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In the wake of ever-increasing book challenges, legislature meant to silence educators, and hostile board meetings for schools and libraries, what’s gone unsaid is the means by which professionals within these institutions have had to radically alter the ways they select material.

“They’re asking ‘who’s going to complain?’,” explains Anna*, “not ‘who needs this?’”

Anna, who works as a school librarian in suburban Wisconsin, is in an ideal situation when it comes to potential book challenges. Her school, already targeted this year by right-wing censors, has a robust collection development policy and an administration that supports the decisions made by its educators and library staff.

Still, what’s happening inside the school reflects an even-bigger censorship issue: quiet censorship.

Quiet censorship — also known as soft censorship or self-censorship, terms used interchangeably — is when materials are purposefully removed, limited, or never purchased at all despite it being a title that would serve a community. It’s always been an issue with intellectual freedom, but now, with more “parental rights” groups demanding curricular and collection oversight, even the best professionals who don’t believe in censorship are falling victim to choosing the path of considering the people who may complain over those who may need the material.

In Anna’s school, this plays out in several ways.

“I was working with a really bright, innovative teacher who was rethinking how to teach To Kill a Mockingbird in class. We were building a reading list that could supplement the text for her honors class, and based on the teacher’s criteria, I suggested Out Of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez,” Anna said. “The instructor said to me ‘I can’t afford to add it because of the attention it’d bring.’”

That cost-conscious language is chilling, especially knowing that one of the big goals of the groups pushing for censorship is to create a cascade of time- and dollar-heavy distractions within schools and libraries. This is now not only part of the equation those working in these institutions are considering, but it’s also what makes soft censorship appealing. If the book’s never included, then it can’t create the situation of a challenge or pushback from parents, community members, or those who simply enjoy being part of the disruption of public education.

Anna notes another piece of soft censorship emerging within her school — again, one with all of the supports and structures in place to be a space where any and all choices of material by professionals are respected and regarded as appropriate — is where books are being shelved.

“None of our libraries have purchased Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff, despite it being a multi-award-winning middle grade book. If we do buy it, we’ll have a copy in the middle school library, but none in the elementary schools,” she said. “We have a single copy of Melissa by Alex Gino, again in the middle school and not the elementary school. Books about gender or sexuality are put in the middle school and don’t make it to the elementary schools.”

Middle grade books, appropriate for readers from 3rd to 7th or 8th grade, would fit into the elementary school libraries by age and content appropriateness, be it Lexile level, award accolades, and/or critical acclaim. The books haven’t been pulled, per se. But they’ve never had the chance to reach their intended readership. Considering who is going to complain before who needs to see themselves in these books is dangerous and it’s the line of thought those working to ban books seek to create in the minds of those within public institutions.

That pressure becomes a challenge for educators and library workers who wrestle with just how far they can put themselves on the line for a book. Where all parents claim they desire a diverse collection and educational material for their children, the feedback is far less thankful and much more likely to elicit calls of but not like this or this. They game the system, demanding that both sides are played, and the power of censor-friendly groups is much larger than any individual within a library or school, even in supportive environments.

Anna explained: “One teacher told me they couldn’t use Here To Stay by Sara Farizan as a class read because it was about a Muslim person. ‘Someone would yell about that,’ the teacher said. Books like these fit perfect for the curriculum or unit, but now we’re too focused on who might be mad about it and not the value it has.”

Making collection-appropriate choices to serve a diverse world shouldn’t be radical, and yet, thanks to the fears and costs associated with those choices, it is. While educational institutions are short staffed, with fewer people eager to enter these fields because of their politically charged realities and historically low pay, teachers and librarians worry they’ll lose their jobs, healthcare, and entire lives by fighting these battles. This is precisely what’s at stake across the country as more states institute educational gag orders and introduce legislation aimed to create a culture of fear within public institutions like schools and libraries.

An individual’s ethics are unable to withstand the realities of capitalism, and more, by choosing to battle, any individual knows their name will be all over the internet. Their reputation may be smeared by those seeking censorship in ways that impact their ability to even be employed again.

And in many cases, individuals aren’t safe to be whistleblowers inside the institutions where they’re seeing such soft censorship. Middle school librarian Gavin Downing is still employed by Cedar Heights Middle School as a librarian, despite calling out the soft censorship in which his principal engaged. Librarian Brooky Parks, on the other hand, lost her job with High Plains Library District for bringing light to their censorship-friendly programming policy.

If no one speaks up, though, the true breadth of quiet censorship remains unknown.

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