There “definitely is a shortage” of librarians in recent days, said Mary Woodard, president of the Texas Library Association and the former director of library services at Mesquite ISD. She attributes this to the educational fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and a tempestuous political climate.
Dallas ISD is one of the districts looking for school librarians; it recently held informational sessions to attract recruits in partnership with Sam Houston State University, according to WFAA.
Librarians were once viewed as helpful civil servants in an honorable profession, but today they’re often vilified, Woodard said. Many have been attacked on social media and some even fear for their families, she added.
“It really is just horrifying the way some of these folks have been treated, just for trying to have things in their library collections that are reflective of the diverse community that they serve,” she said.
Book censorship has skyrocketed in recent months, with conservative parents and groups attacking school boards and public libraries for titles — particularly those touching on racism and LGBTQ+ issues — that they deem offensive. Many of these skirmishes are playing out across the country, with Texas leading the way.
One particularly heated book battle is unfolding in Llano County, some 220 miles southwest of Dallas. There, county commissioners are considering shuttering the public library rather than return a dozen banned books to the shelves, according to Book Riot.
Parents may question whether a certain book is age-appropriate, but there are already processes in place to handle challenges and find resolutions, Woodard said. Lately, though, some parents haven't followed long-standing procedures, and school boards haven't required that they do.
Some conservatives have complained that “pornography” can be found in the library, but Woodard said that's not the case. For a work to be considered “obscene,” it has to lack all literary, scientific, artistic or political value, according to the First Amendment Encyclopedia.
“What's right for one kid is not right for another kid, and it is really up to their parents to say what they can read and what they can't,” Woodard said. “When the state tries to come in and just say categorically, ‘No one can have access to this material,’ that's where there becomes a problem.”
“[T]he natural conclusion is going to be that we are going to lose librarians in the profession.” – Shirley Robinson, TLA executive directortweet this
Texas Library Association Executive Director Shirley Robinson said she’s heard anecdotally of librarians running for the exit. Some may ditch the schoolhouse for a public library so they can work in an environment that’s less challenging in terms of book banning, she said.
“There are people who have just outright left because they were in a district, particularly in North Texas, where it was such a toxic and challenging environment that they could not utilize their professional expertise in the way that they had been trained and have been practicing librarianship for, you know, their entire careers,” she said.
The conservative-majority Texas Legislature is targeting libraries in a slew of bills this session. A previous version of one such bill, by state Sen. Angela Paxton, a McKinney Republican and spouse of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, would have prevented librarians from pointing to a book’s educational merit as a defense against criminal charges, according to The Texas Tribune.
Robinson called the prospect of librarians being criminally prosecuted “terrifying.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick praised Paxton's bill, which would require parental notice when their student checks out a title, after it passed the Texas Senate on Thursday.
“Texas parents have an expectation that when their child goes to their school library, they are doing so for educational purposes,” he said in a press release. “Some of the books that have infiltrated our school libraries are obscene and have no place in an educational environment.”
Small but very vocal groups in Texas are now showing up to school board, city council and county commissioner meetings with a long list of books they believe are pornographic or obscene, Robinson said. There, they’ll read passages out of context and effectively drown out the voices of the rest of the community.
Another thing that scares Robinson is that many librarians are now self-censoring.
“I mean, there's a lot of fear of losing jobs, of being shamed within the community, of being attacked on social media,” she said. “That really erodes public trust and, of course, confidence of a librarian in their profession. So, we're seeing a lot of that.”
Librarians are exhausted after dealing with attack after attack over the past couple of years, and they need the community’s support, Robinson said. She noted that the TLA-organized grassroots coalition Texans for the Right to Read is pushing back against censorship and book bans, and she encourages citizens to stand up for librarians.
To Robinson, the library is the heart of the school campus. Librarians do much more than just hand out books; they also offer support for teachers and provide initiatives like after-school programming, she said. They’ve even helped to fill in during the educator workforce shortage.
“Add on the stress of what's happening and what might be coming within our regulatory environment, and then the emotional pressure and mental load of dealing with angry parents — and school board members and community members saying terrible things about you,” she said. “Of course, the natural conclusion is going to be that we are going to lose librarians in the profession.”