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Why I quit as a school librarian Progressive activism is now considered the norm

A Drag Queen Storytime in Brighton attracted protests. Credit: Getty

A Drag Queen Storytime in Brighton attracted protests. Credit: Getty


June 3, 2024   5 mins

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I decided to quit my post as an assistant librarian at a private school, but it was most probably when Andersen Press defended its decision to publish a book intended for under-sevens that contained illustrations of men in fetish gear.

When I saw the book — Grandad’s Pride by Harry Woodgate — on the senior librarian’s acquisitions spreadsheet, to be ordered for June’s month-long Pride display, I quickly alerted them to the scandal. Although, in truth, “scandal” was wishful embellishment on my part. Other than a report on MailOnline, the book’s content didn’t attract great interest in the mainstream media. On the contrary, Woodgate was later a panellist at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, participating in an event about diversity in children’s publishing. Very recently, the book was longlisted for the Little Rebels prize, an award that is “designed to recognise the rich tradition of radical publishing for children in the UK”.

Grandad’s Pride isn’t the only eyebrow-raising nomination I recognised from my time working as a children’s librarian in Scotland. On the Little Rebels longlist was also L.D. Lapinski’s Jamie, a novel I read in one incredulous sitting. It tells the story of Jamie, a child of purposefully undisclosed sex who identifies as non-binary and is faced with the “unjust” decision of whether “they” attend all-boys or all-girls high school. As well as author Lapinski (who identifies as non-binary) portraying Jamie in such a way that makes it seem “they” have no birth sex, the book also contains a deliberate rewriting of the Equality Act that obfuscates the reality of sex to young readers; Jamie asserts “gender” is a protected characteristic under the law rather than “sex” and “gender assignment”.

Grandad’s Pride was the only book I was bold enough to flag, using the minor media coverage of the controversy to present an objective case against adding it to the school library collection. As much as I wanted to, I didn’t express my aversions to Jamie or any of the other — at least 30 — fiction and non-fiction children’s books steeped in unfalsifiable ideology I came across.

Why didn’t I speak out about them all? I’ll confess some of it was timidity. In Scotland at the time, the Gender Recognition Reform Bill was not yet defeated. Plus, I had little authority as the assistant librarian. Within my small department, I was the only one who felt unease about these resources. Perhaps the boiled-frog effect shocked me into stunned silence too. In my first post-university job, in a public library in 2018, I’d witnessed children as young as six being signed up to a summer reading challenge where the form invited them to list their gender “girl”, “boy” or “other”. Back then, it had seemed ridiculous, a brief blip in sanity — an administrative error, even. That blip was now a hydra with heads sprouting everywhere I looked.

This was the real problem. My fight was not with my school library, it was with the whole library sector, and beyond this, the entire world of children’s publishing and bookselling. Activists disguised as children’s authors are not falling through the cracks of publishing — they are being actively promoted and lionised by the industry. It’s extremely hard to make the case that a book is deeply unsuitable for children when major bookshop chains such as Waterstones are singing its praises on their website and media reviews are glowing. Revered children’s authors such as Malorie Blackman and Philip Pullman have lent their support to trans ideology; the few children’s authors who have had the integrity to express concern, including Gillian Philips and Rachel Rooney, have been hounded and cast out.

Not long before I left my library post last year, I attended a webinar on the subject of censorship hosted by the School Library Association (SLA). I had hoped for a robust discussion on censorship from all angles, but there was a notable cognitive dissonance from the hosts. Much of their focus was on the book-banning conflicts going on in US school libraries, where the parents and authorities challenging books were implicitly framed as Christian Right-wingers. Secular parents, reluctant to expose their children to gender or critical race theory, were conveniently grouped in with evangelicals trying to purge Judy Blume and Harry Potter from library shelves. The same webinar also discreetly advised librarians how to ensure they could justify why they might have chosen to “weed” (remove) certain books: for instance, we were told that writing up an (unofficial) library policy is a good way to safeguard against objectors.

Something that dawned on me during that meeting was the demographic of modern school librarians, something I also observed at the 2023 annual conference for the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). Most were young, progressive women, and perhaps this makes sense: consider the unique mixture of power and nurture librarianship holds; especially in a school library, where you are revered as the moulder of innocent minds, an ambassador for kindness and tolerance as much as literacy. Librarians may not write the books but it is them (us) who decide what books to display and promote, which authors get invited to give talks, and — almost as important — who and what does not get platformed.

Another, perhaps unsurprising, factor in the rise of activist librarianship is social media. Most schools and public libraries have X or TikTok accounts (“Librarians of TikTok” has posted almost 40 million times). A key part of a school librarian’s job is now online PR to show that reading is not only a crucial life skill but also “cool”. I’m not opposed to this: one of my favourite parts of the job was designing funky, enticing book displays and murals to showcase the range of the library collection. However, one of the best ways to get trending is to latch onto viral hashtags and, given that every other day is #SomethingAwarenessDay or someone’s day of “visibility”, the parts of the collection on show end up being heavily steeped in DEI and LGBTQIA+. The old-fashioned image of the librarian as an elderly, stern, technophobic, cardigan-wearer has changed dramatically — the cardigans still exist, except they now come adorned with pronoun badges and progressive slogans. And as with the worrying trends in children’s publishing, none of this is considered radical, it’s simply the new norm.

“None of this is considered radical — it’s simply the new norm.”

The flip side of questionable material being marketed to children is the material being hidden from them. Barely 20 years ago, a model librarian strained for utmost political neutrality. Their role was to ensure the efficient and thorough provision of the information members of the public wanted to access, not judgement of it. The 2005 intellectual freedom guidance issued by CILIP stated this clearly: “[Works] should not be excluded on moral, political, religious, racial or gender grounds, to satisfy the demands of sectional interest.”

In contrast, a CILIP guide published in September 2023 about making a public libraries “safe and inclusive” is notably less resolute in tone. There are references to protecting people from (undefined) “hate speech” and “misinformation” as well as librarians “working in a context of a highly polarised society”. With the best will in the world, such nebulous guidance has given the green light to librarians with agendas to act on biases with flimsy justification.

Evidently many are. Only last year, public libraries in a West Yorkshire council area were revealed to have blacklisted a number of “gender-critical” books, including Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls, and were hiding them in stockrooms (they were later reinstated to the shelves but forbidden from being “promoted” on displays). In parts of America, the war on intellectual freedom has progressed from the front desk to the catalogue, where content warnings and deeply biased subject tags are added to databases, making it harder for citizens to access resources that don’t pass the progressive smell test. As with so many cultural trends, it’s a censorious aberration that could easily spread to the UK.

How can we defend against this? The road back to common sense in children’s publishing will be a long and fraught one. But describing the water in which we are drowning is a start. Libraries may be renowned as spaces of quiet, but this is a silence that desperately needs breaking.


Nina Welsch is a writer and former librarian.

CleverclogsNina

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Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
22 days ago

The whole purpose of LGBQT activism is not about creating safe environments for gays, but about circumnavigating parental safeguards in order to collectivize children around sexual identities. Western governments are telling children that their parents are antediluvian troglodytes and that only their policies will protect them: a state-endorsed groomer tactic.

General Store
General Store
21 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

And the purpose or telos of a conservative party would be to banish this diabolical iconoclasm to the most peripheral margins of our society and reclaim institutions for ordinary people and for a well-run self-regulating community bending towards natural law (or what ordinary people call common sense). We don’t have such a party. F**k Rishi Sunak and his party. They had a life time in politics to sort this out. Time for a little populist decluttering

William Shaw
William Shaw
21 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Has anyone an answer to the question of why so many young women are promoters of DEI and LGBTQIA+.
Is it fashionable or trendy? Do they gain social media validation?

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
21 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

The universities have performed ideological interpellation upon them, which is the adult version of grooming. The rest is graduate group-think, adult membership to the society of left-liberals.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
21 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

I watched ‘The Weather Underground’ recently – a documentary about 1970s leftist terror groups in the US. Interestingly enough one of the people interviewed openly admitted that homosexuality was encouraged among them in order to break down family structures and to collectivize around social justice causes.
I wonder if Western governments have cottoned on to this and are appropriating LGBQT politics (as well as other causes such as climate alarmism) as a way to keep young people dependent on them – a perpetual form of in loco parentis, so to speak, which prevents young people from properly maturing into independence and self-sufficiency.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
21 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I forgot to add: in the documentary it seemed that many of these activists eventually moved into positions of authority where their ideologies could be further disseminated. It makes sense given what we’re seeing in colleges today.

William Shaw
William Shaw
21 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

You may be correct regarding their goal of destroying the family unit:
“Marriage has existed for the benefit of men; and has been a legally sanctioned method of control over women
 We must work to destroy it. The end of the institution of marriage is a necessary condition for the liberation of women. Therefore it is important for us to encourage women to leave their husbands and not to live individually with men.”
– The Declaration of Feminism , November 1971

Chipoko
Chipoko
21 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

What an horrendous philosophy! Feminism has been an evil force in the disabling and destruction of western culture and civilisation. The sexualisation of children and the emasculation of male identity in particular is a cornerstone of this process. The terrifying reality is that these horrific, soulless, relentless fanatics have largely succeeded in the destruction of the institution of marriage, itself in place for millennia.

Chipoko
Chipoko
21 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

“
 the demographic of modern school librarians 
 Most were young, progressive women”
That says it all. Ditto modern primary and secondary school teachers. Ditto university lecturers. Ditto doctors and nurses. Ditto ad nauseam.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
21 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Yes and Yes. Plus, it all looks, superficially, like caring, which is an especially female thing.

Kathleen Lowrey
Kathleen Lowrey
21 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

it’s even sadder than that. It’s like the popularity of skin-bleaching cream among brown skinned people in some societies. Young women think they are “not like other girls”, the contemptible ones who are “cis” and not non-binary and trans and who therefore deserve all the contempt society heaps on them.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
20 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

It’s the modern equivalent of ladies in church groups raising money for missionary work, or to improve the lot of the poor. These young women are very socially conformist but see themselves as being in the vanguard of the important causes, and they see themselves as helpers.
The fact that the cause of the day is so problematic doesn’t really come into it, they haven’t thought about it that much.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
20 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

“The Long March Through The Institutions” has neared the finish line. Someone needs to lay down some road spikes.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
17 days ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Young women are prone to go along with the Establishment. Remember those young German women handing out teddy bears?

David Morley
David Morley
21 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

With school librarians being the shock troops, presumably.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
21 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

I’m not sure it’s that militaristic. These librarians believe that LGBQT is good and children need to know it. There is little thought behind what they do.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
20 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

The authors OTOH


Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
22 days ago

Thanks for these insights. Librarians are very powerful gatekeepers with zero accountability. It’s not only the radical books they bring into school, but the opaque censorship of rejecting books they don’t approve of.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
21 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I frequent a lot of librarians. Your post is 100% spot on.
Being able to nudge the influence of various of media is the single main job perk of this profession, and the “raison d’ĂȘtre” that separates this job’s attractivity from the one of a store clerk.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
21 days ago

Your post seems true to me. But I’m childishly amused by the idea of “frequenting librarians”.

David Morley
David Morley
22 days ago

Barely 20 years ago, a model librarian strained for utmost political neutrality.

This isn’t really true. At that time – and before – books which portrayed traditional gender roles were being removed from the shelves, and books which challenged them added. And there was lots of discussion over what should be done with books which might be seen as racist. Think TS Eliot rather than mein kampff!

The issues have changed, rather than the willingness of librarians to censor/promote.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
21 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Enid Blyton

David Morley
David Morley
22 days ago

There’s a certain amount of “golden age-ism” in this piece. Twenty years ago may have been pre trans activism and woke. But it was just post political correctness.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
20 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

I don’t think libraries fell into that trap much. They were still very much upholding the principle of political neutrality, at least in my experience.
I think things went wrong when an important principle in libraries – accessibility – became elided with diversity and inclusion.So the idea that libraries need to make their materials available to all people in society, even those with barriers or who might be considered in some way socially undesirable, because that’s necessary in a liberal democracy, becomes transformed into the idea that the point of the library is to remedy social justice issues around marginalized groups.
It’s been completely toxic for libraries.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
22 days ago

I had a look at Grandad’s Pride on the author’s website. My immediate response to it was that it was a literary grooming of very young readers.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
21 days ago
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
21 days ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

My first thought reading the link – librarians intentionally moved benign books to the adult section in an effort to discredit the policy of moving sexually explicit books to the adult section.

David Harris
David Harris
21 days ago

All part of the ‘Long March’ of Marxists through our institutions…

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
20 days ago
Reply to  David Harris

Exactly.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
21 days ago

Activists disguised as children’s authors are not falling through the cracks of publishing — they are being actively promoted and lionised by the industry.
Well, yes. Authoritarians always come for the children and work to steamroll their way past the parents. The only difference here is the tactic – instead of outright conscription into the authoritarian cause, the strategy is to cause more widespread social discord while creating a new revenue stream. The ironic thing, at least in the US, is that all of these books come at a time when substantial numbers of American kids cannot read at grade level. Apparently, that’s far less important than how they “identify.”

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
21 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

At work, I keep getting told off for not using “Child friendly language” because I don’t dumb anything down. 96 genders and bdsm grandads is apparently acceptable, however the English language, in its entirety, is not.

I never dumbed anything down when raising my own children and they have a fantastic vocabulary, after I joked to my 17yr old son that I was so tired, I was two brain cells away from dribbling, he responded “yes! I too, am bereft of rational thought”. Ofsted would be horrified!

General Store
General Store
21 days ago

The only way to change this is to abolish the LEAs – or procurement only. Give money to kids…allow money to follow school choice. Schools led by strong head teachers with parents…..Nothing/noone else. If parents hate progressive ideology; allow them to vote with their feet and money…..for headteachers and schools with traditional values. Allow school start-ups, homeschooling hubs…..If money follows the kids, we will have a system that reflects the values of parents.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
21 days ago

“None of this is considered radical — it’s simply the new norm.” – Congratulations for quitting. Now that library will be 100% tilted towards one side and those children will know only one point of view. How progressive!

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
21 days ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

She’s far more able to speak her mind, be heard, and have an influence now. And since she is an engaging writer (I’d say), she will probably p***k up quite a few ears, among the unherd and beyond. I doubt we’ve heard the last from Ms. Welch.
*I also find it both funny and silly that my normal English verb was auto-censored because it also has a vulgar meaning. The editor-bot is a p r i c k!

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
20 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

A real Asteriskhole if you will..

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
19 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

More of a p*u*s*s*y.

Mark epperson
Mark epperson
21 days ago

Excellent, and I would like to commend the author for taking a stand. I would theorize that these “young progressive librarians” have no real-world experiences, certainly with raising children but they truly believe they possess the knowledge to know what is best for the children and their parents. Tough chore to rid libraries, civil service, media, tech, and politicians of these ignorant and arrogant “elites”, but it can be done and has to if our children and great-grandchildren are going to be born into a world with freedom of speech and choice. Keep it up!

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
21 days ago

I am getting tired of people describing evil acts with the obligatory words that the perpetrators are “well intentioned” or “well meaning.”

By their lights, Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot thought they were doing good, every bit as much as today’s woke censors. We see no need to make weak excuses for those monsters, and it is a sign of weakness when we make excuses for today’s proto-monsters.

No, I am not equating Stalin with the American Library Assoc. But Stalin got his world view from somewhere, and today’s “educators” are creating the world view of the future just as there was a direct line from Engels to Stalin.

Evil is evil, and the intent does not mitigate the harm. And making excuses does not help us fight it.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
19 days ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

Amen to that. These self-described ‘social justice activists’ have never been well intentioned. Their whole charade is about touting their alleged moral superiority and leveraging it in an endless pursuit of power over their supposed moral inferiors. As the late George Carlin put it, “Fascism disguised as good manners”.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
21 days ago

When the history books are written and we have taken the place of the Red Indians who sold Manhattan for a bag of marbles as mankind’s biggest chumps, the Trans wars will be seen as the biggest signpost of our own doomed madness. Smiley face emoji.

Kathleen Lowrey
Kathleen Lowrey
21 days ago

I think librarians are actually just the same as always ( present authorial company excepted!). In the early part of the 20th century American librarians went on a campaign to keep L. Frank Baum’s _Oz_ books out of libraries: they were silly, fantastical, the plots were outlandish, they just were no good for children’s minds and moral development at all. That they were HUGELY popular with children didn’t matter a bit.
I noticed when my child was younger (and I am sure it has only gotten worse — in fact sometimes I check to see and I’m right) that the “display” books for children were always the equivalent of Victorian moral treacle. Boring, uninventive imagery (always those cartoon shmoo-people who are crudely drawn with stub-fingers etc) and didactic text: the protagonist never knew that being Indigenous! or queer! or disabled! was SO COOL!!!! but never presented with any imagination or elan, basically “how doth the little busy bee” except postmodern. They always sat on the display shelves, untouched.
I also noticed that if you went to check out anything Baum-like — which in my child’s era was the Wings of Fire series — there were always a long long wait because of about 8 zillion holds on about 3 copies, which 3 I had the feeling the librarian staff had purchased only grudgingly.

Tom W
Tom W
14 days ago

The good thing about the euphemism “weeding” is that it suggests a judgement based on aesthetics. The term doesn’t avoid the fact that the librarian is applying a moral judgement informed by ideological commitments. This is distinct from making choices based on a book’s popularity and whether it is comprehensible to contemporary readers.