Blog post

When Librarians Become Outlaws, Industry (and everyone else) Loses

By Darin Stewart | April 01, 2022 | 1 Comment

Censorship

Librarians usually don’t come to mind when thinking of threats to society or public menaces. The greatest dangers they pose tend to be overdue fines and over-zealous shushing. These are manageable risks. So, it is difficult to understand why librarians are being vilified and libraries attacked across the country.  An Oklahoma state representative recently compared librarians to “cockroaches.” In Tennessee, librarians have been labeled sexual predators.

In response to the dire threat posed by bookish individuals, a spate of laws targeting libraries and their staff have been proposed and many passed. In Oklahoma, Senate Bill [SB] 1142, would allow parents to seek up to $10,000 for each day a book is kept in their child’s school library after it was nominated for removal. In Missouri, the proposed “Parental Oversight of Libraries” Act would impose a criminal penalty of up to a year in jail if a librarian provides “age inappropriate materials” to a patron.  Unfortunately, “age inappropriate” seems to be in the eye of the beholder or rather an unelected “parental library review board.” A similar bill is being considered in Idaho.

This list of proposed laws goes on and on, each attempting to outdo the others in creative ways to criminalize librarianship. Some of them have become actual law and the impact is rippling beyond story hour and into the business community.

In late March, Florida Governor Ron Desantis signed into law the “Parental Rights in Education” bill. This law requires school libraries to notify parents upon request of what books their child is borrowing and to enable the parent to prevent their child from accessing particular titles or even subjects. Florida school districts have until July to comply.

This presented a problem for Follett, a technology company that produces Destiny, the software running most school libraries in the United States. The new legal requirements are not supported by their library management platform and are incompatible with its security and privacy architecture. This sent Follett developers scrambling to meet legal requirements and protect its user base. Last week, Follett announced that it is developing two new “opt-in” features that would be added to the Destiny platform to enable Florida schools (and any others who desire these features) to comply with the new law.

  • “An automatic email notification for parents, which would be sent to them any time a student checks a book out at school”
  • A feature “restricting students’ access to certain books based on parents’ prior requests. For example, a parent could request that a student not be able to check out a book tagged as LGBTQ in Destiny”

Follett made clear that adding these features was not part of their product strategy and that they were not being implemented by choice. In the announcement, Follett CEO for Software Paul Ilse indicated the company “would prefer to invest their development capacity to create [features] that enrich the learning environment for schools.”  In other words, it is not the business driving development. It is reactionary lawmakers and their pearl clutching constituents dictating functionality. This is never good for business and is toxic for an open society.

(note: I’m aware the same could be said of the EU privacy and data handling requirements I’m such a fan of, but that’s a subject for another post).

First and foremost, Follett is enabling behavior that is diametrically opposed to the community and customer base it purports to serve. The library community in the United States operates under a set of policies and principles codified in the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights. Chief among those principals are the notions that “materials should not be excluded because of origin, background, or views” nor “be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” Perhaps most pertinent is the principle that “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.”

These principals are already under assault by a wave of book challenges and bans across the country. Fortunately, the process for having a book removed from a library (usually) has many checks and balances. My wife runs an elementary school library. When she patiently explains the challenge process to an angry parent, they usually drop the matter as not worth the effort. The new features of Destiny will streamline the challenge process and lower the bar to removing books.

School administrators are already unilaterally and proactively removing books from library shelves in an effort to avoid the wrath of a few vocal parents.  A Destiny report of the most commonly blocked books will provide them with a convenient picklist of books to pull. Parent groups are already in place to coordinate efforts to target certain subjects for challenge.

Balancing the “freedom to read” against “parental rights” is always tricky. As a parent, I want to know what media my kids are consuming and have the opportunity to discuss that media with them. I also reserve the right to set limits on the media they access including what they read (though to be honest, my wife and I have never forbidden our kids from reading anything). The responsibility for setting those boundaries and monitoring compliance rests with me as a parent. It is not the librarian’s job to impose our family values and enforce our family rules.

Perhaps most disturbing to me is the fact that Follett is providing the means for parents to spy on their kids rather than encouraging parents to talk to their kids. This normalizes the surveillance mechanisms we bemoan and denounce in social media and behavioral marketing. Considering the track record of Follett’s parent company, this should not come as a surprise.

In September of 2021, Follett was acquired by Francisco Partners a Silicon Valley equity firm with a long history of profiting from surveillance technologies and surveillance states. Prior acquisitions include Sandvine, a provider of network monitoring and analysis tools including deep packet inspection for network management but that can also be used for surveillance and censorship.

As Bloomberg reports, after Francisco took over Sandvine (and replaced the entire executive team), the company inked deals worth more than $100 million with governments in countries including Algeria, Belarus, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Kenya, Kuwait, Pakistan, the Philippines, Qatar, Singapore, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Uzbekistan. All of these countries are ranked as either “not free” or only “partially free” by Freedom House. It is disconcerting to see American school libraries added to this list of clientele. I suspect this will soon become a PR issue for Follett.

There are, of course, alternatives to Destiny for library management systems. Concerned library officials are already exploring their options and seem to be gravitating towards Alexandria. This is likely because Alexandria has stated that it will not add new functionality to support laws like Florida’s “parental rights” bill. I do not expect that many Follett customers will actually jump ship.

Changing platforms is expensive and disruptive, especially when the legacy system is as entrenched as Destiny is in most school libraries. School budgets in general and school library budgets in particular are already overtaxed. Library staff are already farmed out as playground monitors and iPad dispensers. They do not have the capacity to learn a new system and rework all their processes. Where Destiny is in place, it will likely stay in place. One can only hope Follett will return to its stated mission “to prepare the next generation of learners and educators.” The new notification and blocking features work against that goal.

When I read the Follett announcement of the new features and the reasons for introducing them, I was reminded of a similar period in US politics. In 2012, the official platform of the Texas GOP included a plank similar to the dynamics driving the changes to Destiny.  It read, “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills [and] critical thinking skills [that] have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs.” This is what banning books and villainizing librarians seeks and the forthcoming Destiny features facilitate.

Challenging fixed beliefs is the entire point of education and the very definition of innovation. Dogged adherence to “fixed beliefs” has killed more companies than any economic downturn or trade war. The ability to consider multiple viewpoints, challenge ideas and have one’s own ideas challenged and above all to change ones thinking, are essential skills in the modern workplace. Those skills are developed early in life and reinforced through experience. Diverse and open libraries are catalysts and incubators for those traits. Librarians shouldn’t have to fight to serve their patrons and uphold their ideals. Platforms like Destiny should support and enable librarians, not those striving to bring them down.

Support your library. Talk with your kids. Read a banned book as a family.

 

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UPDATE (4/1/22): After overwhelming pushback from the library community, Follett today issued the following statement:

Following continued feedback and discussions with librarians and industry partners regarding a potential parental control module for Destiny Library Manager, we have concluded we will NOT proceed with any plans to develop this module and as a result, will be cancelling Monday’s webchat.

At Follett, our mission is to support librarians and get books into the hands of students. We support the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, and we are focused on advancing – not limiting – the role of the librarian and the school library.

We take very seriously the feedback we have received from librarians and our industry partners regarding legislation on these matters. We will continue to work directly with impacted districts to understand these new laws.

Thanks for your continued support.

Best,

Britten Follett, CEO, Follett, Content
Paul Ilse, CEO, Follett, Software

 

 

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1 Comment

  • Miranda Doyle says:

    Excellent article. You make great points. Yes, parents should talk to their kids about what they are reading! And targeting librarians is outrageous. I’m so happy that Follett backed down on this one.