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Tennessee school librarians face criticism in fight over book scrutiny

Currently, Tennessee's General Assembly is mulling several proposals designed to implement more scrutiny and transparency in public school libraries.
Credit: AP
The Tennessee House of Representatives meets Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee's General Assembly is meeting for a special legislative session to address COVID-19 measures after Republican Gov. Bill Lee declined to do so. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Amid a national spike in book challenges and bans, school librarians across Tennessee are quickly becoming the target of scorn and skepticism from Republican lawmakers and parents pushing for more oversight on what materials are provided to children.

“I don’t appreciate what’s going in our libraries, what’s being put in front of our children and shame on you for putting it there,” Republican Rep. Jerry Sexton told a group of librarians during a Tuesday hearing.

Currently, Tennessee's GOP-controlled General Assembly is mulling several proposals designed to implement more scrutiny and transparency in public school libraries. One version, backed by Gov. Bill Lee's administration, would require school libraries to post their contents online and regularly review their policies to make sure the materials are “age-appropriate” and “suitable” for the children accessing them.

A separate but similar version backed by Republican Rep. Scott Cepicky would prohibit books and materials considered “harmful” to minors in school libraries and would create a process to remove books from schools. Both bills are currently making their way through the Statehouse, with Cepicky's version advancing out of lengthy and contentious hearing Tuesday.

Supporters say the overall goal is to ensure students are only exposed to age-appropriate materials and weed out potential violations hidden among library shelves. Such advocates have had varied success appealing to their local school boards. Most recently, the McMinn County school board sparked international attention when it voted unanimously in January to remove “Maus," a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from the district’s curriculum. Over in Williamson County, an affluent region just south of Nashville, school board members agreed to remove “Walk Two Moons" — a book that depicts an American Indian girl’s search for her mother — after receiving complaints from parents.

Yet the fight is now taking place inside the Statehouse as most lawmakers seek reelection.

As the effort intensifies, however, school librarians have come under fire as they not only defend the works placed inside their libraries but also the policies in place they say already allows parents to review the works offered to students.

“School librarians are always here to work with parents and we welcome this partnership,” said Lindsey Kimery, library services coordinator at Metro Nashville Public Schools.

During Tuesday's hearing, multiple parents cited examples of books they found objectionable, books that largely focused on sexuality, gender identity or race. These ranged from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” Jesse Andrews' “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," Robie Harris’ “It’s Perfectly Normal” to Khaled Hosseini’s million-selling novel “The Kite Runner." All books that for years have faced complaints and calls to be removed from libraries and schools.

Many repeated unfounded claims that librarians who defended such literary works were helping “groom” children to become desensitized to sexual abuse and pornography.

“What's the difference between...a librarian putting one of these books on the desk of a student or a guy in a white van pulling up when school lets out, saying ‘come around kids, let me read you this book,’” country singer John Rich argued in front of the same legislative panel last week. “What's the difference between those two scenarios? There is a difference. They can run away from the van.”

Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Democrat from Memphis, said such comments were inappropriate.

“I am offended when librarians are compared to sex predators and your actions are compared to sex trafficking,” Hardaway said.

Librarians counter schools have policies in place for parents and educators to review school library books. They stress the need for better resources and possibly adding a state library coordinator to promote literacy and education across the state.

“The books being challenged in school libraries...are not defined as obscene. So when the books are removed from schools they are opened up to lawsuits that they cannot afford,” said Sharon Edwards, president of the Tennessee Library Association.

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