Sara Stevenson served for many years as a middle school librarian in Austin, Texas. Texas, like Florida and many other red states,is suffering a moral panic about the books in public school libraries and in public libraries. She addresses the question: who should review the books?

She wrote this article for The Houston Chronicle.

Every once in a while, a bill comes along that creates a big-government, complicated solution to a problem that can be resolved at the local level. Such is the case with Texas House Bill 900: Restricting Explicit and Adult-Designated Educational Resources (READER) Act.

As a former public school librarian in Austin, I have serious questions about this bill. By no later than Sept. 1, 2023, each book vendor selling library books must submit a list of every book it sells that is either “sexually relevant” or “sexually explicit.”

The first problem is, book vendors, the intermediaries between publishers and libraries, are basically salespeople. They’re not publishers, they’re not librarians and they’re not ratings agencies. None of this is in those companies’ business plans, and they will not be ready by the deadline. It’s like asking a shoe repairman to make you a dress.

Professional librarians, on the other hand, have always been entrusted to select reading materials that align with the curriculum but also include books for reading pleasure. School librarians use selection aids and other resources when choosing the best library materials for their community schools. And Texas law requires us to have a master’s degree and at least two years of teaching experience.

Even for us, the bill is complicated and confusing. “Sexually explicit” books are banned, but “sexually relevant” books require a parent permission slip. The definitions for each are vague and subjective. According to the bill, a “sexually relevant” book is acceptable if it is included “directly” in the curriculum, and therefore relevant.

But what counts as being included in the curriculum? In the middle school where I worked, the English curriculum includes free, independent reading. Students check out books they are interested in. Does that mean that all books that contain any sex can be loaned without a permission slip because any library book a student chooses to read is the curriculum?

The bill, as written, is full of ambiguities and doesn’t take into consideration age, maturity levels or different values within communities in our large and diverse state. There’s a big difference between what’s appropriate for elementary and high school students and between liberal and conservative areas. Sometimes a book contains sexual content, but the book as a whole has redeeming social value for teens, and most — but not all — parents of high school students would approve.

How will the many different vendors selling to Texas libraries know the curriculum of every grade level at every school in Texas well enough to discern if the work is “sexually relevant” or not? In contrast, librarians know their school’s curriculum intimately.

Decisions on whether a given book is appropriate for a given student are subjective and based on personal and family values, which is why the saving grace of libraries is that they encourage free selection. Nothing is compulsory. Parents can already review the library’s holdings: Some school library catalogs, accessible to the public online, already contain short reviews and suggested grade or age levels from professional review sources — the same professional review sources that librarians consult to select books. (Parents can also use other resources, such as, for more detailed information.)

These examples demonstrate the confusion and second-guessing librarians and vendors will go through in order to comply with this law. Fear will be the guiding principle. Librarians won’t be trusted to practice our vocation: giving kids access to the books they want to read so they will read more.

Instead, this bill bypasses our role and places the responsibility for making these judgments on book vendors. Why assume parents will trust a vendor’s ratings more than the judgment of their local school librarians?

I also fear this bill will drastically slow down the process of purchasing books. Children clamoring for the latest book in a favorite series will have to wait. And wait.

In an age of TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, librarians encourage students to read. Reading for pleasure is critically important because the more students read, the more their reading comprehension, attention, writing skills, academic achievement, test scores and empathy grow.

While some parents complain about the inclusion of particular titles in the library collection, school districts already have clear, established book challenge and reconsideration policies in place. They need only follow them. Please trust the professional librarians to do their jobs and protect the freedom to read in our school libraries.

Sara Stevenson, a former middle school librarian, was Austin ISD’s first Librarian of the Year in 2013.