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Book challenges may have ‘chilling effects’ on new LGBTQ books in school libraries, study finds

Rows of books lean on one another in two bookshelves placed against a wall.

A new study found evidence that book challenges may have “chilling effects” on new LGBTQ books in school libraries.

Stacey Rupolo for Chalkbeat

In the months since Amanda Jones, a middle school librarian in Livingston Parish, Louisiana, spoke at a public meeting against restricting access to LGBTQ books in local libraries, she said she’s faced a barrage of online harassment.

Jones said she’s worked in her district for more than two decades, but never seen this level of backlash before.

“I know some librarians who are afraid to order those titles — titles that their students want and that are age relevant — because they don’t want to be targeted,” she said. “When people want to relocate LGBTQ books to a completely different section, it’s like telling the students, ‘You don’t belong with the rest of the kids.’ That’s horrible.”

Recent years have seen schools and libraries centered in a widespread conservative effort against antiracism and LGBTQ inclusion in schools. And as Jones and other librarians are sounding the alarm over the potential fallout from the shift, a new study finds evidence that the rise of book challenges in local districts may have a “chilling effect” on future library acquisitions.

“Over the past school year, we saw this skyrocketing, record-setting number of book challenges,” said Kirsten Slungaard Mumma, a researcher at Boston University and the author of the study. “It’s become a key political issue with some very real political consequences.”

Schools in districts that saw book challenges in the 2021-22 school year were 55% less likely to have a title from a list of recently published LGBTQ books, according to the study, which analyzed the availability of hundreds of titles in over 6,600 public school libraries.

Slungaard Mumma identified 82 schools across 43 districts in the sample that saw such challenges occur in the school year.

Without comprehensive school library collection catalogs at her disposal, Slungaard Mumma compiled lists of hundreds of books across subject areas that have faced challenges that would conceivably be held in a school library and checked them against each library.

School libraries in conservative areas tended to have fewer books containing LGBTQ issues, focusing on race and racism, or containing abortion — while stocking more Christian fiction books and Dr. Seuss books that were pulled for racist imagery, the study found. The difference, for example, between a swing district that went slightly for President Joe Biden in the 2020 election and a conservative district with a more than 30-point swing for former President Donald Trump, meant finding an LGBTQ book on the study list at a high school library was about 13% less likely. For those concerning race or racism, that jumped to 20%. 

Paula McAvoy, a professor who studies relationships between schools and democratic society at North Carolina State University, said the findings were concerning but not surprising.

“You want schools to be places where kids learn to engage with ideas that are new and different to them, and that aren’t just mirrors of the community that they live in,” she said. “There’s a democratic concern if schools can’t maintain the willingness to expose kids to new ideas.”

Still, she noted the relationship between school libraries and the probability of having a newly published book in stock could also be connected to resources, with the study also finding schools in low-income areas or that served traditionally disadvantaged student populations tended to have fewer staff and less-up-to-date collections.

“To what extent is it fear of adopting the books?” McAvoy said. “And to what extent was it just the choice between new math textbooks or new books for the library?”

Slungaard Mumma stressed the study was descriptive, and did not necessarily imply a causal relationship.

But despite the observed differences in the study, she said she was surprised to see books on the list generally remained available across school libraries, regardless of local political leanings. Even in school districts in the most conservative counties, 96% of high schools had at least one book from the list on race or racism, 95% had at least one on abortion, and 94% had at least one LGBTQ book.

Though the study notes that for elementary and middle schools, only 70% of schools in those counties had at least one LGBTQ title — nearly 13% fewer than in the most liberal counties.

Jones, for her part, says she’ll continue to acquire books that help her students feel reflected and a sense of belonging, despite local challenges or backlash.

“It is pretty heartening to me,” Slungaard Mumma said. “To think that these school libraries were making this kind of content available even in places where there could be parents or administrators or political groups that would find it objectionable.”

Julian Shen-Berro is a reporter covering national issues. Contact him at jshen-berro@chalkbeat.org.

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