Technology for Parent Monitoring of Student Library Use is Being Developed by Follett: This Week’s Book Censorship News, April 1, 2022

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Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

On March 30th, Follett Learning — the creators of Destiny, a popular library management system used in school libraries — posted a letter on LinkedIn saying that they are developing technology to allow parents to more easily monitor and restrict their children’s choice of library books. Many school librarians were also emailed the letter.

The announcement comes in response to an increase in “parents’ rights” bills. A school district in Georgia reached out to Follett to ask for features to “increase parental involvement in a student’s book selections and expedite the process by which books that potentially contain sexually explicit material are challenged and removed.”

The process for challenging books in school and public libraries is necessarily lengthy, involving several people (hopefully librarians and educators) reading the book in its entirety, consulting professional reviews, and evaluating the title on several criteria before determining whether it should stay on the shelves. It’s not meant to be an “expedited” process: it’s meant to be one that is informed and carefully considered.

Follett had already began thinking about ways parents can restrict their children’s access to library books, however. The CEO of Content, Britten Follett, told Publishers Weekly that the company had already been contacted by districts in Florida and Texas back in February about tools to comply with “parents’ rights” bills. Since then, many more states have had similar legislation put forward.

Some of the solutions on the table include parents blocking access to certain titles, as well as an automatic email that sends students’ check outs to their parents. The Georgia school district who contacted Follett also asked for an option to restrict books based on category or tag, such as blocking access to any LGBTQ books.

Systems like this are most harmful for the students who need access to books and other library resources the most: queer kids and teens whose parents are unsupportive, students looking for safer sex information, children with abusive parents looking for resources to keep themselves safe, and more. For these students, the library could be the safest place they can go, and this would cut off that lifeline.

It also will likely be ineffective. The parents who show up with poster boards and a cheering section in school board meetings are unlikely to be happy to just place a restriction on their own kids’ account. The language around this most recent flood of book banning has been about “grooming,” “pedophilia,” and “sexualization,” and it paints these books as dangerous for kids. It’s about removing them entirely. Parents have always had the option to pay attention to what their kids check out from the library.

I also have to point out that this is how books get stolen from the library. Many a closeted kid has slipped a queer book into their backpack to read in safety with no paper trail. In fact, most students instinctively imagine their checkouts are being monitored and also don’t want the librarian to see them checking out a sex ed book. These books get furtively read in quiet aisles in five minute increments, or get hidden inside other books, or they just disappear from shelves. This will only make it more likely that a book gets stolen instead of checked out.

Follett is discussing these features — which at this point are only theoretical — as if they are reluctantly acquiescing to this, but this isn’t the first time Francisco Partners, which bought Follett in 2021, has participated in government surveillance, even when it was unethical.

Francisco Partners bought Sandvine in 2014, which is a tool for monitoring data sent through a computer network. While prior to this acquisition Sandvine had turned down contracts with clients who might use this technology for censorship, Francisco Partners began to sell it to governments associated with human rights abuses.

Sandvine was used by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime to censor protests over the election by partially shutting down the internet. While the contract was cancelled after public backlash, Francisco Partners did not face any charges and was not investigated.

Francisco Partners also bought NSO Group Technologies in 2014, which has been reported by human rights groups, including Amnesty International, for providing technology used to illegally hack and surveil cell phones of journalists and human rights activists in Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. (They have since sold the company, in 2019, for a large profit.)

The firm also invested in Blue Coat Systems, a technology used by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to surveil protestors and block access to the internet. You can read more about Francisco Partner’s long history with surveillance technology at Bloomberg.

So while Follett claims that they are only responding to customers’ requests, and that the company is a “vocal advocate for getting books in the hands of kids,” it’s hard to feel like they’re particularly worried about how this technology might violate students’ First Amendment rights, since Francisco Partners has made part of its fortune off censorship technology.

Britten Follett explained the features would not be standard, but would be something a district would have to choose to turn on. “You know what’s best for your school library and we want to give you the power to choose the tools needed to support that,” the letter reassures librarians.

Despite the seeming reluctance to developing these options — Britten Follett told Publishers Weekly “I can say we certainly would prefer to be building other more meaningful and relevant features” — the LinkedIn letter ends by stating:

“So, we would ask that instead of creating an environment of divisiveness, that we come together and be a positive voice for this very important topic, whether we agree with those laws, disagree with those laws, or otherwise – they are the law and require compliance. A much more powerful, positive voice could be for all of us to promote the great authors, the great books, and the great work that all of you are doing.”

Many librarians on Twitter protested against both the proposed changes and the characterization of any opposition to them being “divisiveness.” Some are proactively working to switch to a new library management system before these changes can take place.

While Follett is discussing the development of these tools as inevitable and a result of legislation outside of their control, as well as being a strategy to “put the ownership on the parent,” it doesn’t address the simple truth that the easier it is to ban books, the more books will be banned, and that these tools will enable districts to be more restrictive than they might have otherwise chosen.

We’ve already seen an organized campaign by groups like No Left Turn and Moms for Liberty to restrict access to sex ed books, queer books, books by and about people of color — especially Black people — and even books about mental health. If Follett makes it easier for these groups to challenge books, they will continue to trade these titles from coast to coast, building up lists with hundreds of entries to restrict their kids from checking them out — but again, I doubt they’ll stop at just controlling their own kids’ access.

Many school librarians have also spoken about how this violates students’ privacy, which is a crucial consideration for all librarians, regardless of their patrons’ age. Others have expressed worry about how these systems will make it harder to keep students’ personal information from being accessed from outside parties, since that information is being sent to outside email addresses.

It will also make the most at risk students even less safe, cutting off access to crucial information that could be life-affirming. In communities where a queer kid feels alone, books can be a lifeline until they can get out or find other supports. Many other marginalized groups also find connection and reassurance in the pages of books, and that’s especially true when they have difficult or even abusive relationships with their parents. We should be protecting these students, not further isolating them.

Editor’s note: Follett has now announced that based on the feedback they received, they will be not be developing this module.

This Week’s Call to Action

If you would like to let Follett know what you think of these changes, they’re holding a “live webchat” on April 4.

This seems like an incredibly bad decision on their part, but the option is there if you want to let your thoughts about this be known.

Editor’s note: Following the announcement of the cancellation of this project, Follett also cancelled the live webchat.

Book Censorship News: April 1, 2022

  • A mainstay of homophobic rhetoric is equating LGBTQ people to pedophiles, and we’re seeing that now as LGBTQ books (and the teachers and librarians using them) are being accused of “grooming” children.
  • After Tennessee passed a bill requiring school libraries to screen their collection for “age appropriateness” in books, an even more harsh bill has been passed by the House and Senate, but will likely not be signed into law.
  • The Flagler County school district in Florida has introduced three levels for parents to select for their children’s borrowing options. Level One is open access, though middle school students requesting high school library books need parent permission; Level Two allows up to five titles to be blocked from a student’s account; and in Level Three, students can only check out books on a pre-approved parent list.
  • Keller ISD in Texas has had 33 books challenged since October, and there seem to be more every school board meeting.
  • Wake County library in North Carolina is reviewing Gender Queer and Lawn Boy again, under a new policy.
  • West Chester school district in Pennsylvania has kept Gender Queer on shelves after students spoke passionately defending it.
  • Hudson High School in Ohio is also keeping Gender Queer in their library.
  • In Antioch High School in California, the library attempted to compromise by putting Gender Queer behind the desk, so only students who request it can check it out. But that hasn’t settled the debate.
  • The Wappingers Central School District in New York has removed Gender Queer from the high school library.

Further Reading: