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How To Keep Library Porn From Kids Without Banning Books

Librarians are deluding themselves if they truly believe parental concerns about books kids can find at school are all right-wing hogwash.

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A recent clash between concerned parents and school librarians underscores the need for greater choice and transparency in America’s libraries.

On Oct. 25, 2021, Texas state Rep. Matt Krause, a Republican, lit a fuse when he sent a letter asking school districts around the state if their libraries contained any of 850 books that he argued “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” He also attacked books that contained sexually explicit material, or material related to HIV/AIDS.

Immediately, school librarians around the state united against Krause’s efforts, labeling them a “war on books.” The resulting organization, #FReadom, has expanded and partners with librarians’ groups to fight against what they call “an affront to democracy.”

The librarians have a point. Krause’s list — which includes books on bioethics, law, human rights, and a children’s book by Ruby Bridges — is too extensive and overbearing from a representative of state government. Literary hit-lists like Krause’s don’t magically win the culture war, and they create a never-ending game of punitive whack-a-mole.

But the librarians misidentify the problem when they decry Krause’s list as an attack on democracy. None of this is about democracy. It’s about transparency.

Library Groups Need To Stop Targeting Parents

Librarians’ associations should shush themselves and listen to angry families. We all know vis-a-vis the wars over critical race theory that parents are concerned about what their children are learning in school, but they are equally concerned about what their children are reading in school. Real #FReadom is offering families a choice — not going behind their backs to supply their kids with material that, as far as age-appropriateness, is questionable at best.

And yes, librarians’ organizations are encouraging their members to go behind parents’ backs. In 2019 the American Library Association (ALA) — the parent organization of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) — offered its members guidance on how to hide Drag Queen Story Hours from concerned parents.

The AASL itself in 2019 published the “Developing Inclusive Learners and Citizens Activity Guide,” which supposedly seeks “balanced perspectives, global learning, empathy, tolerance, and equity.” Unfortunately, the guide is anything but balanced, tolerant, or empathetic. “It is not uncommon for parents or community organizations to insist that the school library remove a book from its collection based on an objection to its content,” warns the guide. “Doing so is a form of censorship that violates the rights of readers.”

Parents Are Reasonably Concerned

What the AASL likes to call “censorship,” I like to call “parenting.” Parents keep things from their children all the time, be it media, technology, sugary snacks — and porn. Families have a clear interest in ensuring that their 8-year-old children don’t have access to material containing explicit sexual content, excessive violence, or anything else they deem inappropriate. Sadly, such material can be found in schools, even elementary schools, around the country.

Librarians’ groups’ resistance to parental concerns about pornography and other explicit material in schools can lead to the belief that their members want this material in school libraries. Maybe some of them do. But giving all involved the benefit of the doubt, the answer lies neither in book bans nor in allegations that parents hate democracy, but in choice and parental empowerment.

All responsible parents and librarians agree on one critical point: They want children to read. Yet reading comes in many shapes and sizes, and the librarians’ dramatic push for “equity” can make parents uncomfortable and cause libraries to prioritize modern, more controversial texts over classical pieces of literature.

School Choice and Parental Book Ratings Could Help

Expanding school choice is an obvious answer here. If parents want their children’s school library to reflect a particular set of values, they should have the latitude and the financial means necessary to send their children to a school that emphasizes those values.

But that could take a while. What about the millions of children who don’t yet have access to school choice programs? How can we empower their parents to steer them through libraries that are free of book bans?

One answer is simple: parental ratings for books. We already rate movies and video games, so why not books? A child cannot purchase an M-rated video game on his own, but if parents feel comfortable letting their kids play that kind of game, it is no trouble for a parent to buy the game for the child. The same concept could be used in public libraries.

It’s easy to envision that a book rating system could become just another platform for woke bureaucrats, but there are ways to circumvent this problem. A clear charter could explicitly outline the guidelines and how to apply them.

In states and municipalities where school or library boards are elected positions, those institutions could take responsibility for writing the guidelines, as they are already (at least in theory) publicly accountable. Areas where school or library boards are appointed may require local legislative intervention.

Such a rating system would also be easily applicable in schools — librarians could simply order books with ratings that appropriately reflect the age levels they serve. Of course, you would still have your share of moral crusades against child-friendly books like Harry Potter, but it would prevent some of the more extreme examples, especially if there was some form of oversight by parents and local governments.

No matter what the real answer is, librarians’ organizations are deluding themselves if they truly believe that parental concerns about what kids can access in libraries are all right-wing hogwash. The library wars will not end unless parents feel heard and involved, and I don’t mean by banning whatever books they want. Only choice and transparency will restore the library’s role as a center of civic engagement.