If there’s one thing that Jason Kuhl has learned in the 23 years since he earned his degree in library sciences, it’s that the reality of being a librarian hardly squares with the storybook fantasy. “You tell people you’re a librarian and they think you spend your days reading and recommending books,” he said. Most of his time running the St Charles city county library in Missouri is instead spent tending to administrative duties and big-picture strategy. His library hosts quilting classes, mental health seminars and events where patrons can read aloud to a dog.
This summer, Kuhl and a group of colleagues planned to launch a bookmobile – a library in a bus that would visit various sites across town, including three schools. But when a law criminalizing anyone who makes visually explicit materials available at a school went into effect in late August, they decided to keep the bookmobile away from schools.
“This is a brand new law and it hasn’t been tested,” said a shaken-sounding Kuhl. “It’s not worth it.”
The statute began as an amendment to Senate Bill 775, an anti-child trafficking and sexual exploitation measure. Using the bill to target books was the innovation of Republican state senator Rick Brattin, an opponent of gay rights and welfare recipients using government aid to buy cookies. When asked to provide examples of sexually explicit materials, Brattin’s team named All Boys Aren’t Blue, George M Johnson’s critically acclaimed account of growing up a queer Black man in Virginia and New Jersey, and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of her own and her father’s homosexuality. Violators of the new, nebulously worded law face up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000 (£1,754).
“We are unsure of what someone can interpret as sexually explicit,” Kuhl said. “To be blunt, it feels like we’ve moved backwards in time. We’re in a culture of fear.”
Conservative parent groups that formed to oppose masks during the pandemic, only to pivot to the fight against “critical race theory”, have now begun to focus on scrutinizing books, often by and about queer and Black people, and lobbying for their removal from libraries shelves. Politicians have jumped on the bandwagon, drafting legislation to supposedly protect children against indoctrination and predation, calling out books by name and making it impossible for the people who run schools and libraries to do their jobs. Fringe activists and government officials are taking to social media, holding meet ups, and riling up their bases with reports of indoctrination, propaganda and the supposedly pornographic materials that lurk on the bookshelves of public institutions.
For many librarians, the stress has become unbearable. Increasing numbers are complaining of sleepless nights, quitting their jobs and setting their social media accounts to private in order to protect themselves from the deluge of harassment and humiliation tactics. More than two-thirds of respondents to the 2022 Urban Library Trauma Study said they had encountered violent or aggressive behavior from patrons at their library.
In October 2021, Texas state representative Matt Krause released a list of about 850 books that he said “might make make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex”, and asked schools around the state to confirm whether they stocked any of the titles in their libraries. His list included John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, which features a doctor who performs abortions, as well as the Amnesty International book We Are All Born Free: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures.
In July, Oklahoma’s secretary of education, Ryan Walters, tweeted screenshots from Gender Queer and Flamer, two autobiographical graphic novels about growing up LGBTQ+ that he found in Memorial high school’s library catalog. “This is disgusting,” huh wrote.
In August, the South Carolina state senator Josh Kimbrell called a press conference across the street from a public library to demand that multiple books be taken out of the collection or else face defunding. Standing next to a leader of the Palmetto Family Council, a state division of the anti-LGBTQ+ group Focus on the Family, Kimbrell declared: “I’m not trying to ban any books. I’m trying to stop an indoctrination campaign against kids.”
The American Library Association documented 729 attempts to censor library materials in 2021, targeting 1,597 titles. While those figures were more than double the typical number in previous years, the group counted 681 challenges to 1,651 titles in just the first eight months of 2022, putting the US on track for an “unprecedented” year of censorship.
Since last fall, Tasslyn Magnusson has tried to track individual cases of book challenges through a spreadsheet. The aspiring young adult author’s elaborate document has multiple tabs that unfurl like sea scrolls. Works by authors Jesmyn Ward and John Updike appear in its columns, as does a Michelle Obama biography for young readers, and a book called Between Shades of Gray, a middle-grade historical novel that Magnusson imagines some people are confusing with EL James’s racy Fifty Shades of Grey.
Initially passed around privately among librarians, the document now lives on the website of EveryLibrary, a political action committee for libraries. “The information is coming at me faster and faster,” said Magnusson.
The proliferation of book challenges across the nation is partly because anti-book activists’ rallying cries are easier than ever to heed. Moms for Liberty, one of the conservative parent groups that arose during the pandemic to fight mask mandates, maintains a website with a step-by-step guide for challenging books, called its “Guide to Defending Your Child”.
Moms for Liberty member Emily Maikisch also started the website BookLooks.org, where parents can find reviews of supposedly offensive materials that can be copied and pasted into emails to school principals. The homepage features an illustration of a rosy-cheeked teenage girl levitating in a trancelike state as she reads a book. Titles that have received a mini-review include Slaughterhouse-Five (“This book contains explicit violence including animal cruelty; inexplicit sexual activities including beastiality [sic]; sexual nudity; profanity; and inflammatory [sic] religious commentary”) and Lolita (“contains sexual activities involving pedophilia; sexual nudity; and mild profanity”).
Such materials enable conservative activists to submit multiple challenges to multiple institutions, sometimes across state lines. “Their infrastructure has grown exponentially,” Peter Bromberg, associate director of EveryLibrary, said of the cluster of conservative organizations behind the movement. “All it takes is three parents who connect on Facebook and say: ‘We’ll go to the library meeting and present a list of 325 books that need to be pulled immediately.'”
Conservative parent groups such as Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education and Parents Defending Education aren’t the only ones invested in the fight against books by Black and LGBTQ+ authors. Rightwing extremist groups have also adopted the cause. Proud Boys have taken to storming into Drag Queen Story Hour events, for instance, causing serious fear for patrons and librarians.
“There’s all this pent-up anger, and it’s gotten scarier,” said Natalie Brant, a reference librarian at the state library in Salem, Oregon. Brant has seen an influx of visits from sovereign citizens, an anti-government movement rooted in conspiracy theories. Members frequently request enormous stacks of materials pertaining to the history of laws that they are looking to challenge. “They come with requests that can help them make up lawsuits or just clog up everyone’s time and energy and create chaos,” Brant said. “My anxiety is growing but I feel worse for my colleagues. We recently had active shooter trainings.”
“The stress level is at its peak,” said Jesse O’Dunne, a Seattle youth services librarian. “There’s a rise in rhetoric of librarians as villains. Conservatives are casting the profession as people who are out to promote critical race theory or the evils of transitioning.”
O’Dunne says his cohort was already under duress from working on the front lines during the pandemic, putting their safety at risk and facing a rise in patrons who require help with substance abuse and mental health issues. “There’s a social work component folded into the job that we weren’t formally trained for,” said O’Dunne.
Nor were they trained to face the tide of anti-book activists. “At library science school, I learned about intellectual freedom and book policies and selection policies, but it’s all theory-based,” said Conrado Saldivar, president of the Wyoming Library Association. “These classes don’t teach us how to deal with the emotional impact of being at a public meeting that is being recorded, or dealing with what happens [when] somebody will walk in with a list in their hands and go searching for the titles and take pictures of supposedly offensive or harmful materials.”
Some librarians are fighting back. Louisiana librarian Christopher Achee and his colleagues recently passed a policy banning the filming of anyone in the library without their permission. “There’s a very real possibility that it will all get worse before it gets better,” he said, pointing out conflict-stirring tactics of local activist group Citizens for a New Louisiana. “But I have no plans to start looking for work elsewhere.” Carey D Hartmann, the executive director for the Laramie county library system in Cheyenne, Wyoming, requires people wishing to challenge a book to request the form in person or via email. “An online form could be an invitation for chaos,” she said.
When Texas school librarian Carolyn Foote retired over her state’s lax Covid-19 protocols in March 2021, she expected she’d spend her time traveling with her husband. But the surge of book challenges across the state were difficult to ignore. “School districts were pulling books off the shelves by the hundreds,” Foote said. “In all my 29 years as a librarian, I’d only seen three books challenged.”
Foote teamed up with three other people to establish FReadom Fighters, a kind of support group for librarians in distress. “Book challenges are very isolating,” said Foote. “Now librarians are the only librarians in the building. It puts you in the spotlight and you don’t feel like you can speak in public about what’s happening.” The group’s Twitter account, which has 12,000 followers, shares links to news stories about assaults on libraries and librarians as well as resources such as advice on dealing with contentious board meetings. The tweets that receive the most likes, though, are FReadom Fighters’ spirit-buoying affirmations: “As our teacher and librarian friends head off to a Monday, sending you our support! ❤️ ❤️.”
“Librarians are feeling so much fear and sadness and stress,” Foote said. “We don’t want people to feel ashamed.”