Dr. Tasslyn Magnusson

Steve Thomas: Tasslyn and John, welcome to Circulating Ideas.

John Chrastka: Steve, it is fun to be back with you. Thank you.

Tasslyn Magnusson: Excited to be here.

Steve Thomas: Tasslyn, can you tell listeners just a little bit about you and how you got to where you are now and the book censorship database that we will be discussing?

Tasslyn Magnusson: It’s a funny story. The masters in writing for children and young adults program, I met a lot of kid lit authors and I started to listen to them and Laurie Halse Anderson was talking about the growing book bans in probably September. She said someone should keep track. And I said, I can do that. I’m a poet. I’m a writer. I have a PhD in history. So I have a lot of varied skills, and I started to keep track. I was like, I’ll just make a Google Sheet. I’ll share it with Laurie and see what we find. I began to listen to articles, newspapers, podcasts, people talking, Twitter and started to put together a list that seemed to grow exponentially as we went along.

Steve Thomas: And was that an issue that you had already kind of been aware of or was it the author friends of yours that got it into your head?

Tasslyn Magnusson: As a writer, we talk about book bans and challenges and the critical importance of libraries, especially to maintaining author support, and I have librarians everywhere in my family. So, I was aware of it, and I also have been tracking it through Book Riot. They have a censorship newsletter, and I read that regularly. But yeah, it was there, but not quite as heightened. And now I know just about everything I can.

Steve Thomas: Well, that’s why you’re on today. Before we get too much into your work, John, can you give us a little bit of an update about what EveryLibrary has been up to and how this work on book challenges and censorship and bans fits into the work of EveryLibrary?

John Chrastka: Sure. So as some folks know, we have two components to our work where EveryLibrary is the 501(c)(4) political action committee for libraries that work as a c4 focuses on the funding formula and the political structure for libraries. Last year we did about 10% of the library election days in 2021. We’re expecting to do about 10% of them this year, in 2022. Good outcomes for folks, the everyday work helping to support libraries in these political conversations, around funding, with the voters, with school boards, we’ve done a tremendous amount of work in the last couple of years on the Save School Librarians platform and initiatives. The political conversations in state Houses as well, supporting several of our state library association partners. We have launched two statewide initiatives and one statewide pilot program alongside the folks in Delaware, the Wyoming Library Association, and then the pilot program’s with Montana Library Association. It’s a lot of activity facing voters, constituents, and elected officials.

And then our c3 side, the EveryLibrary Institute which is our nonprofit research, public policy, tax policy think tank. We’re working on the reports around literacy, that’s a big topic for us. How to help policymakers understand that where funding for public libraries can support literacy, which supports a lot of other outcomes, like reduced crime rates, better health outcomes, economic determination, and then a lot on the post-COVID school environment, as well.

So between those two things, we’re looking at a lot of conversations around the political and the policy outcomes, which is why I think we’ve been getting calls from people when the politics turns really performative around these book banning and challenge situations. We’re not looking to do anything that an existing incumbent organization is already doing. Intellectual freedom has a very strong, very consistent, and very successful group of supporters in the library community. When folks call us, it’s when something really terrible happens, and it turns into a fight either about the funding for the library. You know, they’re going after the library directly and the book ban is a mask for it or an excuse for it, or it’s the leading wedge to try and decouple the library from its own community, or in the school setting where folks who seem to be maybe anti-education, anti-union, anti- public education are using those books to come after both the school libraries, a wedge issue, but also most pernicious, the people who those books represent, those kids, those families.

So it’s a weird situation for us. It’s not a usual one. I don’t want to do this forever, Steve. I really just want to get back to like doing election days. That being said, I want to help. EveryLibrary’s position to do that when it becomes politicized, because you’ve got to answer it with a different vocabulary than just “the First Amendment’s great.”

Steve Thomas: Right, right. It really fits in with a previous guest that you helped hook me up with, Donald Cohen, of the public good and how people don’t really appreciate the public good anymore.

John Chrastka: There’s several vectors and I think Tasslyn has some good insights into some of these different vectors. You know, Steve, I gotta be honest with you. I really respect anyone in any community who wants to step up and say, I’ve got a question about the propriety of this book. The first amendment by itself is not impinged by somebody saying, I have a question about this book. It’s actually reinforced because there’s two parts of the first amendment. There’s all the issues around freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of access, and then there’s also the other part of it, which is the right to petition our government. The right to assemble and have conversations about what future do we want for our democracy. And if you’re talking like Mr. Cohen was about the public library or public education, that’s part of our democracy. We have to be willing to receive those conversations. What I’m talking about and what Tasslyn’s been tracking is the stuff that gets weaponized against the structures and gets performative about the stories that are being told.

Steve Thomas: Tasslyn, can you talk about how that fits in with what fed you to want to make this spreadsheet? When people were pointing to you in this direction, you saw this exponential growth. What was behind that for you?

Tasslyn Magnusson: Well, at first when I was collecting information, it’s clear that authors were paying attention and were alarmed so that was part of what drove me to start counting. I was just curious, is it happening more often? Where is it happening? Who is doing it and how is it happening? And so I started to look a little bit more closely and realized in general, there are set policies and procedures in school libraries, nearly all of them have them, that are based on ALA’s best recommendation practices and so on, but they weren’t being followed in many of these challenges and in fact, people were coming in and reading probably very tiny out of context paragraphs showing, coming in with color copies of pictures from books to distribute and they weren’t ever filing a formal complaint with the school, and the school was getting nervous and worried, and schools are under immense pressure right now to cope, in general. And so they were choosing to pull the books, or there’s several places where they’ve amended the policy at the board level that allows the superintendent to make some decisions about books that did not happen before this.

But probably the thing that was most interesting that I started to see, and I’ve seen it in a number of districts is in early fall, a parent will submit a challenge. It’ll go through kind of a normal procedure at the beginning of the school year. But by December and January of this school year, they turned around and the same parent in several instances submitted 282 challenges or more to books and they’re identical. They’re filled out exactly the way they’re supposed to be filled out with exactly the same reasons why, exactly the same request, which is always to remove the book from the entire district, not about their kid. There’s also quite a number of parents who are refusing alternative assignments, which has always been a solution to these problems in schools. They can set it up so you can say whether or not your kid can check out a book and they don’t want to do that either. And so I’ve been looking really closely at these districts, and I think that that’s a really important thing to look at because it’s clearly taking steps towards using the challenge process in a way that will destroy the school because no school can work through 282 challenges, and there is a district in Illinois that is tracking the money associated with these as well, which is also probably something I’d love to see more libraries start to do.

Steve Thomas: Well, it’d be great if there was some way that like interlock all this data, like the data you’re doing and the data with the money and see how this stuff overlaps. Obviously we all know “follow the money” is a good way to figure out what’s going on behind anything. You mentioned that the same person making the complaints. I know on your spreadsheet you are doing a very good job of keeping personal information out of that, but are you keeping a track of that? So, like that’s not in the database that these 200 were by the same person, do you have that identified somewhere?

Tasslyn Magnusson: I have been keeping a second list that includes groups and leaders in those groups and how they might relate to groups that are popping up opposing books in the schools. I would love the time to do some deeper research. There is one group that I found that in the county where they were operating, one of the parents is associated with a group that in fact wants to get rid of the board of education, which is far more common than I thought with many of these groups. Some of this is a learning curve of me learning a lot quickly about libraries and parents and how parents protest and what seems to be appropriate.

Steve Thomas: But this is all a political thing, and we say that it seems to have come out of nowhere, but obviously it didn’t because something this huge would not have just come out of nowhere. So there’s gotta be some kind of coordination that some point somewhere, you know, we don’t want to get into conspiracy theory- sounding things, but obviously there’s gotta be some kind of coordination cause the same thing is happening all over the place.

John Chrastka: Can I jump in on that answer, Tasslyn, to start with? Steve, it’s interesting because right now when we’re recording it’s mid-March. Several state legislatures right now are considering bills that are deleterious to public libraries and school library programs. The governor of the state of Iowa has a five point plan to reform education, allegedly. And her fifth point in her five point plan is to eliminate the master’s degree for school librarians. It is a live bill it’s active, and God bless us all if we don’t overcome that problem. Kentucky has just passed a measure that would void the terms of every public library trustee and have the county judge reappoint them politically instead of apolitically. This is part of a whole cloth approach that may or may not have a conspiracy theory attached to it, but there’s a consistent approach.

When the Trump administration came in, we didn’t have to look very far here at EveryLibrary to understand that they were going to cut IMLS in their first budget because the Heritage Foundation and also Paul Ryan, who was the previous Speaker of the House had called for it for years. The infrastructure here is something that we haven’t been paying attention to as librarians, because maybe we don’t like that form of government, but they have been consistent and internally cohesive with their philosophy of government, philosophy of education as well.

Tasslyn, you and I were talking the other day about how far can we wind back the clock? How can we look at what’s been reported before, as opposed to like going out and doing the deep dive and discovery and active research that you’ve been doing?

Tasslyn Magnusson: It is really interesting to look at these districts and ask questions about what was going on in the previous year or two or three years. And what I’ve seen in several districts is there was a fight over DEI initiatives. There was a fight over curriculum around reading, whether it was K-8 or K-12, where they were bringing in books that felt different or uncomfortable, or were associated with the strategic plan around the DEI initiatives. And so those parents that were involved in that initial fight, and there are plenty of organizations that are jumping in, too. Moms for Liberty certainly is one of them. And they are then already sort of talking and mobilized and in several places, the DEI initiative was pulled back by the district. And so then the next year they begin to see the rise of book challenges. Pennsylvania, a number of districts are dealing with that right now. And so there are parents who are like, “what has happened?” Well, the year before, several changes were made at the school district level that were responding to what I would say is probably a very loud, but very smaller group of people who don’t always have the best interests of kids and education in mind. There might be an element of political issue there.

Steve Thomas: A lot of it, it seems like they’ve looked at how things are going. They don’t like how things are going. They realize those are the rules. So if you don’t like the rules, go in and change the rules. So you get yourself into a place where you’re the one setting the rules. If you get rid of the board of education, if you get rid of these policies that are saying we’re going to focus on DEI issues, then all of a sudden you don’t have to focus on them because you got rid of the rules.

Tasslyn Magnusson: Exactly. There have been several places in the last year that have seen a complete change in their school board. So moving from probably like a non-partisan citizen, basically really hardworking volunteers who step into these roles and then the people that are they’re being replaced with are openly and willingly partisan. And they’re beginning to change the rules. Another smaller element, not as strong as the DEI, but these are also parents who are mobilized by anti- mask, anti- vaccine. How did their school do with COVID? What do they want for their children in response to the COVID crisis?

John Chrastka: It’s interesting, Steve, on the public library side, there are fewer challenges relative to the size of the school library and school curriculum challenges in this 2021, 2022 period. But the challenges that are coming in on the public library side have two kinds of characteristics. One is somebody in town who legitimately is concerned about the book and they’ve been seeing it in the newspaper, they’ve been hearing it on podcasts. They want to know what’s up, and they’re coming in in good faith, and that’s a really hard conversation for any library leadership team to have, but that’s why we talk with each other about our value system and talk to the community about our hopes for collections. And then you’ve got situations where people are coming in from out of town, or they’re using the book challenges as a way to, again, break the library.

In the middle of February, Ridgeland, Mississippi, it’s one of four towns in the Madison County (Mississippi) Library System, the mayor of Ridgeland said he’s not going to pay the bills for the library. They owe $110,000 under contract to do this. He’s not going to pay the bills unless all the homosexual books are removed, and then he wouldn’t follow his oath of office and neither would the Board of Alderman, their city council follow their oaths of office and actually pay their bills. Right now where we’re sitting today, this is still happening down there and it’s not just Mississippi, it’s coast to coast, it’s north to south.

The vector of attack right now, again, those legitimate heartfelt, sincere, honest, and I’m using those terms with a lot of weight to them because I admire them. Like I said before, you come to a school board meeting, you come to the library board meeting, you say, I got questions about this. That takes civic courage, and then to engage in a process that’s open, transparent and consistent, a policy framework that really guarantees not just 1st but 14th amendment rights about due process. Steve, I think that’s America at its finest, even though it’s a hard conversation. It’s these other ones, man. It’s these other ones.

Steve Thomas: People who have kids understand, you have concerns about your kids, but the library point of view is, “Okay, but that’s your job as the parent to do that. It’s not the library’s job.” People need that explained to them. They don’t understand that. And so you need to have those conversations. So, yeah, I agree. People just making a challenge, there’s nothing wrong with that. The vast majority of time, it’s just “Please explain to me, why do you have this? Why is this okay to have in the collection?” And again, a good library leadership team can provide that explanation.

John Chrastka: When we get invited in to do something to support the integrity of the library, it’s often when the integrity of the library is being impinged, you know, policies aren’t being followed on the school library side when the school board, the administration isn’t following policies. The reason we care about policy is that’s our local version of the law. In school districts, you have a policy for kids who need individualized education support, you have policies that protect kids who are in moments of transition or crisis, you’ve got policies that support children with different kinds of learning, cognitive disabilities, physical disabilities. I don’t want to see the policy framework around school books and the curriculum fall apart, it’s a leading edge problem. Same thing in public libraries, we have policies about accommodation. We have policies about behavior, we have policies about no fee, no favor. It’s the core of who we are intending to be.

At EveryLibrary here, we leave it to the experts in the room. If a normal book challenge is going along, I got nothing to say about it. Everybody with integrity shows up to the process. They talk about the materials. They have a strong conversation in the community or on their campus. Great. For us, it’s like, how do we get back to policy in these kinds of contexts? And we really work very hard to name it for what it is and to support those local folks, either behind the scenes or out in front with them to name it for what it is, and to try and get back to a framework where the legitimacy of the process isn’t being impinged.

Steve Thomas: Yeah, I think we’ve mentioned in the past that EveryLibrary would love it if they could make themselves obsolete. Like there’s no need for something like EveryLibrary.

John Chrastka: Yeah. No, Steve, thank you for remembering that. That’s actually one of the things that I have a great deal of hope for. We sometimes talk about how we have our medical model on the political side. We have a nice practice. We have one library of time medical, a lot of patients, you know, are you presenting good symptoms? Are you healthy? Are you presenting bad symptoms? We also have our public health model on the Institute side, which is like policy issues, research, all that good public policy stuff, education policy stuff. That’s like public health, so I could either work on one patient’s cancer or I can outlaw smoking, that’s great. The one thing that we don’t do is pharmaceuticals. I’m not a toolkit kind of company. I know that everybody who we work with, we’d like to work ourselves out of the job. It’s not just, take a toolkit and I’ll see in the morning.

Steve Thomas: And I love that you work with outside people like Dr. Magnusson. How did you guys get together?

John Chrastka: We met cute, Steve. So Dr. Magnusson’s research was available, so when she says that it was a grass roots effort and I admire her approach, she has a moral compass that’s pointing a very similar direction to a lot of librarians. As she was starting to snowball this original research, this digging into things, going beyond just being reported to, it started getting picked up by a lot of library groups. And I was at the NJASL meeting, the New Jersey Association of School Librarians in December in Atlantic City. And in between other things in Atlantic City, I went to a program and they were talking about the intellectual freedom framework. They have a very strong intellectual freedom framework within New Jersey Association of School Librarians. And they put up a URL on the screen that I’d never seen before saying this research connects dots, this research into the conversations that we’re having.

So I sniffed around cause I was like, who the heck is this, and then found out who it was and reached out and said, I think we might be on the same road. Do we want to see if it’s a road trip together or not? So I did try and meet as cute as I could, but that’s my whole point in life but I went and found her to be honest and I’m glad I did because the contributions to this conversation with actionable intelligence has been extraordinary.

Tasslyn Magnusson: I just started posting the Google link to people that I thought might be interested or it might help. I was like, I’m doing this let’s see what happens. And people started to contact me and John was like, we should talk. And so when we met, and he wanted to work with me, I was like, really, nobody’s doing this already? Nobody’s looking at it expansively nationally? I have some flexibility and I was like, yeah, I want to help. I want to make a difference, and so that’s what I’m driven by.

John Chrastka: And one of the other things that’s true, Steve, is when you’re looking to do coalition kind of partnership work, you’re looking for folks who can who can bring something that’s authentic to the process. And certainly the integrity of this data development project is really interesting.

We were just speaking to another coalition partner yesterday, the folks at We Need Diverse Books, they’re working on a data collection project around silent or soft, or hidden shadow censorship that’s going on where there’s no school librarian to be the canary in the coal mine. There’s no visibility to it. Things that are being done by omission rather than by making a fight out of it. And the We Need Diverse Books people are very sensitive to that. And I think that’s an extremely important area of concern as well. I don’t know if EveryLibrary is necessarily the ones equipped for that. I mean, we tend to do more political activities, but we want to support the stakeholders in the ecosystem, because this is a whole cloth approach to civil society, to education, to the future of reading.

Steve Thomas: How do you generally collect your data on this, up to this point, and then do you have a way for people to contact you to provide this data if they come across your link?

Tasslyn Magnusson: Okay, so it started literally because I could Google, and I started to key into people who were also looking at these things and Kelly Jensen at Book Riot, she has a regular sort of weekly, I think, list of everything that was happening. And I didn’t want to duplicate efforts. So I talked to her really early on and like, “Do you analyze these?” And she’s like, “No, I’m so busy. Censorship is about that much of my job, but this is really important. You should do what you’re doing.”

And so I began to get some links from her. I learned better how to use Google alerts. I think probably 99% of the material on there is all publicly sourced. So if you want to go in, I’m a little chaotic with links, but I try to do it. You can go in, you can link, and you can find where I found the information. I have some librarians that send me information, but usually I can find other information publicly that matches what they’re telling me.

I would love to have more information and talk to people. I’ve made lots of great librarian friends. I find that they really often really need someone to talk about this with like, it’s really, really hard. It’s difficult, it’s painful for them. And even going through these political experiences, that’s not what they’re prepared to do. And so I will talk with them and reassure them that actually what my research shows is that when you stick to policy, your books go through the right channels, are reviewed, that’s your protection. So the more you can get your administration to support you in the policy, the better off you’ll be. And so if people want to send me stuff, I’m really available on Twitter. They can email me. They can message me through the Google doc, I think. My email’s really easy. It’s just Tasslyn at Gmail. You can’t hide with a name like mine. And so I’m happy to receive information and to talk to people about it. I think that it’s really important to keep conversations going and to listen to what folks who are experiencing these challenges are doing.

These parents who challenge and come from such a very legitimate place, sometimes these groups swoop in and then begin to use their real concerns for their kids in ways that are pretty awful, and pretty difficult and very politicized quickly. So you might have a parent or two who then quickly become almost grabbed and brought into a group. And that I think is an area that somebody, not me and my Google sheets, really needs to start to look into because I do agree that parents have a legitimate right to talk to the places that their kids are and ask questions, and some of them have very very real concerns and that’s okay. That’s part of what we do. We talk to people, we have conversation, and we have policies and procedures that help us have those conversations in a way that educates and makes sense.

John Chrastka: The transparency, the integrity of the library community around this is always heartening to me. What we want to be able to do with EveryLibrary is show up when things get really off the rails, and I appreciate you giving us a little bit of a platform to talk about how we could show up for some folks if they need to help.

The last thing I’d like to mention is that a lot of the times, the way that we inside the library industry, the library sector, the library community, the way that we talk is a lot more progressive than the way some of our audiences hear us, and I always want to make sure that when we’re talking about the first amendment, it’s not just about the access issues and the lowering barriers thing. But it’s also about the core of our democratic society, our civil society. And I don’t think there’s anything about that that is variant from a progressive agenda or progressive ideal, but I want to ask us to think a little bit more about how what we’re talking about with these issues is going to be received by folks who might look at it with a different political lens than we do.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. And then Tasslyn mentioned how listeners can get in touch with her. How can people get in touch with you, John?

John Chrastka: We are either ubiquitous or new notorious at everylibrary.org, everylibraryinstitute.org, saveschoollibrarians.org, @EveryLibrary on the Twitters, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So I’d love to chat with folks about a lot of different things. So, Steve, thanks for doing this today.

Steve Thomas: You’re welcome. And us Steve’s and John’s don’t know what it’s like to be able to get a, your first name@gmail.com.

John Chrastka: Never heard of it before. Nope.

Tasslyn Magnusson: There’s actually only about five Tasslyns in the world. I know them all. I made a point of it.

Steve Thomas: Well, thank you both for coming on. I appreciate it. And I hope people go and look at that database and help contribute to your research.

Tasslyn Magnusson: Thank you so much.

John Chrastka: Be well, Steve.

Steve Thomas: Thanks.