Two bills introduced by Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature would require Wisconsin public school and library staff to tell parents what books and other library materials their children under 16 are checking out, a proposal that is receiving criticism from Democratic lawmakers and library advocates.
This latest effort comes as schools and libraries are facing political attacks nationally and around the state over what students are learning and reading.
Currently, state law only requires librarians to release records of books a student has checked out when requested by the parent. The new bills would require librarians to alert parents proactively “as soon as is practicable,” but no later than 24 hours after the materials are checked out.
“Being required to send this information to parents would be redundant,” Emily Dittmar, a librarian at Muskego High School and legislative chair of the Wisconsin Educational Media and Technology Association, said at a public hearing on the bills last week.
Parents already have access to their children’s library records, Dittmar said, and requiring librarians and school staff to send out an alert each time one of their students checks something out would take away from their regular duties at a time when schools are already short-staffed.
Dittmar said her school district investigated whether there was a need for this type of automatic notification. She said parents already have the ability to view their child’s school records at any time, including what they’ve checked out at the library. Once parents were reminded how to access this information, Dittmar said, there weren’t any more requests for the information.
Not all parents want or need this information, Dittmar added, and giving it to them unprompted could be overwhelming for them.
“It would be fiscally irresponsible to deploy a notification system to all parents when this isn’t needed for all families,” Dittmar said.
The proposal “is creating a solution to a problem that does not exist,” said Peter Loefel, director of the Wauwatosa Public Library, who spoke at the public hearing on behalf of the Wisconsin Library Association.
The bills are likely to be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers if they reach his desk, but they come at a time when there has been a sharp rise in book challenges around the nation and state.
In Wisconsin alone, schools have faced requests to restrict access to over 200 books from their collections since 2021, and over 100 have been restricted, according to an analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The requests are coming from local chapters of groups such as the far-right Moms for Liberty and the Wisconsin chapter of the anti-LGBTQ group MassResistance, a group originally founded to fight same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.
In October, Menomonee Falls High School banned 33 books because they were considered too “sexually explicit” by administrators, and the Kenosha Unified School District removed four books that focused on LGBTQ+ topics and characters.
In 2021, Republican U.S. Rep. Derrick Van Orden complained about a children’s Pride Month display at the Prairie du Chien Public Library, checking out all of the books from the display in protest.
Nationwide, PEN America found that there were 110 bills proposed, including three in Wisconsin, that were aimed at restricting how schools address subjects like race, gender and sexuality. The American Library Association found that in the first eight months of 2023, 1,915 books were challenged, the highest number since the group began compiling the data more than 20 years ago.
“Parents in Wisconsin already have the ability to see what their child is checking out from the library — but this proposed legislation would discourage kids from exploring all the perspectives and stories that a library has to offer,” Democratic Sen. Melissa Agard said in a statement. “How hypocritical that Wisconsin Republicans, the party of ‘small government,’ want to ban books and know what every individual is checking out from the library. This Orwellian inspired overreach is chilling and intimidates our librarians and educators under the facade of parental rights.”
Republican Rep. Barbara Dittrich, the original author of the bills in the Assembly, said the proposal is not about book banning but would instead create an easy tool for parents to use to monitor the content their children are consuming.
“I think people have ascribed some motives to these pieces of legislation that aren’t necessarily there. We want parental engagement, and our goal in this legislation is not to further inflame the issue but to bring the temperature down,” Dittrich said.