ANNANDALE – Librarians have become heroic figures these days and on Tuesday night in Hunterdon County, so many people showed up to support the local high school librarian, the meeting was postponed.
Martha Hickson is the woman at the center of the swirling controversy over what books kids can read in school. A staunch supporter of what librarians are traditionally expected to support – letting people read what they want – Hickson was named the 2023 Librarian of the Year by the New Jersey Library Association.
She was lauded for having fought multiple attempts to ban books from the library at North Hunterdon High School – books that critics said are “inappropriate” for students because of their sexual content.
Awards and past victories are nice, but the ongoing war over books and public school curriculum ensues.
New Jersey Republicans based much of last year’s legislative campaign on what’s being taught in schools. That didn’t turn out all that well, but now that we’re in a presidential year, that issue isn’t going away.
Alarmed by what they say are persistent attempts by critics in the North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional district to attack Hickson, a rally was organized Tuesday afternoon to support her.
The district in question is a bit unusual – at least by New Jersey standards. It covers two high schools and ranges over 12 towns.
Just as condemning aspects of public school curriculum is a mainstay of conservative talking points these days, backing librarians and the right to read is a cherished principle for Democrats.
And so it was that the rally in Clinton attracted Rep. Andy Kim of CD-3, who is running for the U.S. Senate this year, and Sue Altman, a Democratic congressional candidate in CD-7, which includes the high school in question.
Altman summed up her feelings in a tweet:
“I am a proud product of the NH-V school district. VHS class of 2000. I will fight like crazy to keep our local public schools as intellectually driven, creative and enriching as they were when I attended.”
Also on hand was state Sen. Andrew Zwicker, who had introduced legislation that “prohibits public libraries and public schools from banning or restricting access to certain books; permits withholding of state aid for non-compliance.” The bill was not acted on in the last legislative session and, thus, needs to be reintroduced.
When the rally ended, all moved up Route 31 to the high school for the 7 p.m. board meeting. Many supporters of Hickson carried signs.
It was here that things got a bit odd.
The meeting commenced at 7 p.m,. with people standing against the wall and sitting on the floor. This may have seemed a bit cozy, but from a practical point of view, the crowded room was a fire hazard.
As the board debated what to do, a chant arose from some in the audience:
“Move the meeting, move the meeting, move the meeting.”
To which, Glen Farbanish, the board president, said, “We’re not moving it now.”
He presented two options.
One was for some members of the crowd to rotate in and out of the meeting. That would have reduced the size of the crowd, but also would have meant some people would have to wait outside.
“It’s cold outside,” someone shouted.
With that option discounted, Farbanish moved to plan B – postpone the meeting until next week.
It is now scheduled for Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. in a larger venue – the high school theater.
Those who came this week to support Hickson promised to be back next week.
Given the drama of this issue, the theater setting seems quite appropriate.