March 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Keeping Kids’ Library Records Private| Scales on Censorship

The central district administrators in my school district have developed an app for parents that includes all kinds of K–12 student data (grades, lunch balance, library records, etc.). I can see how this is a benefit to parents, but I feel that students’ library records should remain private. Since students aren’t given an opportunity to opt out, I’m afraid that this may have a chilling effect on student library use. Do parents have the right to obtain their children’s library records?
Most states have privacy laws, and many do extend privacy rights to K–12 students. Not all, but a number of states actually protect children’s library records from their parents. All librarians should check their state laws and post the pertinent law in the library so that students, teachers, administrators, and parents are informed. (Here is more information about your state privacy laws.) Protecting students’ privacy is an ethical issue, even if there is no state law that grants them that right. There is a new Privacy Toolkit that specifically pertains to schools and youth on the ALA/OIF website.

Judy Blume’s Blubber (Bradbury, 1974) was recently challenged at my elementary school because of “profanity and the way the kids treat one another.” The Materials Review Committee recommended that the book be retained, but the superintendent ordered me to place the novel on a “restricted” shelf and limit access to fifth graders. This sets a precedent that labeling and restricting books are okay, but I don’t know how to argue my case to remove the restriction.
I want to outline a court case involving “restricted” shelves and minor’s rights. In 2002, the school board in Cedarville, Arkansas, ordered that all “Harry Potter” books be removed from the open shelves and held in the office of the librarians, and circulated only to the students with parental permission. Parents of a fourth grader sued the school district, because they felt their child’s First Amendment rights had been violated and that having to present permission “stigmatized” their child as “evil” in the eyes of other students and their parents. The district court agreed. The court also stated, “There was no evidence to support the school district’s claim that the books would promote disobedience, disrespect for authority, or disruption in school.”

While the case in your school is different from the Arkansas case, it’s unlikely that the courts would uphold the action taken by your superintendent, because library materials may not be removed due to “personal biases and opinions” of a librarian, teacher, or administrator. The case in Cedarville clearly stated “restriction” is the same as “removing” a book. My bet is that your superintendent doesn’t have a clue about the potential “uproar” he could cause by denying open access to the book.

This statement from ALA may give you language to use when making your case.

My library works with a local juvenile detention center to provide materials for incarcerated teens ages 13 and up. I’m a teen librarian assigned to this initiative. The juvenile detention officers often question the fiction I bring. They don’t want me bringing any books dealing with drugs and alcohol, sex, street violence, bullying, etc. Their rationale is that these types of books send the wrong message to teens already in trouble.
Incarcerated youth didn’t get there by reading books. These youth should expect access to a wide range of books and materials that interest them, and that includes fiction. You may have to convince the officers by showing them how teens think and respond. This can be done through a “book club” approach, where teens read and talk about books they have read. Use open-ended questions that explore conflict in the novel, and talk about the resolution. For example, I suspect that most incarcerated teens would gravitate toward Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Thorndike, 2008), Walter Dean Myers’s Monster (HarperCollins, 1999), and Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (Penguin, 2007). These books may actually get teens talking about issues in ways that a counselor or arbitrator may never accomplish. Remind the officers that these incarcerated teens have First Amendment rights, and that includes the freedom to read.

This article was published in School Library Journal's June 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Pat Scales About Pat Scales

Pat Scales is the former chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. You can send your questions or comments on censorship to her at

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