Mason City Community School District uses artificial intelligence to create book list for new state law

MASON CITY — At least one north-central Iowa school district has turned to using artificial intelligence to try and stay in compliance with a new state law on what constitutes age-appropriate books in school libraries.

Mason City Community School District assistant superintendent Bridgette Exman says Iowa legislators are requiring public schools to remove all books that have “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act,” but it excludes religious texts. Exman says they’re trying to follow the letter of the law as best as they can.  “This law is written in a way where our teachers and our teacher librarian have individual criminal liability,” Exman says. “There may be best practice here and we don’t really have the opportunity to use best practice. We’re in a place where we have to use an efficient and defensible process.”

Exman says she went through a list of commonly-challenged books and found 19 in Mason City’s middle and high school libraries. She put those titles through ChatGPT, an online artificial intelligence tool, and asked if the book contained a description of a sex act.  “ChatGPT almost always gave me what I would characterize as a ‘yes, but’ answer,” Exman says. “Yes, but it serves this literary purpose, or yes, but it’s used in this context, and unfortunately, the law doesn’t give us a ‘yes, but.’ The law just gives us a ‘yes’ and if it’s a ‘yes,’ it has to go.”

Educators statewide are still waiting for guidance on what books need to be removed from the shelves, but with school starting next week for many students, Exman says they wanted to do something as fast as possible. She says it was a quick, effective way to make sure the school is following the  law while also allowing educators to focus on the start of the new school year. “Our goal here was just to be efficient and to demonstrate a good faith effort to be in compliance with the law,” she says. “That is our legal and our ethical obligation as a school district, regardless of what our personal beliefs are about the law.”

Exman says parents have always had the ability to review books or a curriculum, but she says in the last 20 years, they have never seen a formal challenge.