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The Plot Thickens: The Battle Over Books Comes at a Cost

Amid all the skirmishes over individual book titles and challenge policies, it's easy to miss the toll it's taking on librarians, kids, and the country.

School librarian Amanda Jones endured harassment and threats after speaking out in defense of a diverse selection of books in the public libraries of Livingston Parish, La.,Abdul Aziz for NPR

LIVINGSTON PARISH, La. — It's been a year since the start of what one librarian here calls "The Troubles." That's when once-boring meetings of the Livingston Parish Library Board of Control started devolving into bitter brawls over books that some consider to be too sexual and harmful to kids. Meetings have been laced with insults, interruptions and the kind of profanity that would probably get you kicked out of the library.

At the most recent meeting in July, it wasn't quite as heated as the 100° temperatures outside, but tempers flared over plans to immediately remove challenged books under review from library shelves-- even if that takes months, or more.

Board member Larry Davis likened it to removing a teacher accused of sexual harassment until an investigation is complete. Others shot back that it was hardly the same thing, and vehemently objected to a policy they say would effectively empower one person to ban a book from the entire community. "Just leave it on the shelf," shouted one.

Tensions spilled over after the meeting when one board member confronted a conservative activist and implored him to stop insinuating online that she was a groomer.

A sign on a door at the Denham Springs-Walker Branch library in Livingston Parish announces the elimination of Sunday hours due to staff shortages.  Abdul Aziz for NPR

"Look, just stop posting about me on Facebook," she demanded.

The activist snapped back that he never actually used the word "groomer," but made clear that he sees her as fair game.

"You're now a public person," he said. "So I'm going to talk about what I'm going to talk about."

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Once-beloved librarians now vilified

It's something of a "new normal" here — as it is around the nation. No longer are just books under fire, but also the library administrators, teachers and long-beloved librarians who are defending them. They're being shouted down by parents, vilified on billboards, reported to the police, and trolled online, leaving many fearing for their safety.

"I had an actual death threat," says Livingston Parish school librarian Amanda Jones, her voice breaking as she recalls one particular post: "We know where you work + live....u have a LARGE target on ur back. Click... Click... See you soon."

Jones says it started after she spoke out at a library board meeting against censorship and "book policing." Without mentioning any specific book, Jones said that challenges "often done with the best intentions," tend to target the Black and LGBTQ communities. Removing or relocating those books, she said, would be "extremely harmful to our most vulnerable - our children."

"Just because you don't want to read it or see it and does not give you the right to deny [it to] others," she said that night.

Librarian Amanda Jones speaks out at a Livingston Parish Library Board of Control meeting on July 18, 2023, against a policy that would automatically remove challenged books from library shelves until a review is completed, even if that takes months or more. Jones said that would effectively be a book ban.  Abdul Aziz for NPR

Then, she says, her comments were twisted online. She was accused of "advocating teaching anal sex to 11-year-olds," and pushing "sexually erotic and pornographic materials," to children "as young as six." That prompted a barrage of insults and threats as relentless as they were vicious.

"We're going to put ur fat evil commie PEDO azz in the dirt very soon b****" read one. Another pictured Jones with a red and white circle around her face.

She was terrified.

"I was hyperventilating," Jones says through tears. I didn't leave my room for days, and I cried so much that my eyes swelled shut. It was a mess, a real mess."

Jones started having panic attacks, she lost 50 pounds and chunks of hair, and ended up on a medical leave for six months. She was so scared, she started carrying a gun.

Amid all the skirmishes over individual book titles and challenge policies, it's easy to miss the toll it's taking on librarians, kids, and the country. Jones's case may be more extreme than most, but countless other librarians around the nation who are also feeling the heat are also quitting in droves, leaving libraries short-staffed. It's all driving up the human, civic, and financial costs embroiled in the battle over books.

"It's scary," sighs one librarian in Livingston Parish. "This is the first time I have not felt entirely safe in my job." She asked that her name not be used because, she says, she'd be fired "in a heartbeat."

Librarians are making the hard choice to quit

In her decades of library work, she says, she's never seen this kind of exodus, from low level workers all the way up to the library system's director and assistant director, who both abruptly resigned within weeks of each other this spring.

"It was like rats escaping from a sinking ship," says the librarian. "We have lost some excellent people."

Livingston Parish library director Michelle Parrish says library staffing is currently down nearly 30 percent, and it's been as challenging to attract candidates as it is to retain staff. Adding to the pressure, Louisiana's attorney general has set up a tip-line for complaints about librarians or staff, and libraries are dealing with a strict new state law that restricts all minors' access to library material that depicts or describes sexual conduct.

"When you're in this environment, and you have a choice to go a place where [this level of rancor] hasn't reached there, then why wouldn't you do that? I would, if it were me," she says.

To get out of the heat, Milissia Cole, treated her two sons to an hour of video games at the Denham Springs-Walker Branch Library in Denham Springs, La. "The park was not an option," she says.  Abdul Aziz for NPR

Many who have fled for friendlier turf - or quit the field altogether - have done so at great personal cost, uprooting their families, for example, or forgoing benefits.

That was the case for one librarian in Texas who asked not to be identified, for fear of provoking exactly the kind of backlash she was trying to escape. She had always hoped to work until she was eligible for her maximum retirement package, but opted instead to leave significant money on the table, because, she says, she just couldn't take it anymore.

"It was a dark cloud over me all the time," she sighs. "To feel like an enemy, a groomer, and all these things, it just made me feel sick all the time."

Giving up her job, and letting go of what she considered her calling, however, caused her a whole other level of pain.

"It's making me tear up," she says wiping her eyes, "because I just felt terrible grief. Tremendous grief. I did feel like that was my purpose as in my whole life and I didn't want to stop."

Another librarian, Latasha McKinney, also had a hard time leaving her school in Oklahoma that she found hostile to LGBTQ-themed and race-related books.

"I always thought that I would be the type of person who would stay and fight," she says. "I wouldn't be the type to run."

But McKinney says staying just felt like too big of a compromise. She says her grandfather was kicked out of a public library in the fifties because he was Black. That was a big reason why she wanted to become a librarian in the first place. She says she wanted to help bolster "representation, and access. And now we're going to remove some of that access to books and they're saying they want [me] to be part of that. So I was like 'no, I'm definitely not going to be the one to participate in this.'"

"Something has shifted, where you have a lot of people who are [saying] 'OK, this is it. This is where I get off,'" says Sonia Alcántara-Antoine, President of the Public Library Association, (a division of the American Library Association.) "It's extremely concerning. It has a ripple effect on communities."

Library staffing has long been on a decline, and while the pandemic exacerbated the problem, the harsh climate librarians are now facing is another big blow. Hard data is hard to come by, but a 2022 national survey by the Public Library Association shows 73% of public libraries now cite staffing as the top reason for limiting services. That's nearly double the second most common reason, which is funding.

"Libraries offer much more than books on the shelf," says Alcántara-Antoine, "and when you attack libraries, you're ultimately jeopardizing everything libraries do in service to and in support of their communities."

This spring, Livingston Parish announced the closure of the last branch in the library system that was open Sundays. "We are down quite a few man hours," Parrish explained at the time, "and we are also down man hours in all of our other branches also, so moving people from branch to branch is not an option."

Short-staffing means cuts in library hours and services

Meagan Simmons and her family were among those surprised and disappointed this summer. The library is important to them, as one of the few places to take kids that are both free and air-conditioned, she says. Simmons and her 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter set out for a much-hyped trip to the library on a Sunday, so Dad could join too.

They all piled in the car, excited to get a book they'd been waiting for, Simmons recalls. "We made it all the way here, and I was like 'Oh my gosh, the library is not even open on a Sunday anymore!' So we had to turn around. I had a very upset child."

A young girl checks out her selection of books at the Livingston Parish Library Main Branch in Livingston, La. She's among those disappointed that all libraries in the parish are now closed on Sundays.  Abdul Aziz for NPR

On one recent weekday, Simmons' daughter spins around the children's section, filling a cart with books. As usual, the Denham Springs-Walker Branch is bustling. In the back corner, a social worker is filing reports from home visits he's just completed. Nearby, a young man who works the night shift at a fast food place is here for the Wi-Fi, he says, since he won't have his back until his next paycheck.

In the children's section, a homeschooling mom goes over the ABCs with her younger kids as her teenager takes a course down the hall on Microsoft Word. Another mom seeking an escape from the blistering heat, is treating her two boys to an hour of video games on library computers. At a help desk, a guy is asking a librarian for a book on Sacajawea for his wife. Another — who's on first-name basis with most the librarians — is here to do genealogical research, and another man who was just laid off is filing for unemployment and looking for a new job at one of dozens of stations in the computer center.

Trying to keep up, the staff work extra hours and in a number of cases do multiple jobs. But patrons looking for help these days in any of the branches are likely to wait longer for it, says the librarian who asked not to be named. "One person cannot help ten people at one time," she says. "You can't make copies for this one, you can't help this one format their Word document, you can't get this one on Google all at the same time! It just doesn't happen that way."

She puts on her hushed librarian voice to reenact what she says has become her constant refrain. "I'll be with you in a minute. I'll be with you in a minute. I'll be with you in a minute."

The "Kids World" section of the Livingston Parish Library Main Branch, is dedicated to children's literature and learning.  Abdul Aziz for NPR

It's a similar story in Broward County, Florida. It's a liberal-leaning community that supports a diverse collection of books, but Library director Allison Grubbs says because it's in Florida – a hot spot for book restrictions-- few will even apply. That became abundantly clear at a recruiting table the library set up at a library convention this summer.

"Every single conversation, to a T, was tied around politics, the attacks on us and fear," says Grubbs. "People are just staying away."

As a result, Grubbs says she, too, is making cuts.

"We had to close an entire computer center because we just don't have the staff," she says. "And in terms of events and programming, computer classes, finance, literacy, health education - there's so many we're just not able to produce, and that is a tragic disservice to our communities."

The financial and emotional toll

The ongoing brawl over books is also costing many libraries in real dollars, as they spend countless staff hours responding to book challenges that often come by the dozens — or hundreds-- at a time. Lisa Varga, Executive Director of the Virginia Library Association, puts the price at millions of dollars.

"You're talking about the admin who receives the request, you're talking about the FOIA officer who has to answer anything, the school board attorney, the superintendent, the principals, and all the library media specialists who then have to be flagged," Varga says. "This has a real cost. This is an abuse of the system and a waste of our time and money."

Those challenging the books see that as the price of protecting children from harmful material.

But to others, the greater harm comes from removing books, which risks making marginalized kids feel more isolated or depressed.

A collection of books, addressing sex and sexuality, sit in the young adult section of the Denham Springs-Walker Branch in Livingston Parish.  Abdul Aziz for NPR

"It really felt kind of personal, and it really saddens me," says Thomasina Brown, a high school senior in Nixa, Missouri, where an outspoken librarian who had pushed back against book challenges was abruptly transferred to a different job this spring.

Brown, who identifies as queer, says it was crushing to lose such a staunch advocate for LGBTQ-themed books, including one her favorites about a girl discovering her sexual identity.

"She very well could have been me," says Brown. "And so when they called it inappropriate for children, it kind of felt like I was inappropriate as well."

It's one of the reasons Amanda Jones says she decided to return to her librarian job in Livingston Parish this school year. In the twenty-plus years she's worked in the school, she says about a dozen former students of hers who identified as LGBTQ have died by suicide.

"I just think I have a responsibility to speak out," she says, amid tears. "Your silence is compliance. So when they want me to be quiet, I always say 'I'm going to roar. I'm not going to stop.'"

At the same time, Jones worries the ever-escalating vitriol swirling around books could lead to violence. Especially when she was caught up in the maelstrom, Jones says she was horrified to think what all the hate rhetoric might incite. "I was scared that someone mentally unstable was going to come up to the school to get me, and in the process, harm a child," she says.

On yet another level, some say what's ultimately at stake in the battle over books is nothing less than democracy itself.

Despite being harassed and threatened, librarian Amanda Jones — seen here attending a Livingston Parish Council meeting on July 17, 2023 — says she will not cave to the pressure. After a long medical leave, she returns to her school librarian job this month.  Abdul Aziz for NPR

"You know, Russia bans books. That's not what America stands for," says Carolyn Foote, a retired-librarian-turned-activist, who founded the Texas based FReadom Fighters in 2021. Foote says she worries about the slippery slope.

"When we start tinkering around the edges of the First Amendment, first maybe it's books that have mature content, and then it's a book about race, and then it's a book about Billie Jean King because a parent didn't like that she was gay, and then, it's 'Well I don't like the way that book talks about the police.' You know, it just completely ignores the fact that we're a democracy with a first amendment."

"We can't have civil debates"

Polls suggest a majority of Americans oppose book restrictions, and want to protect intellectual freedom, as opposed to the smaller, but strident faction of conservatives who say they want protect kids from inappropriate content. They maintain they're not trying to ban books, they just want to move certain ones out of the children's and teen's sections, to ensure parental control over what kids are reading , and to make sure libraries are not "promoting explicit content" to minors.

"That's what's wrong with the world right now; it's indoctrination," says Livingston Parish resident Benny Reinninger. "Somebody's trying to push an agenda, and [kids] don't need things causing confusion in [their] confused little minds."

Still, Reinninger says he also believes that all the furor over cultural issues like book bans, is starting to pose an existential threat to the country.

"We are a nation divided, so [we] can't have civil debates," he says. "And we're going to destroy ourselves."

Civil discourse has certainly taken a hit in Livingston Parish, not only on the library board but also on the Parish council, where debate over library books has sunk into the morass of political stunts, personal attacks and even a physical run-in.

Livingston Parish Council member Garry Talbert says library books need to be age appropriate, and aligned with community standards.  Abdul Aziz for NPR

Council member Garry Talbert has been at the center of some of the antics. In retrospect, he tells NPR, there are some instances he may not have "handled the best way." He acknowledges all the rancor and demonization of the other side is taking a toll.

"We politicize crap that doesn't need to be politicized. It's like all one way or all another and there is no happy medium," he says. "And so if we all listened, then I think we would realize people don't eat their kids for supper."

But in the next breath, Talbert steps right back in it.

"I'm digging myself a hole, but I can't shut up either," he says as he explains how he believes certain LGBTQ people are trying to "shock" the community, and are the ones instigating the divisions themselves.

"I really don't think I'm that judgmental," he says. "But there are times that I've been in New Orleans and the Decadence Parade was coming down the street, and I thought that s**t is just ridiculous. Some of the s**t they were wearing is not acceptable to be outside in any way. Community standards need to rule."

Livingston Parish residents will have their say on whether they think library books are violating community standards, when library funding comes up for a vote this fall.

"Let's see what the community really thinks about this," says conservative activist Michael Lunsford who founded the group, Citizens For A New Louisiana.

"The most effective way to take care of issues is with purse strings," Lunsford says. "You know, if you're not seeing the light, it's time to feel the heat."

A meeting of the Livingston Parish Library Board of Control opens with the Pledge of Allegiance on July 18, 2023, at the Denham Springs-Walker Branch in Denham Springs, La.  Abdul Aziz for NPR

Lunsford spent years raising the heat in nearby Lafayette Parish, leading a stealthy but steady campaign that replaced members of the library board who, from his perspective, were not quite on board. He's now using the same playbook in Livingston Parish - and he's vowing to expand his campaign to the entire state.

State approval was recently granted to expand the library board from seven to nine members, prompting fears that the Parish Council will pack the board with those who support stricter restrictions. Lunsford says he's already identifying candidates who are "good conservatives who think the library's moving in the wrong direction," and he's also keeping a close eye on how current library board members are voting. If that makes current members fearful, Lunsford says, that's the point.

"Livingston Parish needs a reset," he says.

As for librarians feeling the heat, Lunsford shrugs.

"I've gotten my fair share of death threats," he says "That's just kind of how it goes."

Besides, Lunsford says, librarians really shouldn't complain, because they started it.

"I just would like to remind you, shots were fired by the other side," he says. "These books are new. They haven't been there for 30 years. We haven't had this book on how to perform sex acts on someone else. That's just nasty stuff. And all of a sudden it's become a problem, and you know, we say 'This far, no further!'"

It may be the quintessential cost of polarization, that it begets even more polarization. The point is not lost on librarians who are quitting or relocating because of the current discord: all the self-sorting may leave the nation even more deeply divided into separate camps. And as one librarian put it, "it also leaves the fox guarding the henhouse."

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.