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The War on Librarians


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On August 25, South Carolina Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver formally cut ties between the state Department of Education and the South Carolina Association of School Librarians (SCASL), a relationship which has been consistent across Democratic, Republican, and nonpartisan superintendent administrations in the state for five decades.

This decision seemed to be made abruptly, as Weaver made no attempts to communicate with SCASL about her concerns prior to terminating the partnership. However, given that Weaver’s organization Palmetto Promise Institute has criticized SCASL in the past, it is not entirely surprising that something like this has happened.

So, what was the relationship-ending offense?

According to Weaver, it was having the temerity to suggest that challenging books for nakedly political purposes and using the power of state agencies and legislation to do so, constitutes “censorship or bans.”

Regrettably, a number of SCASL’s recent communications via its website (such as the American Library Association’s Advocacy Toolkit), in testimony regarding library “censorship” before members of the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Taskforce, and most recently in a letter sent to local school board members undermine that vital objective.

(Links are Weaver’s; importantly, she did not include a link to the alleged “letter sent to local school board members.”)

Of course, even if that were really an issue, now would be an odd time to suddenly realize that the ALA and SCASL are generally against censorship and bans, since that has long been a core value of the association:

ALA, established in 1876, has a longstanding commitment to defend intellectual freedom in libraries. Even before the formal adoption of the Library Bill of Rights in 1939, ALA has provided support, guidance, and resources to librarians faced with censorship. Since 1990, the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) has maintained a database on challenged materials. ALA gathers information from media reports and individual reports submitted from the form below.

So, for those following along at home, Weaver is formally giving the silent treatment to SCASL, and by extension eliminating access to professional development programs librarians rely upon, just as the school year begins, because the association testified before a formal legislative taskforce², and included links to an ALA slideshow that doesn’t actually say any of the things she suggests it does.

And, in an amazing feat of irony, her letter’s main thesis is that SCASL is wrong to suggest that state censorship is a problem, while the same letter uses Weaver’s power as a constitutional officer to censor the association.

Weaver’s letter continued:

Parents are entirely justified in seeking to ensure educational materials presented to their children are age-appropriate and aligned with the overall purpose of South Carolina’s instructional program and standards. When SCASL labels those efforts as bans, censorship, or a violation of educators’ intellectual freedom, the result is a more hostile environment which does not serve the needs of students.

Of course, parents are justified in reviewing educational materials, but neither SCASL nor the ALA have ever argued otherwise; in fact, there are already procedures in place for parents to flag books and materials with libraries and school districts so that their own children may not access them; what SCASL is implicitly criticizing, instead, is the practice of handing outsized political power to a very small number of parents, who can then make book availability decisions for every student in the district.

And it’s hard to say what (if anything) Weaver means when she cites the testimony before the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Taskforce, but she may be referencing this document, included as a link in the taskforce report, which includes testimony from librarians who have faced harassment on the job:

There was a small group of citizens (who didn't have children in the school system) who had been attending meetings in order to target books they didn't like and to call for more community oversight in the materials used and subjects taught in the schools. Even though it was against our School Board Policy, this group was allowed to call out myself and my colleague, as well as our Principal, by name. We were accused of putting pornography on our shelves. The Board meeting was live-streamed and put up on the District website. Our names were not removed until two days later when I complained that our safety was at risk by leaving this meeting up with our names in it. After this board meeting, I was concerned that these community members might call me or email me (both at work and at home) or find out where I live and show up at my house.

SCASL provided this testimony to the Task Force because attacks from politicians and community members are a driver in our state’s inability to fully staff our classrooms and libraries. Attacking a professional organization for trying to bring this to the attention of lawmakers and others on the taskforce is simply egregious.

The report—mandated by state budget proviso, and created by a broad, bipartisan group of elected officials and a few current professional educators—had these clear and succinct recommendations for librarians:

Consistent with guidance from the State Board of Education, local district boards of education should review, revise, and implement clear, consistent, and fair policies and procedures for the review and purchase of materials in school libraries. Whenever possible, districts should provide for trained library assistants to aide in the key instructional role of the school library. Library assistants’ compensation should be budgeted as support staff and not be placed as a burden upon the library budget. (emphasis mine)

But perhaps more important still was this recommendation, which Weaver would do well to heed:

Recruitment of educators suffers from negative discourse surrounding the field of public education…Respect was cited as the primary issue for teachers who expressed concerns about remaining in the profession; while this is a recruitment issue, it also directly impacts the ability to retain veteran educators. Educators reported feeling a lack of respect from a variety of sources. This testimony reinforces data received by the task force from multiple agencies: respecting educators is not solely a local issue. A state-wide campaign to elevate and promote public education can elevate the discourse in the state of South Carolina and make it a destination state for current and future educators. (emphasis mine)

As we move toward the next election cycle, it’s crucial to get involved in educating the public about the consequences of electing people who have nothing more to offer than culture wars, counterproductive public policy, and empty rhetoric. It’s crucial to get involved early, since in heavily gerrymandered states like South Carolina the primary is often where the election is essentially decided.

We encourage you to do three things today:

  1. Check your voter registration:

  2. If you are not registered to vote, register today:

  3. Check with at least three of your friends/colleagues to do the same.

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