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Thursday, April 28, 2022

Danger in the Sacred Grove: A Library Love Story by Dean Gloster

             I was born in Reno, Nevada, and spent a huge part of my youth in the amazing, slightly disturbing, and thoroughly weird Washoe County Library. I loved that library. Floors and floors of bookshelves lined both sides of a huge atrium, with large circular reading areas each held up by single columns and surrounded by plants. It was as if the architect had been told, “Build an amazing library, but make sure it’s also the perfect location for a light-saber duel, a decade from now, when Star Wars comes out. In a rainforest. But with good lighting.” Check. 


            The circular reading areas, little islands that rose several stories, would wobble when children tromped up or down the stairways that connected them to the shelving floor above or below. So while what you were read had transported you to Oz, or Mars, or Middle Earth, you’d also be literally shaken up every few minutes and get to experience a mini earthquake.


             To me, it was heaven. And, while libraries are places of safety, it was also a place with the appropriate frisson of adventure. A place of knowledge and ideas. Those are dangerous, because they can change you. They can expand you.

            It felt like a sacred, exciting grove dedicated to helping us grow. 


            I think about that sometimes, especially now that libraries and books and schools are under attack by the rising tide of right-wing authoritarianism in America.

            Books are being banned. Librarians and teachers are being fired. Librarians are being threatened with criminal prosecution for the books in their libraries. The attacks are often against books that: (1) Simply portray the existence of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer people. (2) Accurately describe the history of slavery and racism in this country or their effects today. (3) Were authored by women, people of color, or LGBTQ+ authors.


            In just 4 days this month:

·       Florida banned 41% of all school math textbooks as containing elements of “CRT” “social-emotional learning” or other prohibited topics. In grades K-5, Florida banned 71% of math textbooks, leaving only one publisher, Accelerate Learning. Coincidentally, that publisher is owned by the private equity fund of which Virginia’s GOP Governor Glenn Youngkin used to be CEO. (Virginia is seeking a similar ban.)

·       Kentucky passed a law giving single local partisan politicians control over libraries starting in 2023. Judge Elects, who are not librarians, will have control over libraries and can close the libraries and sell the buildings to other educational institutions, including private, for-profit and religious schools.

·       After prohibiting state university faculty from testifying about the discriminatory impact of redistricting, Florida eliminated tenure for all Florida state university professors, to “prevent educators from bringing their political views into the classroom” that are not “in line with the state’s priorities.” The new law requires tenured faculty to be re-reviewed every five years by the state-appointed Board of Trustees, which can now fire professors without cause.

·       Florida’s Governor DeSantis, angry about the mild criticism by the state’s largest employer, The Walt Disney Company, of his new “don’t say gay” law prohibiting discussion in primary schools of the existence of LGBTQ people, signed a bill revoking Disney’s self-governing district, saddling each family in the Orlando area with $2200 of bond debt to be repaid.

·       In a tacit acknowledgement that its new “don’t say gay” law was devastating to the mental health of its LGBTQ+ kids and kids from LGBTQ+ families, Florida quietly withdrew from further participation in a 31-year-old CDC study on student depression, suicide, sexuality, and sexual identity.

·       Walton County, Florida, banned 58 books from its libraries, including the picture book Everywhere Babies because two of the pictures in its 32 pages could be interpreted to imply that there are same sex couples among the parents. The complete list:

Sheriff Eric Flowers of Indian River County, Florida, sent a threatening letter to the county school board, announcing that while he wasn’t able to prosecute them or their librarians for pornography or obscenity in connection with complained-about titles in school libraries, they should remove all objectionable materials from the library anyway: “we do not think it…appropriate” for children to have access to the books.

 

            None of this is okay. It’s horrific and particularly cruel after four years of the daily authoritarian chaos of the Trump administration and two years of pandemic living, which have stressed our mental health and pushed schoolteachers, librarians, and students to their limits.

            But cruelty is the point. So far this year, 238 bills to limit the rights of LGBTQ people have been introduced in 26 states, an average of three a day. It’s part of a broader trend of rising authoritarianism and othering that aims to make the U.S. more like Putin’s Russia, where gay pride parades are banned with criminal penalties, on the false premise that merely acknowledging the existence of gay people is the equivalent of soliciting minors.

            I hope, and believe, this effort to deny reality and to impose censorship, silence, and ignorance will ultimately fail, but not until it instills fear and does its best to damage learning institutions and careers.

            It’s not popular even with most Republican voters. A recent poll found that a majority of Republicans favor teaching all aspects of American history—including the legacy of slavery and racism and how this legacy affects our laws, institutions, and society even today. Younger, GenZ/Millennial Republican voters, favored this the margin of 59-28%.

            And it’s not going to work in imposing a permanent barrier to knowledge. In response to book banning elsewhere, the Brooklyn Public Library has announced its “Books Unbanned Initiative”—that anyone aged 13-21, anywhere in the U.S., can get a free digital library card giving access to the library’s entire digital collection. No parental permission is required.  

            Because we need more information about a lot of things, not less. For all my countless hours of exploration of the Washoe County Library when I was young, there are lots of books on topics available today that I’d never heard of back then—wonderful, well-written books about history and reality and possibility.



 

            You know, the things one should encounter in a sacred grove of learning—a library designed to help us grow.

 P.S. It's my birthday today! Celebrate by reading a book. 


Dean Gloster is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His YA short story “Death’s Adopted Daughter” is about to come out in the anthology Spoon Knife 6: Rest Stop from Autonomous Press. He hopes some day to write a book inclusive, open-hearted, kind, accurate, and thoughtful enough to be banned in Texas and Florida.



2 comments:

  1. Evil seems to be oozing out from an endless number of rocks these days. I'm really hoping that those afflicted with complacency wake up before November. I write fantasy, but can't imagine these can be a majority who support this tide of evil.

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  2. I hadn't heard of the "Books Unbanned Initiative." How completely cool.

    ReplyDelete