Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

School librarian weighs in on new law aimed at keeping books on shelves

People look at books
Governor Tim Walz speaks with Sheri Chaffee-Johnson, the librarian at Como Park Senior High School, about the school's library and books that have been targeted for bans. Walz and others are pushing legislation that would prohibit book bans and censorship in the state.
Peter Cox

There were some major bills that did not pass in the chaotic last days of the Minnesota legislative session. One bill that did pass prohibits public and school libraries from banning a book “based solely on its viewpoint or the messages, ideas or opinions it conveys.” It also protects library employees from discipline against them for complying with the new rules.

Librarians have been put in the center of a culture war on books. According to PEN America, 4,349 books were banned from schools between July and December 2023, more than the entire previous school year. And that’s likely underreported. The issue has been playing out in Minnesota, too.

For more on the impact of the new law, MPR News host Cathy Wurzer talked with school librarian and the president-elect of Information and Technology Educators of Minnesota, Rachel Haider.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: You all know there were some big bills that did not pass in the chaotic last days of the Minnesota legislative session that just ended. There was a bill that passed that prohibits public and school libraries from banning a book based solely on its viewpoint or the messages, ideas, or opinions it conveys. It also protects library employees from discipline against them for complying with the new rules.

Now, librarians have been put at the center of a culture war on books. According to Pen America, 4,349 books were banned from schools between July and December of 2023, more than the entire previous school year, and that's likely underreported. This has been playing out in Minnesota, too, but that ends with this new law.

Joining us to explain the impact is a school librarian and the President-elect of Information and Technology Educators of Minnesota Rachel Haider. Rachel, welcome.

RACHEL HAIDER: Hi, Cathy. Thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Absolutely. Say, I love librarians. I know you've been a librarian for the past, what, five years or so? Why did you want to get into this field?

RACHEL HAIDER: Well, I was an English teacher before I was a librarian, and books have always been a place where I could kind of escape and find somewhere maybe new that I couldn't go in the small town where I grew up. And so I just wanted to be able to help students find that book that either shows them something new or where they could find themselves in literature, and jumping into the world of library just seemed the way to do that.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So obviously you sound like you're happy, but, I mean, it has to be pretty-- the recent climate has to be pretty difficult. Would you agree?

RACHEL HAIDER: Yeah. I mean, we're definitely jumping into kind of a new world in library. Like you said, I've only been a librarian for about five years, and around the time that I jumped into my first library job, the pandemic happened. And then starting in 2020, 2021, we saw this huge rise in book challenges. In 2020, there was about 223 reported for the year. And now, like you mentioned, the numbers have just been going up year after year.

CATHY WURZER: What do you think is going on?

RACHEL HAIDER: I think that just people are wanting to try and hold their family values close to their selves and their kids. I think there's just lots of fear of just lots of different things happening in our world. And so people are just trying to figure out what's best for them, and sometimes that impacts others as well.

CATHY WURZER: When you look at what's happening in Minnesota with some of the titles, are there specific genre of books that some folks just don't want to have on shelves?

RACHEL HAIDER: Yeah, it's really hard. A lot of times, right now we don't have titles that are broken out. Minnesota specific as far as exact titles across the board. And like you mentioned, the numbers that are reported a lot of times are vastly underreported. But in general in the library world, we're seeing big trends that LGBTQ topics, books by people of color, those are really the ones that are tending to get challenged more often. About 46% of the books that were-- or 47%, excuse me, of the books that were reported as being challenged to ALA, the American Library Association, last year centered around LGBTQ and BIPOC titles.

CATHY WURZER: Even if someone disagrees and thinks there shouldn't be a book on a public library shelf, do librarians try to explain why it's important to have these books, or do you not get involved? Is there some sort of a process that folks have to go through?

RACHEL HAIDER: Yeah, I mean, for sure we always want to have that conversation of why we have the books on the shelves. And a lot of times it comes down to that, even if maybe it's not a belief or an opinion or a viewpoint that you personally hold, there's probably somebody in the community that might hold that viewpoint. And so we want to make sure that we have books that represent our entire community or provide that perspective for people to maybe explore viewpoints that are different than their own if they want to learn more. So that's what we're always trying to do when we select materials and have materials available in our libraries.

And if somebody does think that maybe a book shouldn't be part of the collection, most libraries have a review policy where they can have that first initial conversation with a librarian or maybe a school administrator if it's in a school. And then it kind of works through a process from there. If we kind of come to an agreement that, I see. I understand why this book is here. Maybe I'll just talk with my child about not checking that book out because we don't believe. That's fantastic, and we just kind of go about our business. But if the parent or community member wants to keep going, then typically it escalates where you fill out a review form. You let them voice why they don't think it should be there, and then it typically goes to a committee where a committee reviews the material in its entirety and then makes a decision on whether or not it should be in the collection.

CATHY WURZER: That sounds like an exhaustive process. And I'm wondering, how do you feel that this new state law might help?

RACHEL HAIDER: Well, I think that-- I mean, definitely over the last few years, with seeing that rise in challenges that have been happening, lots of school districts across the state have been implementing a material selection and reconsideration policy, which basically just goes into this is why and how we select our materials, but also in the instance of a challenge, why or how we would handle that.

And so I think that what we are hoping with this new policy is that we have some guarantees that that process will be followed and that people wouldn't skip steps in that process, that they would make sure that materials are being selected for appropriate reasons, that parents know that they do still have that opportunity to, if they don't believe they want their children to have access to a particular material, they can kind of set those parameters in place with the school. And then if they do feel like a book shouldn't be in the library, that reconsideration policy is still there. And so it really is just going to help us ensure that books are available equitably and able to be accessed by all individuals, despite what certain people may believe.

CATHY WURZER: So you feel like you're getting some help here?

RACHEL HAIDER: Yeah. It's just kind of like that backbone to policies that we already had in place. Now it's within statute that we are able to just make sure that books aren't removed, like you said at the beginning of the program, just based solely on a viewpoint.

CATHY WURZER: Are you worried there might be backlash to this?

RACHEL HAIDER: I mean, with any new law, especially on a topic like this, there's always probably going to be some backlash. But I think that it really gives us a good, strong, solid foundation. It also helps set in place that each library should have licensed staff, whether that's a school-- there should be a certified licensed library media specialist or school librarian in each school overseeing the collection-- or that in a public library, it should make sure that somebody that has that master's of library and information science or training for selection of materials is in those places. So that way we know that the materials that are being selected is good.

CATHY WURZER: So before you go, I would be remiss if I did not ask you this. With school letting out soon here toward the end of the school year, do you have any summer reading recommendations for young readers, for anybody for that matter?

RACHEL HAIDER: Man, there's always so many, and it's really dependent upon what you are as a reader. I know I'm looking forward to just catching up on my list. I mean, I've already read 30 books this year, but--

CATHY WURZER: Oh, Rachel.

RACHEL HAIDER: Yeah, I know. I get at it. But I think I'm looking forward to just taking some time to read some books for fun and not for school.

Recently, I'm reading Marie Lu's Stars and Smoke right now. It's a really good book. I'm liking it.

CATHY WURZER: Stars and Smoke, I've not heard that. What is that? Do you know what-- can you give us a synopsis?

RACHEL HAIDER: It's like an undercover pop star goes undercover to help solve a big trafficking crime. So it's kind of a fantasy type of book.

CATHY WURZER: OK. Rachel, well, have a great summer. Thank you so much. I appreciate your time, too.

RACHEL HAIDER: All right, thanks so much, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Rachel Haider is a school librarian and the president-elect of Minnesota-- excuse me, the president-elect of Information and Technology Educators of Minnesota.

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