June 22, 2017

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All Schools Need Book Challenge Policies

larue_picMy first response after reading the results of SLJ’s 2016 self-censorship survey: 100 percent of school libraries should have a book challenge or reconsideration policy, not (as the survey showed) 81 percent of public schools, 59 percent of private, and some regions more than others. A book challenge policy, along with one relating to collection development, is among the most basic foundations for the operation of a library. The absence of those is an immediate and urgent liability, and deserves prompt attention from school district media coordinators—or in cases where there are no school librarians, by regional system or state library staff.

The American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) is eager to assist school librarians as they create these policies and field challenges. Here are a few good places to start:

My second response: Choosing what titles are “age-appropriate” is part of librarians’s professional responsibility. Consulting reviews, examining the material itself, and even seeking some input from the community, are all reasonable approaches for collection development.

On the other hand, when almost three out of four high school librarians avoid books solely because of “controversy” (some sexual content and language issues), according to the survey, this begins to look less like “selection” and more like “self-censorship.” The absence of sexual content and profanity doesn’t mean that a book is good, and their presence doesn’t necessarily mean that a book is bad.

Meanwhile, the courts have already decided that in some cases, requiring parental permission for students to check out certain books is an unconstitutional restriction on the rights of minors to receive information and ideas (see Counts v. Cedarville School District, 2003). The increase in school libraries that require parental permission in some cases signals a decrease in respect for the intellectual freedom of youth—and the law.

Third, the rise of labeling shown in the survey—not labeling for the purposes of cataloging, but to warn readers about certain types of content—has also been addressed by ALA. The difference between the two types of labeling is this, according to that statement: “Viewpoint-neutral directional labels are a convenience designed to save time. These are different in intent from attempts to prejudice or discourage users or restrict their access to resources. Labeling as an attempt to prejudice attitudes is a censor’s tool. The American Library Association opposes labeling as a means of predisposing people’s attitudes toward library resources.”

Finally, it’s hard not to see these survey results as a sign of school libraries in trouble. Certainly, intellectual freedom is under attack. Too many school libraries still lack fundamental policies; there are growing restrictions to access; and by their own admission, people responsible for material selection are more concerned about avoiding controversy than supporting the curriculum or student needs.

I suspect much of the problem is that there just aren’t as many school librarians as there used to be, so there are fewer people to argue for professional standards and to defend the intellectual freedom of minors. But it’s also clear that our remaining school librarians are under a lot of pressure. Despite what some over-cautious parents and school administrators may believe, our nation’s children are not reading too much. We need more books, not fewer. We need less fear—and more trust in the resilience and intelligence of our children.

Jamie LaRue is executive director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation.

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Comments

  1. Mary Ann Miller says:

    This is just a general observation. As I have read about books not even being printed because someone deemed them inappropriate in the publishing company,(After the book had been approved and published) i have become upset. To me this is censorship. In my day, if you didn’t like a book, you wrote a bad review, or just didn’t purchase it. You didn’t fly off the handle in outrage because it didn’t represent things you didn’t like. There are so many books out there that as individuals, we don’t like. I think this is of more concern than what librarians are doing.

    That being said, I feel like, as a librarian I have the responsibility to inform students of the types of books they are reading. This is NOT to censor, but to inform. To give them an opportunity to make a more informed decision about what they read. We use “Viewpoint-neutral directional labels”; but I would submit to you the idea that other labels about sex and language or mature could be used the same way. Not as a judgement, but as an information tool, towards deciding what the student wants read. There have been a few times through the last 17 years that I have commented on the mature theme of a book. I have never had a student take offense to what I have said. Probably 92% of the students took the book anyway. But the other 8% of the students were appreciative that I said something, because they were not interested in that kind of book. The only students that have been upset are the ones who have checked out a book from me and feel betrayed when they read part of the book and bring it back telling me it is inappropriate. Sometimes it is for the language, or sex or even “french kissing” depending on the student. :O) I don’t think every book needs all the details explained, but a simple MATURE, or YA sticker would be a help to those students. I do agree to book challenge procedures for school libraries, and have asked for them at my school to no avail. I am not a professional, just trying to do the best I can with what I have.

  2. Jamie LaRue’s advice is generally good. Some issues:

    1) The creator of Banned Books Week revealed it is not censorship to remove books from schools. “On rare occasion, we have situations where a piece of material is not what it appears to be on the surface and the material is totally inappropriate for a school library. In that case, yes, it is appropriate to remove materials. If it doesn’t fit your material selection policy, get it out of there.” Source: “Marking 25 Years of Banned Books Week,” by Judith Krug, Curriculum Review, 46:1, Sep. 2006.

    2) LaRue talks about consulting reviews. He talks about “The American Library Association opposes labeling.” He leaves out ALA actively censors and blacklists reviews by Common Sense Media since they have ratings/labels based on the potential for sexualized content. Source: “YALSA Board of Directors Meeting via Conference Call, August 29, 2013” http://tinyurl.com/ALAblacklistsCSM And librarians will actively bully reviewers who provide information about the sexual nature of books for children, like VOYA Magazine was recently bullied for merely stating a book contained bisexuality.

    3) LaRue cites a case about parental permission and the “restriction on the rights of minors to receive information and ideas.” Let alone the case has limited scope, he gives the impression it is illegal for a school to seek parental permission. That is simply false. Many schools routinely seek such permission.

    4) He provides helpful ALA information for how to address challenges. But unstated is that the helpful information is slanted. For example, “Be clear that materials under reconsideration will not be removed from use, or have access restricted, pending completion of the reconsideration process.” School superintendents have regularly ignored such slanted directives that come from ALA, not from individual school policies or practices. The recommended ALA advice is largely useful, but everything it provides should be taking with a grain of salt.

  3. Mary Ann, there are a couple of cases now (A Birthday Cake for George Washington, for example) that reflect the kind of issue you describe: restraint of publication for fear of the criticism. It’s a diminishment of human potential. Race is a touchy issue in the U.S., but surely there’s more than one story about it, one experience or tone that must be enforced. It may not be censorship, but it’s certainly a free speech issue.

    As for labeling, I hear you. Sometimes, it is genuinely hard to figure out what an item is about, and providing information about content doesn’t have to be prejudicial. At other times, as is indeed the case with some “ratings” systems, the information masks the meaning of the work. It is both prejudicial and irrelevant.

    Finally, I think more school administrators need to take a look at the Counts v. Cedarville decision. The district court held that the removal from general circulation and the requirement of a parental signature was an unconstitutional infringement of students’ First Amendment right to access materials in the school library. Parents have rights. But so do minors, and some schools can get pretty cavalier about them. Looking after those rights is one of our responsibilities.

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