“Welcome to the Jungle”
We all know that school librarianship has come into some dark times. Small but vocal national groups are making a lot of noise about titles they have personal objections to. Their playbook includes personal attacks vilifying librarians and educators who advocate for intellectual freedom and students’ right to read. Book bans and censorship are rampant.
And yet, despite these widespread issues, general awareness of the censorship and banning going on in schools across the country remains low.
I’m just one of many folks who have been writing and talking about this topic for far too long. But the problem persists, in large part because the message is trapped in an echo chamber.
“I Think We’re Alone Now”
In education, school librarians are somewhat of a rarity. Even in places that haven’t removed positions or rooted out libraries completely, schools with one librarian are lucky. So we reach out to each other across distances large and small. We form our networks, and we share with and learn from each other.
School librarians have a wonderful, giving community, and I’m proud to be part of it. But even the brightest-blazing stars in the school library firmament have a reach that is limited to thousands of their peers.
Even though we repeatedly voice our concerns and share ideas for dealing with increasingly difficult circumstances, our message is not breaking through to the wider audience who needs to hear it. We need awareness and action from the wider public.
“You Might Think I’m Crazy…”
During a meeting of several dozen educators from across my county, I asked those who were aware of the censorship going on in our state to raise their hands. Not one hand went up.
When I calmly lay out facts about what’s going on to friends and family, they look at me like I’m spouting an insane conspiracy theory.
Even when local, state, or national media bring up the issues facing school librarians, there doesn’t seem to be much traction or longevity to the stories. Although these issues are significant for school librarians, few others grasp their importance.
It was against this backdrop that I tagged Dee Snider a few weeks ago in a tweet about the censorship that’s going on. You might remember Snider from his long tenure as the front man for heavy metal band Twisted Sister. What you may not remember (or may be too young to know) is that Snider was a vocal opponent of censorship.
“Haven’t We Been Here Before?”
In the early and mid 1980s, there was a national movement by a small but loud group of parents, The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), who wanted to add a detailed labeling and rating system to all music albums sold in the US. Rock music harmed American youth, they felt. (Sound familiar?)
Twisted Sister’s song “We’re Not Gonna Take It” was one of the “Filthy Fifteen” the PMRC focused on to help make their case, stating the song promoted “violence”. (Besides repeatedly chanting “We’re not gonna take it”, the only line I can find that even vaguely implies violence is in the first verse: “We’ll fight the powers that be…’cause you don’t know us, you don’t belong”. Ooh – bloodthirsty!)
Interestingly, the PMRC’s most prominent members were the wives of politicians, many of whom were running for reelection. The group was nominally headed by Tipper Gore, the wife of then-Senator Al Gore. They managed to pressure major record labels into adding “Parental Advisory” stickers to albums, and also triggered a Congressional hearing about the “porn rock” ruining America’s future.
In 1985, musicians and record executives appeared before Congress to discuss the PMRC’s claims and efforts.
“Here I Go Again”
As one of the central figures under attack, Dee Snider appeared before the Congressional committee and gave public testimony. Snider thoughtfully and incisively challenged many of the PMRC’s assertions. His strong stand against censorship, governmental overreach, and the baseless claims of “corruption of the youth” struck a chord with many. I was one of them – in sixth grade, I wrote a report about the PMRC’s efforts, and how misguided they were (citing a part of Snider’s testimony as support).
In January, Louisiana Citizens Against Censorship shared a tweet about a podcast in which they discussed with the always amazing Amanda Jones the censorship and harassment taking place in their state. I quote tweeted it and tagged Dee Snider, hoping that he would see the tweet and lend his voice to the cause. Despite my intention, I was surprised when Snider retweeted and replied. But I was disappointed when that was as far as things went.
“So you think I got an evil mind?…I don’t know why”
The fact of the matter is, the folks who think they should get to decide for everyone what is or isn’t acceptable have some very scary (if fictitious) stories. Many have nothing else to do with their time. And they’re loud. They work in packs, targeting individual school libraries and their librarians with personal attacks. They demonize people who are trying to do a pretty thankless job. And although they’re proportionally a very small percent of the population, they are persistent, and they’re very specifically targeted. Taken all together, that’s a great combination for hijacking political power.
School librarians already have full-time jobs. We literally don’t have the time needed to push back effectively against this insidious tide of censorship. What makes the entire situation even more frustrating is the fact that recent polls show most Americans agree that book bans and other forms of censorship are un-American. But in order to wake up the sleeping giant, someone has to draw attention to the problem.
The fact of the matter is, we need a celebrity spokesperson to help alert folks to this ever-increasing flood that is eroding the general public’s freedom to choose for themselves what books they can read.
“Alright Stop, Collaborate and Listen”
School librarians and some basic tenets of our society are getting slapped around by bullies. The facts are on our side. The research is on our side. We have advanced degrees and years of experience on our side. But we’re isolated, we’re overwhelmed (in five different ways), and we just don’t have the lung capacity to get an attention-grabbing scream out there.
In a recent online conversation, the point was made that having someone with a big bullhorn that people recognize would be a very helpful option to have in the toolkit.
It’s past time people outside of school librarianship started noticing this critical issue. So let’s play “Six Degrees of Separation”. Who do you know who knows someone who might have the wattage to illuminate this problem? Because if we can’t get out of this house of pain soon, we’re going to be left high and dry.
“Holding Out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler, 1984
“Bring The Noise” byPublic Enemy & Anthrax, 1991
“Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns ‘n Roses, 1987
“I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tiffany, 1987
“You Might Think” by The Cars, 1984
“Haven’t We Been Here Before” by Styx, 1983
“We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister, 1984
“Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake, 1982
“Cum On Feel the Noize” by Quiet Riot, 1983
“Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice, 1990
“House of Pain” by Van Halen, 1984
“High and Dry” by Slade, 1983
Author: Steve Tetreault
After 24 years as a classroom English Language Arts teacher, Steve became a school librarian in January 2022. He has earned an M.Ed. (2006) and an Ed.D. (2014) in Educational Administration and Supervision, and completed an M.I. degree in Library and Information Science (2019). He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!
Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Intellectual Freedom
This. Is. Awesome. Thanks so much!
Hi, Terri – Thank YOU! So glad the piece resonated – and maybe provided a play list of what I hate to admit are “oldies”… =)
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The most obvious allies for us are all those celebrities with book clubs and imprints. Oprah, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Emma Roberts, Jenna Bush Hager, Emma Watson, Shonda Rhimes, Mindy Kaling, Andy Cohen … and on and on.
Thank you for this amazing piece and for putting a playlist of 80s songs in my head during my work day!! It continues to baffle me that people don’t understand the value of letting all humans read what they want. How can they not see that books are the gateway to empathy, intelligence, and understanding? Even books that contain ideas we don’t agree with give us something to measure our own beliefs against, prompting us to work harder to research and explore topics. It’s always a comfort knowing we have such a supportive school library community :)