• U.S.
  • Books

‘We’re Preparing For a Long Battle.’ Librarians Grapple With Conservatives’ Latest Efforts to Ban Books

7 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

On Nov. 8, two members of a Virginia school board called for a book burning.

During a board meeting that evening, the Spotsylvania County Public School Board unanimously ordered its school libraries to begin removing “sexually explicit” books, after a concerned parent raised concerns about titles available via a library app.

As the Free Lance-Star reported on Nov. 9:

Two board members, Courtland representative Rabih Abuismail and Livingston representative Kirk Twigg, said they would like to see the removed books burned.

“I think we should throw those books in a fire,” Abuismail said, and Twigg said he wants to “see the books before we burn them so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff.”

While the school board is revisiting the decision after its attorney called it unconstitutional, the comments—and the fact that members tried to do such a review to begin with—are an extreme example of a trend that’s alarming librarians and free speech activists. (Abuismail and Twigg did not immediately respond to a request for comment from TIME.) Only a few months into the school year, librarians say efforts to ban books are on the rise and mark a new chapter in the history of attempts to censor books.

Since September, school libraries in at least seven states have removed books challenged by community members. Among the books most frequently targeted are Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto (2020), Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir (2019), Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy (2018), and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006). Most of the challenged books so far, across fiction and non-fiction, are about race and LGBTQ identities.

“We’re seeing an unprecedented volume of challenges,” says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Executive Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “I’ve worked for ALA for 20 years, and I can’t recall a time when we had multiple challenges coming in on a daily basis.”

The American Library Association deals with efforts to ban books every school year. In fact, classics are regular fixtures on its list of top 10 most challenged books—from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But the latest challenges come at a time when school boards nationwide have been bombarded with questions about whether schools are teaching “critical race theory”—a decades-old academic framework rarely taught below the graduate level that scholars use to look at how legal systems and other institutions perpetuate racism and exclusion.

Read more: ‘Critical Race Theory Is Simply the Latest Bogeyman.’ Inside the Fight Over What Kids Learn About America’s History

“What you can see with book bannings is that they are tied to whatever is causing anxiety in society,” says Emily Knox, author of Book Banning in 21st-Century America. Since the beginning of 2021, conservative advocacy groups have been spreading misinformation about critical race theory—which has become a catch-all term for the history of racism—and working to help parents run for school boards and challenge their schools districts over lesson plans or reading materials they feel are inappropriate. At least 28 states have proposed or taken actions designed to restrict how teachers discuss racism and sexism, according to Education Week.

Caldwell-Stone says what’s also new is the chorus of elected officials who are also calling for books to be removed from school libraries.

A campaign ad for recently-elected Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin featured a mom who wanted Beloved banned from her son’s high school. And on Nov. 10, both the governors of South Carolina and Texas called for investigations into books. In Texas, where there’s a law designed to ban the teaching of critical race theory, Republican Governor Greg Abbott called on the Texas Education Agency to “investigate any criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography,” while Republican South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster singled out Gender Queer per a tip from “concerned parents” and called for a statewide investigation “to prevent pornography and other obscene content from entering our State’s public schools.”

Kobabe, who is nonbinary, told the Texas Tribune that Gender Queer aims to provide “good, accurate, safe information” for queer high school students at a time when there’s a lot of misinformation about gender identity exploration online.

Read more:‘Critical Race Theory Is Simply the Latest Bogeyman.’ Inside the Fight Over What Kids Learn About America’s History

Most Popular from TIME

In 1981, TIME reported on a similar wave of attempts across the U.S. to ban books. At that time, the bans were both a reaction to “everything-goes New Permissiveness gusted forth in the 1960s,” as TIME’s Frank Trippett put it, and part of the rise of Evangelical fundamentalism and the Moral Majority political coalition emboldened by the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as President. The magazine even covered a book burning in Drake, North Dakota which saw copies of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, James Dickey’s Deliverance, and an anthology of short stories featuring Joseph Conrad, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner destroyed. “I would think moral-minded people might object to books that are philosophically alien to what they believe,” Rev. George A. Zarris, a Moral Majority leader in Illinois, told TIME in an interview. “If they have the books and feel like burning them, fine.”

And yet out of that era came a key precedent that upholds First Amendment protections for keeping books on school library shelves. In 1975, the Island Trees Union Free School District in Long Island, N.Y. banned 11 books for being “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.” Former students challenged the decision, and the case made it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1982 that school boards cannot remove books because they don’t agree with them, describing libraries as spaces of “voluntary inquiry.”

“Thanks to the First Amendment, the U.S. has been remarkably, if not entirely, free of such official monitoring,” the magazine wrote. “Still, the nation has always had more than it needs of voluntary censors, vigilantes eager to protect everybody from hazards like ugly words, sedition, blasphemy, unwelcome ideas and, perhaps worst of all, reality.”

Read more: The Best Books of 2020 (So Far)

And that SCOTUS ruling has not by any means stopped people from trying to get books banned from school libraries. Since the early 1980s, most school districts have set up processes for reviewing complaints about books on shelves. A committee of educators, parents, and students might get together to read the books and evaluate them, for example—most of the time the books remain on shelves while the review is in process.

“The problem lately is that once again… political pressure has increased enormously, and in some cases [school districts] are just abandoning their policies. They’re pulling the books before they’re reviewed,” says Chris Finan, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. “We’re preparing for a long battle.”

But as Lisa Varga, Executive Director of the Virginia Library Association, points out, social media and the Internet make it near impossible to keep anything from students. “The majority of these kids have cell phones with unfettered access to the Internet, she says. “They can find more on their phone—that you know their guardians provide and pay for—that’s objectionable than they’re going to find in the books in their school library.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com