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The firing of a Texas librarian is only the latest attack on libraries

The firing of a Texas librarian is indicative of a larger problem facing librarians who defend books centered on the experiences of LGBTQ people and people of color in public libraries and school libraries. Right-wing groups and Republican lawmakers are often behind efforts to remove these books but they can also come from school and county officials who are concerned about criticism from conservative groups and parents. Some of the books that have been targeted by conservatives in the past few months include “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, and “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe.

Suzette Baker, a librarian at the Kingsland Branch Library in Llano County, Texas, was fired on March 9, according to the Austin news station KXAN. Baker told the outlet that she refused to comply with her manager’s order to take books down from the library’s shelves. “I told my boss that was censorship,” Baker told KXAN News. She said this occurred after several people contacted the library about books they considered to be “pornographic” or “inappropriate,” and that one of them was about a transgender teenager’s life experiences. Baker said her boss ended her employment for “creating a disturbance, insubordination, violation of policies and failure to follow instructions.”

The Llano County Human Resources Department told the news station it had no comment on Baker’s termination.

In June, a librarian in Schoharie, New York, Don LaPlant, was terminated from his job. The Schoharie Free Library board of trustees made the decision, according to the Times Union. LaPlant organized a Pride month event before he was let go, but a board member, Debbie Paden, told the outlet this was not the reason behind his firing. Patrons of the library who knew LaPlant said he increased the diversity of the books in the Young Adult section of the library and made changes to the overall library collection, the Times Union reported.

Gavin Downing, a librarian at Cedar Heights Middle School in Covington, Washington, still has his job but told the American Independent Foundation that his daily work life has become worse after the principal, Erika Hanson, decided to take multiple books with LGBTQ subjects off of library shelves. It all started in December when Downing and Hanson had a conversation about the book, “Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts),” which he added to the library in the fall of 2021, according to the Seattle Times. The book is about a gay teenager who is also a sex columnist. A district spokesperson told the Times that Hanson decided that “the amount and graphic nature of the sexual content and exposure to drugs and alcohol outweighed any literary merit.”

In December, she also asked Downing for a list of books with “sexually explicit material” in them. According to Downing, in an interview with Book Riot, Hanson told him the school would look bad if a parent complained about it. At the time Book Riot reported on the removal of several books with LGBTQ content, in January, there were no formal complaints about the books. KOMO News reported on February 10 that the books were “no longer under review.” Downing said that this is because the principal didn’t follow proper school policies, such as completing forms, before taking action. But he told the American Independent Foundation that there is a new challenge to “Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts).” The person challenging the book is not affiliated with the school in any way, according to Downing, but the district said the challenge could still be accepted.

Downing also said that since this controversy, the principal and most of the administrative staff have “glared at me, shut their doors when I entered the space, etc, or otherwise treated me coldly or ignored me.” He added, “I’ve also had to deal with harassment from administration, doing things such as changing my office locks without a word of notification, opening my mail, or questioning my professionalism at every opportunity.”

He has had support from his union and said the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom, the Washington branch of the American Library Association, EveryLibrary, a national political action committee for libraries, and the Anti-Defamation League have all been helpful as he has faced these issues at work.

“I went from having a job I adored, that I thought I would work until I retired, to being a place where I truly don’t know if remaining there until next year is viable,” Downing said.

Librarians are describing these experiences as Republican lawmakers push bills to control which books are included in libraries. State legislatures are considering several of these bills, including one in Oklahoma that would ensure whole categories of books are excluded from school libraries. The state Senate’s bill says no school “shall maintain in its inventory or promote books that make as their primary subject the study of sex, sexual lifestyles, or sexual activity, or books that are of a controversial nature that a reasonable parent or legal guardian would want to know of or approve of prior to their child being exposed to it.” A Senate committee advanced the bill this month.

A Tennessee bill would require schools to post all library books on the school website and create procedures for determining if it’s appropriate for the age and maturity levels of students. The president of the Tennessee Association of School Librarians, Lindsey Kimery, told Chalkbeat Tennessee that librarians already do this, but added that if this bill were enacted, “For instance, a principal might feel the need on the front end to go through the collection line by line and purge books unnecessarily to head off any potential complaints.” The bill passed the legislature and currently awaits the signature of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R), who has said he supports efforts to legislate what libraries can do.

Library advocates say librarians have always faced the threat of professional consequences for defending the books they keep on their shelves. “Librarians’ jobs have always been on the line when there’s an effort to challenge censorship or to promote diversity and inclusion in the library,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

Caldwell-Stone gave the example of Ruth Brown, who supported desegregation inside and outside of the library, according to the Oklahoma Library Association. During the McCarthy era, Brown was accused of carrying subversive content at the library and lost her job.

“It happens more often than we’d like to talk about,” Caldwell-Stone said.

John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary, said that although librarians have faced these challenges before, the scrutiny of public libraries and librarians themselves that is happening right now is noteworthy.

“What we’ve seen over the years is that this happens from time to time, but it’s happening at a massive scale right now,” he said. “That is extremely troubling.”

Chrastka said he sees the unionization of librarians as very important to fighting efforts to ban books and target librarians.

“Obviously they’re going after books for no good reason. They’re going after the workforce as well, so we want to name it for what it is,” Chrastka said.

Caldwell-Stone also said that librarians would benefit from greater respect for their work in general.

“We have an active group of members who promote unionization and job security for librarians. I think that respecting the credentials and professionalism of librarians who go through years of graduate training to do their jobs is one thing and providing civil service protections to public librarians in particular who are most vulnerable to individual elected officials or board members, who hold the hiring and firing authority,” she said.

Chrastka said that he is watching the groups Moms for LibertyNo Left Turn In Education, and MassResistance as contributors to this right-wing movement to control which books stay on the shelves in school libraries and public libraries. He sees these challenges as a way for these groups to build their mailing lists and donor base.

Caldwell-Stone and Chrastka said there’s currently no way to track how many times librarians’ jobs have been terminated in connection with their efforts to resist the removal of books focusing on marginalized groups. But EveryLibrary has partnered with a researcher, Dr. Tasslyn Magnusson, to track book bans and challenges. The American Library Association also keeps a list of the top 10 challenged books each year.

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