By Devan Colby
Boston University News Service
The American Library Association released a report in March showing that in 2022, libraries across the country faced nearly double the number of book challenges they faced in 2021. In school libraries in Massachusetts, that increase is even higher, according to Jennifer Varney, the president of the Massachusetts School Library Association.
The MSLA used to refer to the American Library Association’s data on book challenges because they were “few and far between,” Varney said. However, she said the organization decided to start tracking challenges in school libraries when they “really heated up” in the fall of 2022.
So far, Varney said the MSLA has tracked 22 challenges.
“Two years ago we had zero, and then last year we had one or two,” she said. “That’s a big jump.”
Additionally, some challenges go unreported, according to Varney, because the MSLA only tracks reports by its members, and not every school librarian in Massachusetts is an MSLA member.
The known challenges are over 14 titles in eight schools. Two successfully removed a book from a middle school library, and one restricted a book in a library serving seventh through 12th graders so only students in grades nine through 12 could access it.
The most challenged books are related to the LGBTQ+ community, according to data provided by Varney. Many others discuss race or feature racial minorities as main characters.
The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has noted similar trends, according to Communications Director Celeste Bruno.
“Back in September of 2022, we saw that disruptions, challenges, and disturbances related to book contents and materials had quadrupled,” Bruno said.
She also said book challenges aren’t new, but challenges targeting books and programs representing specific communities are.
“No library is against a book challenge… That’s part of the First Amendment,” Bruno said. “But it seems to have taken a turn and is connected more to a national agenda at this point.”
Varney said she noticed the national shift.
“It used to be that it would just be a concerned parent,” Varney said. “But now what we’re seeing is challenges are coming from very organized community groups that have backing at a state and national level, and have funding from a state and national level.”
One of those groups is Moms for Liberty, an organization with at least one chapter in 44 of the US states. It has two chapters in Massachusetts.
Tiffany Justice, the co-founder of Moms for Liberty, said she helped create it in response to “government overreach and parental rights being ignored.”
“We’re working on legislation covering a number of different areas,” Justice said, “like curriculum transparency, protection of parental rights through parents’ bills of rights at different levels of government, and a focus on academic achievement and literacy.”
Justice defined a “book ban” as a “book not being published or not being accessible to people,” and said Moms for Liberty does not ban books because “curating a children’s library is not banning books.”
“Libraries are curated. That is just a fact,” Justice said. “Librarians need to curate the content for the people that are accessing the books.”
Justice added that Moms for Liberty focuses on school libraries because of the lack of parental supervision.
“If you go to the public library and there are books that you don’t want your child to have, you’re not going to allow your child to access those books,” Justice said. “But in a public school library, parents don’t have that same kind of access… Parents are the layer of protection.”
However, in Massachusetts, Varney said there are selection policies in most school districts that prevent just any book from getting into a school library.
These policies usually refer to “reviews from reputable sources” to gauge the content, grade, and age-appropriateness of books. Varney said sources include Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and other publications that hire professional reviewers.
“School librarians are very deliberate in their book choices,” Varney said. “No one’s trying to harm children with our choice of books. And I feel like sometimes that is the message that’s out there.”
Varney recalled a school committee meeting in which a speaker said only pedophiles would want a particular book in children’s hands.
Both Varney and Bruno said librarians have experienced an increase in personal attacks, particularly through social media.
“I think it ties into what we’ve seen nationally,” Bruno said. “So what we do is we take a look at what’s happening in other states across the board. And it’s sort of like the wave that’s coming towards Massachusetts, and we try to prepare for that.”
Varney said she believes the school library situation will get worse before it gets better.
“This latest uptick in challenges is not going to go away,” she said. “I think fall will be a busy time for us.”