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In Missouri, years of efforts to ban books take a toll on school librarians: 'It's too painful'

Mernie Maestas, a librarian at the Wentzville School District, sits with  her husband Doug while they brainstorm Christmas gift ideas for their children and grandchildren on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at their home in Foristell, Mo. The Wentzville school district has arguably been subject to some of the most intense efforts to remove books from libraries and classrooms. Maestas says the policies are threatening free speech, public schools and even our democracy.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Mernie Maestas, a librarian at the Wentzville School District, sits with her husband Doug while they brainstorm Christmas gift ideas for their children and grandchildren on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at their home in Foristell, Mo. The Wentzville school district has arguably been subject to some of the most intense efforts to remove books from libraries and classrooms. Maestas says the policies are threatening free speech, public schools and even our democracy.

The efforts to remove books from school libraries started with parents in local districts and eventually led to state legislatures. After two years of controversy, one Missouri school librarian says her colleagues are leaving the profession because it has become too painful.

Mernie Maestas remembers when the recent movement to ban books from libraries started in the Wentzville School District, where she is an elementary school librarian. The first book challenge came from a community member who didn’t have kids in the district’s schools, Maestas said.

Soon, the effort spread. Parents became concerned and started to speak out against school library books they said were “sexually explicit.”

“And, gosh, I don't blame parents,” Maestas said. “I feel like the way it was initiated was done in a way to foster fear. And every parent wants to protect their child.”

From there, Maestas said the effort snowballed. Book challenges were on the rise in school districts across the St. Louis region and the country. Soon, state legislatures took on the issue. In Missouri, hundreds of books were removed from school libraries after a new law made it a criminal offense to give students books with visual depictions deemed “sexually explicit.”

As the culture wars came to libraries, public school librarians were surprised to find themselves suddenly at the center of fear and anger.

“It became an attack not just on one book, but on libraries and librarians as a whole,” Maestas said. “When you have rooted yourself in what you believe wholeheartedly to be something that helps people and those attacks begin coming, it is really like your integrity, your character is being attacked.”

Mernie Maestas, a librarian at the Wentzville School District, hangs a Christmas ornament on her family’s tree on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at their home in Foristell, Mo. The Wentzville school district has arguably been subject to some of the most intense efforts to remove books from libraries and classrooms. Maestas says the policies are threatening free speech, public schools and even our democracy.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Mernie Maestas, a librarian at the Wentzville School District, hangs a Christmas ornament on her family’s tree on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at their home in Foristell, Mo. The Wentzville school district has arguably been subject to some of the most intense efforts to remove books from libraries and classrooms. Maestas says the policies are threatening free speech, public schools and even our democracy.

LEFT: A book-themed Christmas ornament hangs on a tree on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at the home of Mernie Maestas, a librarian at the Wentzville School District, in Foristell, Mo. RIGHT: Stacks of books are intermingled with Christmas decorations  on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at the home of Mernie Maestas, a librarian at the Wentzville School District, in Foristell, Mo. The Wentzville school district has arguably been subject to some of the most intense efforts to remove books from libraries and classrooms. Maestas says the policies are threatening free speech, public schools and even our democracy.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
LEFT: A book-themed Christmas ornament hangs on a tree on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at the home of Mernie Maestas, a librarian at the Wentzville School District, in Foristell, Mo. RIGHT: Stacks of books are intermingled with Christmas decorations on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at the home of Mernie Maestas, a librarian at the Wentzville School District, in Foristell, Mo. The Wentzville school district has arguably been subject to some of the most intense efforts to remove books from libraries and classrooms. Maestas says the policies are threatening free speech, public schools and even our democracy.

Lifelong learners

Maestas first started working in education in the 1980s and has been with the Wentzville School District her whole career. She took time off to raise her six children and is now expecting her 10th grandchild in February. After a few years back at work, a librarian job opened and she decided to take the state certification exam.

“When I took that test, that's when I realized the depth of learning and knowledge that actually went into being a school librarian,” Maestas said.

Eighteen years later, Maestas is the district’s lead librarian. She has three master’s degrees and a freshly completed doctorate in library and information management. She is also involved in the Missouri Association of School Librarians and has been president of the statewide organization.

Maestas has a long list of things she loves about her job. She can work with students at every grade level in her building, connecting with families and fostering a love of reading that students will carry throughout their lives.

“A school library develops people to be self-directed learners,” Maestas said. “I believe that it enables them to discern information, to apply it to their own individual needs and to become a lifelong learner.”

But recently, the job has changed. As lead librarian, she works with her colleagues across the district, and in the current climate of intense scrutiny and book challenges, that often means she is helping librarians navigate thorny situations.

“We have had a large turnover of librarians, and not just due to retirement,” Maestas said. “We have some changing careers, some very good librarians, some dynamic librarians that are leaving the profession because it's too painful.”

Mernie Maestas, a librarian at the Wentzville School District, preps her lunch to take to school the following day on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at their home in Foristell, Mo. The Wentzville school district has arguably been subject to some of the most intense efforts to remove books from libraries and classrooms. Maestas says the policies are threatening free speech, public schools and even our democracy.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Mernie Maestas, a librarian at the Wentzville School District, preps her lunch to take to school the following day on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at their home in Foristell, Mo. The Wentzville school district has arguably been subject to some of the most intense efforts to remove books from libraries and classrooms. Maestas says the policies are threatening free speech, public schools and even our democracy.

Mernie Maestas, a librarian at the Wentzville School District, preps her lunch to take to school the following day on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at their home in Foristell, Mo. The Wentzville school district has arguably been subject to some of the most intense efforts to remove books from libraries and classrooms. Maestas says the policies are threatening free speech, public schools and even our democracy.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Mernie Maestas, a librarian at the Wentzville School District, preps her lunch to take to school the following day on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at their home in Foristell, Mo. The Wentzville school district has arguably been subject to some of the most intense efforts to remove books from libraries and classrooms. Maestas says the policies are threatening free speech, public schools and even our democracy.

Speaking out

In September, a Wentzville School Board member proposed revisions to the district’s library policy that would remove requirements for school libraries to reflect diversity and instead direct librarians to follow district curriculum and Missouri law.

At a board meeting in July, a community member called for the change, saying it was necessary to align district policy with the law that resulted in the removal of books across the state.

“The district cannot continue to violate the law and put our children at risk for exposure to sexually explicit content,” community member Lindi Williford said, citing the presence of “This Book Is Gay” in school libraries as evidence that the law had been violated.

“I really think we need to write a board policy to protect our children and protect our staff, and let’s be honest, we’re all really sick and tired of talking about this,” Williford continued.

Maestas decided to speak out at a recent school board meeting for the first time against the proposed revisions. She is especially worried about the removal of diversity requirements.

“We have to have diversity in our libraries,” Maestas said. “We have to. All people have the right to be recognized or appreciated, to see themselves in the collection. And students have the right and the privilege of being able to step into the shoes of someone unlike themselves, to experience their life through 300 pages.”

The school board has indefinitely tabled the policy change.

Looking back at the past two years, Maestas doesn’t know what is behind the focus on libraries, but she thinks it is part of a broader attack on truth, public education and even democracy.

“Libraries are at the heart of our democracy,” Maestas said. “People have those First Amendment rights to learn what they want to learn, to hear what they want to hear, to say what they want to say. When you can attack those First Amendment rights and you can remove the sources of valid information and valid education from everyone, then you have the power.”

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Kate Grumke reports on the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media. Email Kate at kgrumke@stlpr.org.
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