Editorials, Opinion

Is this the end of classroom libraries?

Schools must now contend with the practical effects of one of the Legislature’s many culture war bills.

This one, Senate Bill 704, requires educators to provide a syllabus of all literature to be used during lessons and gives parents the ability to audit books available to their kids in each classroom. The bill says parents can make an appointment to review the books, which wouldn’t be unreasonable — if that was all.

However, as the Preston County Board of Education realized this week, it’s not so simple.

Under the requirement to make all literature available for review, teachers must inventory every book in their classrooms, with a description of each, which includes classroom libraries.

What legislators may have forgotten is that teachers, particularly in elementary and middle schools, spend years building up their own little libraries, sometimes at their own expense. They may use some of these novels for specific lessons or units, but more often, the books are available for quiet reading time to encourage kids to read. Some teachers even allow kids to borrow the books, hopefully bringing the joy of reading home with them.

So as this new law takes effect, we’re more likely to see educators remove classroom libraries than spend dozens of (unpaid) hours inventorying their collections. Because, as the Preston board discussed, there is no requirement for teachers to maintain classroom libraries.

Since legislators implemented this law, legislators should volunteer to inventory every classroom in their region. It’s only fair that they share the burden of the unintended consequences of their policies.

But there’s a more fundamental problem with this law. It’s an entirely unnecessary form of censorship. Schools and teachers already carefully curate their official and unofficial libraries to be age appropriate for students and to match kids’ interest.

As the saying goes, a good library should have something in it to offend everyone. Remember the relatively small but vocal group of parents and “concerned citizens” who tried to get Harry Potter banned years ago? All it takes is one or two parents who don’t like fantasy or fiction to bar all students from accessing classic stories like the Lord of the Rings novels, the Chronicles of Narnia, Magic Treehouse or Peter Pan.

Reading is not just a matter of education, though being an informed person is important. Reading fosters empathy — the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes — and nurtures critical thinking skills — the ability to engage with content to determine not just what it says, but why.

Making books harder for kids to access just leaves us with a more selfish, ignorant society.