They Come for the Libraries

With the new year come new rules constraining the independence of librarians

They Come for the Libraries

One of the most fascinating aspects of these times is how various elites believe they are insulated from the side-effects of a poisoned information space, and therefore a poisonous political zone. Even after a manipulated Brexit vote, a poorly controlled pandemic, renewed Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, rising authoritarianism in China, and attempted coups in the US and Brazil, there is still an attitude that nothing is going to get so bad as to affect the established elites, and that more information and more information toys (e.g., ChatGPT) will make things better, or at least not make things worse.

It’s painfully naïve at this point.  

Nevermind the obvious negative effects — polarized friends and relatives, stressed out children, general mental health problems, inflation, wealth inequality, and excess death and disease. There’s still a passivity about what’s going on — and what keeps refueling it (i.e., bad information) — that puzzles me deeply.

Now, we have a story about school librarians being constrained in their book buying in Florida and Texas (and others — at least 10 states have passed laws giving parents more power over which books appear in libraries or limiting students’ access to books) — so much so that kids can’t get the next book in their fantasy book series, check out new releases everyone is talking about in their social circles, or read classics that self-appointed parent activists have deemed too troubling.

Teachers are also being told to make their classroom libraries or risk felony prosecution.

In addition to librarians having to undergo a retraining program, new rules make it so they must have selections approved by state officials and various committees, most of which seem to be composed of bad-faith busybodies with starchy morals.

One librarian in Florida has not been allowed to order a new book since March 2022.

This has been developing for a while, with a similar story in August pointing to what might end up happening with the New Year. Now that we’re in 2023, some of the new rules are taking effect.

In some school districts, parents receive an email every time their child checks out a book. In others, boards of parents have to approve all book purchases, and can review current holdings, purging books they find objectionable.

Of course, the parents participating in this are generally not the ones a free society wants deciding what others are allowed to read, especially children who are exploring the world and seeking answers or inspiration particular to them.

One Florida pastor praises these approaches as they make for more “pristine” libraries.

If you know anything about history — because you read about it in your school library, perhaps — that’s a chilling eupehmism.

These approaches give outsized power to a group of coordinated activist parents and the political appointees organizing them. There are other parents who certainly would want their children to be able to check out the latest entry in their favorite fantasy series, or try a book about gender issues which they’ve heard other kids talking about, or explore historical fiction about racial travails. But such parents are cut out and disenfranchised by a system imposed on libraries by politicians pushing idiosyncratic cultural values.

Over the past 25 years, the media space has become one that elevates fringe beliefs, gives outsized voice to bad-faith actors, and allows lies and misrepresentations to not only spread but dominate large swaths of society. Nobody is insulated from these effects. Our children are suffering because we won’t stand up to the politicians, the sour information zones feeding their misguided supporters, and the negative results.

Even school libraries and the librarians who run them are not insulated from the effects of a poorly managed information space and all its follow-on effects. To reiterate a quote that sadly remains relevant:

. . . our class has not delivered for the people outside it. On our watch, government and other public institutions have deteriorated. Part of the problem is that, steeped in an outsider, pseudo-rebel ethos, we never accepted the fact that we were a leadership class, never took on the institutional responsibilities that go with that acceptance, never got to know or work with people not in our class, and never earned the legitimacy and trust that is required if any group is going to effectively lead.
David Brooks, The Atlantic

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