April 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Facing Adversity: 72 Hours in the Life of a Librarian | Consider the Source


Marc 2Earlier this month, Ferguson, MO, Library Director Scott Bonner, and Dr. Carla Hayden, past president of the American Library Association and currently the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, MD, spoke at Rutgers University; the students in my “Materials for Children” class had the opportunity to meet Bonner.  Bonner, as you probably all know, turned his library into a refuge for the citizens of Ferguson, after the opening of schools was postponed in that city during the civil unrest that followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by police in August, 2014.

Scott told us about how he responded as a very new library director when adversity engulfed Ferguson, leaving children without schools, parents without child care, people without homes, and everyone without a sense of security. He turned his library into a community center that strove to meet all of these needs—as he handled the media, and stood guard on the most troubled nights.

As it happens, we have been talking in class about various kinds of challenges that can arise in a library. For most of us, they arrive in the form of a book challenge. Sue Bartle, Library System Director from Erie 2 Chautaugua-Cattaragus BOCES in Western New York, shared this case. Be warned: This one has as many twists and turns as a TV plot—and sage advice for all.

Imagine: your district superintendent has mandated that you meet with your school principal and review every LGBT book in your collection for “age appropriateness.” Bartle takes the story from here:

“Do you comply?  Do you know the reason for this request?  What does it mean? Is this a book challenge? Is this a disingenuous attempt to diminish the LGBT collection? What exactly is being asked, and what should your response be?

Let’s start with a few basics. In this case, the school district has an updated, approved selection and evaluation policy. The principal did not know about it and had not read the policy, but the librarian had it on hand.

But the question still stands; should the librarian just comply with this directive?

The superintendent wanted action within two days. The librarian had to work quickly. How could she balance the problematic nature of this request without flat out rejecting the mandate and being viewed as insubordinate?

The librarian bought time. She told the principal she needed to process this request. (She felt that a 24-hour window to build an action response plan was necessary, at minimum.) Who could she turn to for advice? She started with trusted colleagues, other school librarians who could help her gauge the situation and work out a strategy. Her first step was gathering all the information possible in order to gain some sense of the request.

The librarian asked to receive the directive in writing. She then asked to bring a colleague to this “age appropriate” materials review and she let the principal know that the mandate made her uncomfortable. The library has an acquisition policy, why then should any one type of book be singled out for review? Would she soon need to review every title of realistic fiction, mystery, science fiction, or fantasy in the collection for possible inappropriate language?

A 40-minute meeting was scheduled. Meanwhile the stack of LGBT books grew. How could anyone possibly consider this much material in the allotted time? And how would the review of the material take place? The librarian has worked within the existing acquisition policy; the principal has no training in evaluating library books.

In light of a book challenge, the school librarian did everything right: she remained calm, consulted colleagues, exacted a written mandate, shared the existing well-crafted acquisition policy with the principal, and expressed both her discomfort with the request and willingness to work through the issue. Then, the final twist.

It would seem that the original impetus for the material review was a desire to limit the number of LGBT books in the collection, using age appropriateness as a cover. But, it appears, the opposite was true. The district superintendent had recently met with an articulate advocate of LGBT issues and wanted assurance from the librarian that LGBT material “for all ages” was available. Unfortunately, the request reached the librarian as  a demand to review existing materials for “age appropriateness.”

As we have learned, adversity comes in many forms: a community persevering during unrest; a challenge to readers’ rights, and sometimes, in the form of bureaucracy. In this case, what appeared to be potentially a case of censorship turned out to be a misunderstanding—but it required an alert school librarian who was willing to unpack the directive, seek advice, and proceed cautiously as she tried to understand what she was being asked.”


Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.