5 min read

NEW PROJECT: Book Challenges Across Massachusetts

Censorship is stupid.
NEW PROJECT: Book Challenges Across Massachusetts
Untitled sketch of a library, circa 1870s. Image courtesy the Thaw Collection, Smithsonian Open Access.

If you're reading this, you already know the nation is facing a persistent epidemic of book challenges and book bans that we haven't seen in generations. For as progressive as Massachusetts is portrayed, we also haven't been immune to this activity - I even sat on the front lines of one local incident in the spring of 2022.  The problem?  It doesn't seem like anyone has a clear idea as to how pervasive this problem is in the Commonwealth.

  • The American Library Association (ALA) tracks 45 in Massachusetts; the fourth highest in the nation according to their count, behind Texas, Florida, and California.
  • The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) had 59 challenges across 11 libraries according to self-reporting data from their Annual Report Information Survey (ARIS)
  • The Massachusetts Library Association (MLA) collects the data but keeps it private, although a representative there would later tell me that the "data we have is almost certainly a gross undercount."
  • While I am told that the Massachusetts School Library Association "has been keeping some statistics and information," a request for this information did not receive a follow-up response.

For me? As a former children's librarian, this is disappointing. As someone who is dabbling in journalism with MassTransparency, this is frustrating.  As a citizen who cares about this issue, this is infuriating.  As someone who fielded any number of death threats for daring to stand up for the right to read? Don't even get me started.

A white cat sniffs a stack of LGBTQ books.
Resident catctivist Floyd Raymond inspects a series of book donations in March 2022. Image courtesy Jeff Raymond.

So I'm not getting mad, I'm choosing to solve the problem.  This week, I issued approximately 350 requests for records of book bans, book challenges, and book reconsiderations to every town in Massachusetts and every school district in the state.  By the end of this week, I'll have reached out to all of the charter and vocational schools and regional school districts as well; this means we'll be talking about roughly 475 public records requests in total.

You can monitor my progress here by clicking the "Book Challenges" tab.  They're sorted by town, as before, but you'll notice some additional information:

  • If a school system is regionalized, they'll have their own line item.
  • It is unknown as to whether the charter schools were approached at all, but in any case I am also asking for challenges to classroom libraries and challenges directed toward administration or municipal levers of government, as those are unlikely to be captured by a survey or report.
  • I am additionally tracking what books people are challenging. In some cases, I'm already learning that the concerns are generalized; too many LGBTQ books on display or concerns about sexual content in total. But for every Gender Queer, there's a Sunny Side Up. Yes, we might not be surprised that Santa's Husband was challenged, but What Were the Twin Towers? None of the journalism I've seen is going into this sort of detail.

The goal, like with the POST Commission records, is to simply provide the firehose of data for people to inspect, investigate, visualize, and utilize. To find the patterns others might miss, to find the throughlines. If Moms for Liberty are coordinating in Massachusetts, what does the data tell us?  Is there a regional difference in what gets challenged where? How does it line up with population trends?

All of this is extremely interesting to me personally, which is why I find this fun, but I know this could be a service to people as well.

I wrote this for the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle during the whole situation in Millbury, and it feels appropriate to close out with these thoughts:

I can handle misinformation. I can handle disagreement. I can understand wanting to protect your child at all costs, and the desire to keep your kids safe from those who would bring them harm. This situation with the books at the library? It’s rooted in misinformation, for sure, but it’s weaponized misinformation - when I see parents on Facebook and Twitter accusing other parents in town of being “groomers,” or of enabling the most monstrous of crimes against a child, simply because a book depicts something they’re uncomfortable with? I can’t handle that. I can’t even begin to comprehend what would drive anyone to make such an accusation simply because of their beliefs about sexual education or the availability of certain books in a library (nearly always the books about marginalized groups, by the way). It’s harmful to the person being accused (not to mention arguably libelous), but also harmful to the victims of sexual abuse who are not only forced to relive it on a random website or app, but forced to watch their own legitimate trauma get trivialized to score imaginary points over the internet.
So when I hear that there are parents protesting the mere existence of books at the library that dare to present an alternative perspective, I get a little angry. When I hear that they took the books and expressed an intention to not return them, I get very angry. Because it’s not about me. It’s about the parent who has a child questioning their sexuality and, when they heard about this, thanked me for speaking up and said how they “appreciate this advocacy on behalf of families.” It’s about the teenager who fears going to school every day to face endless abuse from those who should be supportive peers. About the kid without parents capable of having mature conversations about the difficult parts of growing up, if they have parents at all.
It’s about the “longtime Millbury resident who grew up in a house that didn’t say gay,” and the absolute gravity of a statement like that which cuts directly into my heart every time I read it.
I don’t think the anger and vitriol and hatred we’ve seen and heard are who we are as a town, or as a society. I have to believe that, because the alternative is a society that I don’t want to be a part of at all.

So more to come.  As always, I welcome any help people might want to contribute to the cause, but please share this project out with your colleagues and friends. We can't know the extent of the problem unless we're able to quantify it, and I'm hoping this is the first significant independent step in doing so.

Jeff Raymond is a former columnist for the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Founding Editor of The Bramanville Tribune. He can be reached at jeff.raymond@masstransparency.org, on BlueSky at @jeffinmillbury.bsky.social, or on Twitter at @jeffinmillbury