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Where Books Go After Schools Ban Them

The purging of school libraries is authority at its most banal

Because I have the millennial brain disease that relates almost anything in real life to a joke from The Simpsons, the national resurgence of efforts to ban books from school libraries and curricula reminded me of a bit in the classic episode “The PTA Disbands!” The plot concerns a teachers strike at Springfield Elementary, where Bart’s teacher, Mrs. Krabappel, is fed up with the district cutting every corner to save on costs. She complains to Principal Skinner that the only books in her classroom are the titles banned in other schools. These include everything from a volume on evolution to Dr. Seuss to a novel from William Shatner’s TekWar series. 

But this got me wondering: Where do books end up if a district officially removes them? I have no experience as a librarian, teacher or school board member — and I grew up in a public education system in New Jersey where trying to pull an “objectionable” book would’ve been more taboo than anything in it — so I hadn’t the slightest clue. It did seem weird, however, that for all the articles and recent heated rhetoric about deciding what kids can or can’t be exposed to as they learn their way in the world, nobody mentions the physical texts. Mainstream liberals make it sound like these books are taken out and thrown on a bonfire; suppressive right-wingers act like the books will more or less vanish into the ether upon being declared inappropriate.

Incidents like this book-burning in a Nashville suburb on February 2nd confuse the issue somewhat. Although the imagery was understandably connected to the controversial removal of Maus, Art Spiegelman’s acclaimed graphic novel about the Holocaust, from the eighth grade curriculum in Tennessee’s McMinn County, the two areas are 150 miles apart. At the event, led by MAGA pastor and conspiracist Greg Locke, participants reportedly threw Harry Potter and Twilight books into the flames for the supposed crime of “witchcraft.” It’s unlikely these copies came from schools, and there is no indication, as some claimed, that Maus was among the books incinerated. We can understand the school book ban and the fire as part of the same trend, but it’s not as though McMinn County is disposing of their property this way.

In fact, if you read the minutes of the meeting where the county school board unanimously voted to take Maus out of lesson plans, it’s not entirely clear whether the district has given students access to copies, or acquired any besides those given to the board for review. Toward the very end of the discussion, one member thinks to ask, “And this is already in use, as I understand it?” But nobody answers him. I reached out to several members to confirm whether the district itself or its school libraries are currently holding any editions of Maus, and if so, what their official procedure is for withdrawing books they’ve voted to ban, but none of them responded.

It’s practically a given that a book ban — should the backlash go viral — increases interest and encourages readers to buy it, either in support or out of simple curiosity. Maus was no exception, rocketing into Amazon’s bestseller list. Meanwhile, comic book stores around the country pledged to gift or loan copies to students in McMinn County. That’s all very heartening, though I still wondered what might become of prohibited material already on library shelves.

So I reached out to Claire, a high school librarian in eastern Texas, to find out. The state has well over a thousand public school systems, and they’re currently facing challenges to hundreds of books — many of which depict LGBTQ characters or deal with topics of race and gender.

“I’m fortunate that in our school district nothing has been banned,” Claire tells me in a Twitter DM. “I would suspect that what happens is our standard for when we weed,” the librarian term for getting rid of outdated, damaged or otherwise superfluous books: “Black out all identifying marks and send it to the district’s auction.” Claire further explains that while school districts “can’t just sell property,” they hold auctions of “everything from desks and old computers to books sold by the pound or the ton.” Right now, for instance, bidding is open for five pallets of books from a district in Klein, Texas, and 30 boxes of elementary school library books in “poor” condition from Manassas, Virginia. In this way, banned books might potentially reenter the general market.

Except, says Claire, there is no state-wide standard for disposing of prohibited texts, since many districts — like hers — have never needed to implement such a procedure. Therefore, administrators are free to develop their own ad hoc measures for complying with a ban. Claire notes that colleagues “in districts where books have been banned said that their books, when removed, have gone to sit in the district’s legal office or head librarian’s office, in perpetuity, essentially, or until someone cleans out a closet.” 

Tragic image, isn’t it? A forbidden, forgotten archive gathering dust after it’s tucked away in staff quarters. Reminds me of the shelves where my college’s campus security displayed all the bongs they’d confiscated over the years. Only, you know, they’re meaningful fiction and records of fact that could have improved kids’ lives.

The bannings are unfounded, hyper-political horseshit, but they’re also an embarrassing waste of resources. The hours spent meddling with or obstructing teachers’ lesson plans, the haranguing emails written by parents scandalized that their child is growing up and the actual books that are stolen from those who need them, only to be lost in bureaucratic limbo because the censors didn’t think that far ahead. Or never cared. It’s enough to tell you this isn’t to protect the youth but to purge their surroundings of independent thought — an exercise of naked authority. To win against challenges will mean not just defending individual books but doggedly questioning the motives and means of the crackdown. And maybe raiding some closets.