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America’s school librarians have landed in Florida. ‘How could we not?’

Thousands gather at the Tampa Convention Center to network and commiserate in a state that embraces literary controls.
 
Hundreds of attendees browse booths during the American Association of School Librarians national conference on Thursday at the Tampa Convention Center. The gathering attracted about 2,000 people and was scheduled to run through Saturday.
Hundreds of attendees browse booths during the American Association of School Librarians national conference on Thursday at the Tampa Convention Center. The gathering attracted about 2,000 people and was scheduled to run through Saturday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Oct. 21, 2023|Updated Oct. 25, 2023

Among the many stories circulating at the national school librarians conference this weekend, there was the one about the Right To Read rally.

Guests were told the Friday evening event would be held inside the Tampa Convention Center ballroom.

“Why inside?” asked Claudia Mason, a California school library coordinator and one of 2,000 who attended the American Association of School Librarians’ gathering. “We should be on the street.”

Some had heard about security concerns; others voiced fears that protesters would be arrested.

Amanda Jones of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, co-chairperson of the conference, said the issue was indeed security.

“We were very worried,” she said. “I myself have had threats.”

Welcome to life as a school librarian in 2023.

Related: Florida schools got hundreds of book complaints — mostly from 2 people

Even the decision to meet in Tampa was drama-filled, with some members so offended at laws enacted by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature that they bristled at the idea of giving Florida their business.

Arguments were waged on the organization’s social media. But the board of directors issued a statement saying that “we need to stand side-by-side with our colleagues in Florida as together we fight for the future of our learners.” Why meet in Florida, they asked. “We say, how could we not?!”

Wendy Gustavel, a private-school librarian from Rhode Island, showed up in a T-shirt that said, “I read banned books.” She proudly displayed information about a yearly reading festival that she oversees. “I’m down here supporting other librarians,” she said.

But Florida vacations are off the table. “I’ve been to Disney many, many times,” Gustavel said. “And that’s not where I’m spending my vacation dollars.”

A display of books at the American Association of School Librarians national conference in Tampa showed one title, "From the Desk of Zoe Washington," that was removed from Clay County schools in Florida.
A display of books at the American Association of School Librarians national conference in Tampa showed one title, "From the Desk of Zoe Washington," that was removed from Clay County schools in Florida. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Others were in Tampa to network, sharpen their skills and reflect on their career choice at a time when some are being vilified for their selections. The conference was scheduled through Saturday.

“I really think it’s just important to remember your core values,” said Kerry Townsend, a library media coordinator in Columbia, Missouri. When she thinks about her students, she said, she remembers that “my core value is, I want them to read what they want.”

Related: A closer look at Florida’s rejected social studies textbooks

On the ground in Hillsborough County, lines have blurred when it comes to the issue of book selections. Even those who generally support diverse reading materials offered varying opinions on “This Book Is Gay,” the nonfiction LGBTQ+ primer that the school board ultimately removed from middle school libraries.

But the consensus among the group from California was that librarians are highly trained, they select books based on multiple criteria, and parents should be more involved in their children’s reading choices.

Mason, in a moment of optimism, suggested the book challenge movement will increase the allure of books.

“When you ban books, you draw more attention to them,” she said. “I think the folks that are trying to ban the books are just shooting themselves in the foot. That only galvanizes those of us who find intellectual freedom essentially important in our democracy.”

Many at the conference offered varying perspectives about how unusual it is to be second-guessed, sometimes aggressively and in public. Seasoned veterans remembered the late 1990s, when some parents tried to ban Harry Potter books because of their witchcraft theme.

Rosan Cable, a librarian and association leader in Garden Grove, California, dealt with the Harry Potter issue as an eighth grade honors English teacher. “And I had Wiccans in that class,” she said. “We were very diverse.”

Ellie Goldstein-Erickson, now retired but a regular at the conferences anyway, recalled a student who would sit at the librarian’s desk and read a romance novel that was forbidden at home.

But the librarians agreed, these times feel different.

“I’ve seen more challenges in a year than in the past 22,” Mason said. “There’s definitely a wave that is coming to California.”

Related: These books got the most complaints in Florida schools

The American Library Association estimates that between January and August there were 695 attempts to censor library materials and services across the country, and challenges to 1,915 unique titles. That number of titles has increased by 20% from the same reporting period in 2022, which was itself a record.

Social media adds another dimension to the conflict.

Jones, the conference co-chairperson, ran into problems after she spoke at a public library against censorship and book bans. According to an account in the publication Education Week, Jones endured dozens of Facebook posts and comments suggesting she was a pedophile and a groomer, followed by a death threat from a man in Texas.

Her story resonates with her colleagues elsewhere, especially in small towns where they have less of a support system.

“People have been threatened, jobs have been threatened,” Cable said. Their associations are advising them not to pass judgment when a fellow librarian removes a book under orders from school officials. “These are their jobs. These are their livelihoods,” she said.

Speakers at the Tampa conference included Nikkolas Smith, an author and illustrator who said much of his work is not allowed in Florida schools because of its exploration of African American history. His resume includes illustrations for the 1619 Project about slavery. Florida and other states have rejected the New York Times project along with critical race theory, a field of college study that examines the far-reaching effects of race on society.

Nelly Nebron of Orlando takes a photo for reference during the second day of the American Association of School Librarians national conference on Thursday in Tampa.
Nelly Nebron of Orlando takes a photo for reference during the second day of the American Association of School Librarians national conference on Thursday in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“Thanks, Florida,” Smith said several times as he showed examples of his work that have been challenged or banned. He told the group about a summer when his mother made him spend his days in the middle school library, and expressed his gratitude to the librarian who worked with him that summer.

A panel discussion Friday morning brought together Karen Smith, a Pennsylvania school board member, and Cameron Samuels, a college student and LGBTQ+ activist. A change in the composition of Smith’s board in Bucks County led to a contentious policy prohibiting sexualized content. Samuels fought back against censorship in their home community of Katy, Texas.

The speakers urged the audience to keep up with local political races and encourage supportive residents to speak out against book banning.

Samuels, 19, was asked if there was any single book they wished their younger self could have read. Samuels pointed to “Flamer” by Mike Curato, which describes teen bullying and gay stereotypes.

“Flamer” is one of four books DeSantis singled out for criticism earlier this year. At one point, under former superintendent Addison Davis, the Hillsborough County school district was looking at those titles, which also included “This Book Is Gay.”

The district said Friday that no challenge was filed concerning “Flamer,” and no action was taken.

“That book gave me words for the trauma that I endured as a child,” Samuels said.

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