In the Fight Against Book Bans, Retired Librarians Are Making a Difference | From the Editor

They care deeply and can't be fired. Retired librarians are bringing experience and passion to the cause of intellectual freedom. With advocacy skills training and opportunities to mentor, retirees could become even more powerful assets.

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

Michelle Jarrett was told not to speak. She spoke anyway.

Against the advice of her Florida district to stay home, Jarrett ventured to Atlanta in December to attend the SLJ Summit as part of the panel “Empowered in the Fight for Intellectual Freedom.”

Moderator Kara Yorio, SLJ senior news editor, asked Jarrett, a school library supervisor, about practical solutions. “What’s having the most impact is rallying our retired librarians,” replied Jarrett.

“They’re not going to take your pension,” she added. “You’re not going to get fired. [Retired librarians] don’t care if they’re on the news because they’re old and pretty.”

It was a good punch line in what should be a light bulb moment for the profession.

Librarians have a strong tradition of active involvement in the field post-retirement. That work includes fighting censorship, and foregrounding those efforts couldn’t come at a more critical time.

“For many of us, it’s more of a calling than just a job,” says Carolyn Foote. “We believe in the right to read and the importance of reading. And that doesn’t stop when we retire.” As district and high school librarian serving Westlake High School and Eanes Independent School District in Austin, TX, Foote was named a White House Champion of Change in 2013 for tech integration in her district.

In 2021, in a last task before exiting her job of 30 years, she sent an email to principals about the library book selection policy. It was a reminder, says Foote, outlining what to do in the case of a book challenge. In her wildest dreams, she could never have predicted where we are now.

"I can't be fired"

Throughout her career, Deb Svec has been active in library organizations on the regional and national level, in addition to her work with students at Palm Beach (FL) Gardens High School, where she served as library media specialist. She says, “When this [increase in book banning] started happening a couple years ago, I said, ‘when I retire, I’m going to make it my mission to go to Tallahassee. I can’t be fired.’ ”

That’s exactly what the former legislative chair of FAME (the Florida Association for Media in Education) did. Svec retired in June 2023 and went to the statehouse in November. The contingent, which included a retired social studies teacher, spoke to legislators about the unintended consequences of restricting student access to materials. “They need to be better educated, so when they pass legislation, they understand how far-reaching it is,” she says.

So, what’s next? Organizations could formalize support for engaging professionals post-employment, providing networking and training opportunities. Long-serving librarians bring the wisdom and experience gained from having undergone book challenges (most have at least one under their belt, says Foote, FReadom Fighters cofounder). With advocacy skills training and opportunities to mentor, retirees could become even more powerful assets.

It’s wonderful that the profession garners such ongoing loyalty and passion. Taking it further, librarianship could lead the way as a broader model.

Consider journalist Richard Eisenberg’s critique of a Biden administration program. “The idea of a Climate Corps is commendable, if not overdue,” he writes in Next Avenue. “But pitching it to, and for, ‘young people,’ smacks of ageism and is a missed chance to involve Americans of all ages in helping to fix an existential global problem.”

Same goes for protecting intellectual freedom. “We need to be using every tool in our toolkit,” Foote says.


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Kathy Ishizuka

Kathy Ishizuka is editor in chief of School Library Journal.

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