Donald Trump and is seeking books written from a conservative perspective.
Fecteau advises students: “If you start reading something and you’re not comfortable with it, stop reading.”
Some states require schools to have a library or licensed librarian. If lawmakers are serious about enhancing student access to educational materials, requiring all schools have a librarian and providing funding would be a huge step forward.
What is most worrisome today is not what kids are reading — they can find worse on the internet. It’s what happens when they aren’t reading or when they can’t find the library books they need.
Correction: An earlier version of this column mischaracterized the role of the Marblehead Veterans Middle School principal in removing books from the library’s shelves.