School district uses ChatGPT to help remove library books

From Popular Science:

Against a nationwide backdrop of book bans and censorship campaigns, Iowa educators are turning to ChatGPT to help decide which titles should be removed from their school library shelves in order to legally comply with recent Republican-backed state legislation, PopSci has learned.

According to an August 11 article in the Iowa state newspaper The Gazette, spotted by PEN America, the Mason City Community School District recently removed 19 books from its collection ahead of its quickly approaching 2023-24 academic year. The ban attempts to comply with a new law requiring Iowa school library catalogs to be both “age appropriate” and devoid of “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act.” Speaking with The Gazette last week, Mason City’s Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Bridgette Exman argued it was “simply not feasible to read every book and filter for these new requirements.”

. . . .

“Frankly, we have more important things to do than spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to protect kids from books,” Exman tells PopSci via email. “At the same time, we do have a legal and ethical obligation to comply with the law. Our goal here really is a defensible process.”

According to The Gazette, the resulting strategy involved compiling a master list of commonly challenged books, then utilizing a previously unnamed “AI software” to supposedly provide textual analysis for each title. Flagged books were then removed from Mason City’s 7-12th grade school library collections and “stored in the Administrative Center” as educators “await further guidance or clarity.” Titles included Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights.

“We are confident this process will ensure the spirit of the law is enacted here in Mason City,” Exman said at the time. When asked to clarify what software Mason City administrators harnessed to help with their decisions on supposedly sexually explicit material, Exman revealed their AI tool of choice: “We used Chat GPT [sic] to help answer that question,” says Exman, who believes Senate File 496’s “age-appropriateness” stipulation is “pretty subjective… [but] the depictions or descriptions of sex acts filter is more objective.”

. . . .

According to Exman, she and fellow administrators first compiled a master list of commonly challenged books, then removed all those challenged for reasons other than sexual content. For those titles within Mason City’s library collections, administrators asked ChatGPT the specific language of Iowa’s new law, “Does [book] contain a description or depiction of a sex act?”

“If the answer was yes, the book will be removed from circulation and stored,” writes Exman.

Link to the rest at Popular Science

3 thoughts on “School district uses ChatGPT to help remove library books”

  1. “Frankly, we have more important things to do than spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to protect kids from books…”

    Right, because protecting kids doesn’t matter.

    Says a lot lot right there.

    Reminds me of this:

    He just justified the law *and* put the lie to the handwringing publishers.
    LLMs work by comparing imputs to trillions of inputs of all types for all audiences. (Say WINNIE THE POO, LOLITA, and THE MAMA SUTRA). So they can easily flag content improriate for 6 year olds but tolerable for 16 year olds.

    Doesn’t seem like it took long, either.


    • This would be a reasonable strategy for a first cut. Then they can actually read the books – which should be a quite small number. Unless they have a much bigger problem than even the most “repressive” parent can imagine.

      • Remember the quote: the first cut will be the last cut because the least they can do is the most they will do.

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