Among the dozens of concurrent learning sessions at the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) National Conference last month, a popular theme was that of intellectual freedom in the classroom and school library. “What Do I Do If? Intellectual Freedom Dilemmas in School Libraries,” [PDF] one of several panels to examine the subject, stood out for its scope and its round-robin style approach to problem-solving and swapping of best practices.
The presenters came from diverse backgrounds, representing numerous grade levels from K through 12, to share their personal experiences in facing intellectual freedom situations in their schools, from books to websites to collection development.
Freedom to read
Dee Venuto, high school librarian in Lumberton, NJ, shared the repeated challenges she’s faced in teaching the award-winning Dreaming in Cuban (Random House, 1992) by Cristina García.
Venuto’s most important advice for school librarians, she says, is to make sure your school and district already has policies and procedures ironed out for parents and community members to challenge a book in the curriculum and in the school library, long before such a challenge every gets raised. These should cover who specifically can raise a challenge—whether that is a parent, or any member of the community—and how challenged materials should be formally reviewed. Without these measures in place, a school is opening itself up to a lot of chaos and even, perhaps, scrutiny from organized groups that oppose intellectual freedom, she says. “Challenges can go viral on the internet,” she says.
“Every challenge poses such difficult questions,” Venuto adds. “As much as you try to remove yourself, often people who defend the right to read get targeted.” In such a situation, Venuto recommends that librarians seek the support of the American Library Association‘s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom, as well as that of their local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been instrumental in defending such challenges around the country, she says.
“You have more allies than you know,” she says.
Venuto also notes that some local school boards may purchase pre-written policies on how to develop collections of materials, and cautions librarians to investigate what their own schools have, and make sure their schools’ policies apply specifically to the library and not just the classroom.
Freedom to click
Meanwhile, Karyn Storts-Brinks, high school librarian in Knoxville, TN, tackled the issue of integrity of viewpoint discrimination in internet filtering. Who has the authority to block students’ access to websites at your school or in your district? This knowledge is power, she says.
In her own experience, Storts-Brinks noticed that some websites dealing with gay outreach and advocacy that were completely appropriate for teens, such as that for the Human Rights Campaign or the Gay Straight Alliance Network, were blocked at her school. At the same time, religious-based sites that encourage students to “pray the gay away” were not blocked, signaling a political agenda.
As she investigated the situation, Storts-Brinks learned that the filtering company’s software actually had a designated LGBT category, and the decision had been made in at the district level. The district was required to filter sites in schools in some way in order to be eligible for federal money, but the specifics were somewhat arbitrary and invisible, she notes.
Although she did not want publicity for her school, seeking out the support of the local Tennessee chapter of the ACLU was “the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says. After a two-year investigation by the ACLU—which inspired lawsuits in other states—Storts-Brinks finally saw results. “It impacted my district and unblocked filtering for 80 percent of my students,” she says.
Storts-Brinks advises that librarians seeking to investigate or challenge such tactics in their own districts first make sure all their association memberships are up to date, for example ALA, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and the Freedom to Read Foundation. “Pay your dues,” she jokes. She also encourages librarians to celebrate Banned Websites Awareness Day during Banned Books Week to keep the issue at the forefront for faculty colleagues as well as students.
Freedom from bias
The issue of self-censorship was addressed by Christine Eldred, high school librarian in Colchester, VT.
“We spend energy dealing with external challenges—but what about our own practices?” she asked attendees, challenging them to examine their personal viewpoints on such diverse topic areas as LGBT issues, and political hot-button issues such as climate change.
School librarians need to continuously monitor their collections for balance, she says. Some issues that may arise, for example, are the segregation of certain books; the restriction by age range of certain books; not purchasing certain authors, genres, or topic areas due to personal preference; and the treatment of images (such as photo books, graphic novels, or manga) differently then text.
“Genre labels both help and limit us,” she says.
Librarians in leveled schools or schools with multiple reading levels should also consider whether they need to develop a specific policy on recommending or making available adult books for teens. Those seeking to back up such a decision, if challenged, should rely on authoritative tools, she says. For example, to support the recommendation of a Toni Morrison book to a teen, a school librarian should have at the ready good reviews, award lists, and recommended book lists from the ALA.
“Use these tools to back up your choices,” she says.
And what about stocking Stephen King books in a middle school, for tweens and younger teens? If it gets them reading, Eldred says, why not? Otherwise, “we’re losing those kids.” Eldred also notes that more often than not, students self-select the books that they feel are right for them.
Freedom of access
A related topic, that of the digital divide and equity of access, was raised by Helen R. Adams, online instructor at Mansfield (PA) University, in the fourth round-table group. What are students’ rights when it comes to ebook content and distribution? As many schools begin implementing BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies, where does that leave students who do not own a tablet or smart phone?
Attendees in the group shared their strategies and their findings. Some noted that in their schools, despite having preloaded Nooks, Kindles, or tablets available to them, students overwhelmingly prefer actual books. Even in one-to-one schools, where all students have their own iPads, kids are coming into the library looking for real books because they can browse easier.
After the round-tables, attendees met as a massive group one last time to go over the best practices for creating a professional learning network (PLN). Librarians are in it together, and must rely on each other to help protect students’ First Amendment and privacy rights, Adams notes.
Annalisa Keuler, high school librarian in Mountain Brook, AL, adds, “The best way to build (a PLN) is face to face, but you can create a virtual toolkit too.” She also advises librarians to “join the conversation at the state level,” and even volunteer to become the chair of such issues for their states.
Shining a light on these issues in our schools and districts is the goal and the solution, Keuler adds. “Push back at red tape and obfuscation. We’re about opening kids’ minds, not closing them.”