Going Woke Isn’t Hard When You’ve Got a Library Card

American school districts need new policies to guide their librarians in their acquisitions practices. New policies, which provide explicit guidelines on political pluralism and obscenity, as well as reaffirming librarians’ deference to parental preferences for their minor children, would do a great deal to defuse the political battles that have flared up about the contents of school libraries.

Public and school librarians used to be cautious only to select and recommend books for minors that would not needlessly violate the moral sensibilities of any substantial portion of the American public. They did so with a deep sense of responsibility, since the public had entrusted them with the responsibility to use public monies to educate their children. Librarians therefore strove to avoid partisan commitment. They also strove not to introduce any materials which might be considered obscene to minors—and were careful to select appropriate materials for each age. This attitude was mocked by the proponents of “sophistication.” It was, however, a moral, a democratic, and a humble policy, which deserved the approbation of the American people.

Librarians, unfortunately, have abandoned these commitments. They have become “woke”—dedicated to a variety of revolutionary policies. The American Library Association now embraces among its principles an illiberal commitment to so-called “Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion.” It also effectively has abandoned its commitment that “We affirm the responsibility and the right of all parents and guardians to guide their own children’s use of the library and its resources and services.” Librarians, as a profession, now embrace partisan commitment, both in the books they select and the books they refuse to select. This commitment has led them to a particular devotion to “gender ideology” that impels them:

1. to select books that propagandize for the agendas of the contemporary “gender identity” and “gender expression” political movements;

2. to prevent the acquisition of books that critique these movements; and

3. to select books for minors that are clearly age-inappropriate, as they provide graphic depictions and descriptions of sexual activity.

Parents and taxpayers have replied by proposing a variety of measures. Some of these simply require balance and age-appropriateness in library selection materials. Others have gone toward a positive mandate to remove propagandizing books. These latter have occasioned loud cries of censorship—ironically coming from the woke education elite that is most fervent itself in favor of censorship. Libraries and librarians pose the same basic conundrum posed by so many of our elites, educational and otherwise: how do we preserve a liberal polity, with extensive freedom from the state, when civil society’s institutions have embraced woke authoritarianism? How can a liberal polity preserve itself when its educational elites have abandoned the liberal compact?

[Related: “Measuring the Spread of DEI”]

Certainly, boards of education and other responsible bodies should assert themselves strongly about library policies relevant for minor children. They should formulate strong, detailed policies about age-appropriate material and obscenity, and enforce them. There is no place for pornography on the library shelves or for Drag Queen Story Hours in the libraries. These should be prohibited at once.

As Stanley Kurtz has argued, more care should be taken about political controversies that do not directly involve questions of age appropriateness and obscenity. School boards should call for balance rather than removal—if a school librarian must purchase a book by a repellent simpleton such as Ibram X. Kendi, then he also should purchase books by intelligent and ecumenical authors such as John McWhorter and Thomas Sowell, to provide the full range of political debate. But school boards should police this matter carefully—and they could certainly require approval before purchase, by means of a set procedure to guarantee intellectual diversity in library purchases. Librarian freedom does not mean freedom to waste taxpayer money, with no remedy for misbehavior.

But what school boards need to do is to draft a new series of principles for librarians—narrowly about acquisition policies, but in general to guide librarians in their professional behavior. School boards, ideally in cooperation with state governments, must draft new principles for the libraries they fund, which emphasize that librarians:

1. eschew all ideological and political commitments and activism;

2. encourage intellectual diversity in their book selections;

3. work rigorously to exclude all age-inappropriate and obscene materials and events from school libraries and from the children’s sections of public libraries; and

4. recommit to defer to “the right of all parents and guardians to guide their own children’s use of the library and its resources and services.”

These commitments would simply reaffirm librarians’ written and unspoken commitments in previous generations.

[Related: “Graphic Content Restrictions Are Not Book Bans”]

School boards should then draft regulations to enforce these commitments, by means up to and including severance from employ. State governments should make sure that publicly funded library schools educate librarians to embrace these commitments—and add education in these commitments to the licensure (certification) requirements for school and public librarians.

School boards and states might consider more thoroughgoing reforms, should these fail. But they should try these measured reforms first, as a way to deal with the challenge of woke librarians’ professional devotion to inflicting partisan commitment and obscenity on their library’s minor patrons.

Image: Chinnapong, Adobe Stock

David Randall

David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars.

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