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Will politics escalate the censorship of books in South Florida's public libraries too?

 The multimedia room for teens at the Lantana Public Library in the Town of Lantana.
Wilkine Brutus
The multimedia room for teens at the Lantana Public Library in the Town of Lantana.

Florida is second in the nation in school book censorship. The director of a library in Palm Beach County is concerned that public libraries could start facing the same challenges.

A public library director in Palm Beach County worries that libraries outside of the district's school system may become the next target of conservative movements seeking to ban books deemed inappropriate for children.

A wave of restrictive education laws in Florida championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican legislature, including the so-called "Don't Say Gay" law, has led public school libraries to reevaluate references to racism, sexism and oppression that, if banned, could undermine lessons surrounding many of the darkest parts of US history.

According to PEN America, a non-profit human rights and literary organization, Florida has the second highestnumber of school book bans in the country, trailing Texas.

Now, as new data shows that public libraries are the target of 41% of the skyrocketing number of books censored in the U.S., many are worried it could get even worse if the state's politics come into play — specifically for teens who view the public library as a safe haven from book banning.

Lantana Public Library director Kristine Kreidler told WLRN this threat is a topic she no longer wants to be silent about.

For Kreidler, banning books goes against "ethics and our principles for intellectual freedom and access to information, no matter what it is."

 Kristine Kreidler is the director of the Lantana Public Library in the Town of Lantana. She standing near the entrance, next to a surfing exhibit.
Wilkine Brutus
Kristine Kreidler is the director of the Lantana Public Library in the Town of Lantana. She standing near the entrance, next to a surfing exhibit.

“Libraries have always received support from both sides of the political aisle, from Republicans and Democrats and everyone in between. They are community institutions that are noble, or at least that was the view,” she added.

Kreidler says it's stressful for local public librarians who are “dedicated to the freedom of information and no censorship and intellectual freedom” and want to speak up.

She believes most public librarians are scared to publicly express their growing concerns because librarians “don't want to poke their head out for fear that it will draw attraction to their library,” Kreidler said.

Most threats to ban multiple book titles, defund libraries, and politicize library boards are coming from "organized censorship groups," according to the American Library Association. This polarizing movement already has many teachers and public librarians wondering what is deemed as an appropriate text.

Kreidler worries there isn’t broad consensus among parents as to who sets the boundaries for widespread book censorship.

"Libraries have always received support from both sides of the political aisle, from Republicans and Democrats and everyone in between. They are community institutions that are noble, or at least that was the view."
Lantana Public Library director Kristine Kreidler

“Is it the person who says that the Bible shouldn't be offered? Is it the person that says Harry Potter, because of its witchcraft and magic, should not be allowed in our library? Where does it stop? And who decides that line?,” Kreidler continued.

“That's why we believe each parent should be allowed to decide for their child and themselves what is appropriate.”

The effect of Florida's new laws

For months, public school libraries in South Florida have been feeling the effect of new state laws that restrict what can be taught in schools about gender identity, sexual orientation, race and discrimination.

In Palm Beach County, the school district last year reviewed 31 books, asking teachers whether they, for example, “promote, compel or encourage a student to believe” that “people are racist, sexist, or oppressive whether consciously or unconsciously.”

Now the state's Parental Rights in Education law — or what critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law — has been expanded to limit classroom instruction on gender identity or sexual orientation from grades 4-12. It could be another opening for censorship groups aiming to threaten reading options beyond schools, challenging the role of public libraries.

In its “Banned in the USA” report, PEN America examined how book censorship “threaten free expression and students’ first amendment rights.” The comprehensive study showed that book banning efforts aren't just the work of “reactive” parents but “reflect the work of a growing number of advocacy organizations that have made demanding censorship of certain books and ideas in schools part of their mission.”

The issue was underlined by the America Library Association, which kicked off this week's National Library Week with a list of the top ten most challenged books in 2022.

The ALA reported that last year it tracked the highest number of censorship reports since it began compiling data about library censorship more than 20 years ago. It found 2,571 unique titles were targeted in 2022 for censorship — a 38% increase from 2021. Most were "written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color," the report added.

"Closing our eyes to the reality portrayed in these stories will not make life’s challenges disappear. Books give us courage and help us understand each other," ALA President Lessa Kanani'opua Pelayo-Lozada said. The association designated an annual 'Right to Read Day' to "fight back against censorship."

 The Lantana Public Library, whose building initially served as a bank in the mid-1990s, features an exhibit about the history of surfing.
Wilkine Brutus
The Lantana Public Library, whose building initially served as a bank in the mid-1990s, features an exhibit about the history of surfing.

Parental involvement instead of bans

Kreidler, who has been a librarian for more than 10 years and recently oversaw $1.5 million in building renovations in Lantana, said she has received books from public school teachers who've had to remove them from their classroom activities.

That includes Front Desk — a kid's chapter book that talks about a Chinese immigrant experience. In 2021, the book was banned and then reinstated following student protests in a high school district in Pennsylvania.

But she said there is some successful pushback against politically-motivated censorship campaigns, because imposing book bans could infringe on the rights of consenting parents — and placing books under broad terms such as CRT creates misinterpretations of certain books selections, she said.

At the Lantana Public Library in the small town of Lantana, a 10 minute drive from Lake Worth Beach, Kreidler encourages parents to be more involved in their students' reading habits instead of limiting the accessibility of books.

“What we say to parents is, 'We want you to be with your child to help them select a book. And if you're not, then when they come home, ask to see what they checked out,'” Kreidler said.

“It's a good opportunity to have a discussion with them on, even if it's not something controversial. It's a great bonding opportunity.”

Copyright 2023 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Wilkine Brutus is a multimedia journalist for WLRN, South Florida's NPR, and a member of Washington Post/Poynter Institute’ s 2019 Leadership Academy. A former Digital Reporter for The Palm Beach Post, Brutus produces enterprise stories on topics surrounding people, community innovation, entrepreneurship, art, culture, and current affairs.
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