When the Anti-CRT Movement Comes for Collections | SLJ Summit

Panelists offered their personal stories, resources, and advice during the SLJ Summit session on book challenges.

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When Kristin Pekoll faced her first challenge as a public librarian, she felt alone and personally attacked.

“Challenges can often be incredibly isolating, whether your administration or colleagues support you or not,” said Pekoll, who was the young adult librarian at West Bend (WI) Community Memorial Library in 2009 when more than 80 books were challenged by members of the community.  “It’s your collection. Library staff—and I can speak to this as a librarian—feel a very personal connection to their collection and to their students and people who are using their books and materials. It can often feel like a personal attack, and sometimes librarians are called out by name at board meetings; they are attacked in the press.”

Pekoll is now assistant director at the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom and was speaking as part of the panel "When 'Anti-Critical Race Theory' Comes for Your Library Collection" during the SLJ Summit on Oct. 28. She was joined by Shaker Heights (OH) Middle School librarian and district liaison Debra Quarles and National Coalition Against Censorship Youth Free Expression program director Christine Emeran. 

The increase in book challenges has been "astronomical," according to Pekoll, and Emeran noted that race-based challenges are becoming more common. (She also noted that challenges have historically come from the political left and right, and that continues.)

Right now,  there appears to be a coordinated effort of challenges for books the objectors claim push critical race theory. Such objections are gaining momentum and making the news across the country as the current culture war is directly impacting school libraries. Protests against Toni Morrison's novel Beloved even became an issue in the Virginia gubernatorial election.

So far, Quarles's school has stayed above the fray.

"In my district, I’m fortunate that we live in a fairly diverse community," she said.

There are conservative residents, of course, but she noted, "If they put their kids in our schools, there is an assumption their kids may come across things that maybe they don’t agree with."

[READ: School Libraries 2021: Librarians Face Coordinated Efforts to Remove Books]

She advises fellow librarians to always know your community, the school's unique population, and the curriculum. She also suggests making plans for the "majority" of the students but to always be aware of the outliers.

When there have been challenges in her school and district in the past, she said, they have typically involved required reading, not a book that was on the shelf that an individual child might choose. For example, when authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely were coming for a school visit, their novel All American Boys was assigned to all students to read, and there was a challenge. 

Quarles was prepared for the situation with an updated challenge policy and the support of her administrators. She suggests that librarians review the challenged title again in advance of any conversation with a parent and when speaking to them aim to affirm their right to be heard and to protect intellectual freedom for all students. Emeran agreed. All voices must be heard, she said, and it's important not to view a parent with a challenge as malevolent.

Right now, though, many challenges are bypassing the personal parent/librarian relationship. Instead, groups of people are speaking out at board meetings and going to their legislators and local media. Organizations are putting together materials and disseminating them to parents and local groups to give them talking points at school board meetings and when challenging materials. Below is just one part of a PDF from Unify Carmel about the book Something Happened in Our Town, which tells the story of two families—one White, one Black—discussing a police shooting of a Black man in their community. It was No. 6 on the 2020 Top 10 list of Most Challenged Books. The objection links the book to critical race theory (CRT) and connects that to social-emotional learning and diversity, equity, and inclusion. The result is not only an attack on the book, but on any SEL or DEI efforts within the library and at the school.

The lists of books getting challenged are getting longer in states from Texas to Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio. Some challenged titles are being removed even before a review process. Librarians and classroom educators are confused and nervous about what could happen to them if they have books related to racism, anti-racism, or social justice issues on their shelves. In some places, that leads to self-censorship. Quarles has not seen it in her district, but she understands what could happen in other places.

"When we have our library meetings, we discuss different books, topics, but generally speaking, we are not censoring for or making choices to prevent a potential challenge," she said. "We’re not at that point yet, but that’s because, for the lack of a better word, we’re kind of in a sweet spot right now. The cultural aspect of our community is very, very different. ... In other communities, that would be a challenge. I can see a librarian sitting at their desk saying, 'This would be a good book to have in my collection, but if the wrong kid picks this up, I’m going to have a problem.'"

[READ: “New Kid,” “Front Desk” Challenged; Alex Gino Talks Impact of Book Banning]

The key to any challenge response is a thorough, updated policy, the panelists said. OIF and NCAC can help librarians with their policies, according to Pekoll and Emeran. Remember, the policy should address more than books; be sure to include programming (such as author visits), displays, artwork, and databases, they emphasized. Any and all resources and materials should be noted in the policy. With virtual learning, there has been an increase in challenges of electronic resources and databases, Pekoll added.

A policy should have a process outlined that states a book or resource will not be removed from the shelves until the review process is complete, said Emeran. Librarians should go over the policy and review process with administrators, so everyone is on the same page when a challenge happens. When it comes, stay calm, seek the support of allies in the school and greater community, and stick to the policy. It is also very important to report it to both the OIF and NCAC.

"I encourage [librarians] to report it, because then they know they are not alone," said Pekoll. "We can connect them in grassroots efforts with other librarians in their area and their state. Often, there are neighboring districts that don’t even know they're going through the same exact attack, and we can connect them if they want to know."

NCAC can help support a librarian, provide talking points, and help them find legal assistance if needed, according to Emeran. NCAC does not provide legal services, but the organization advocates for education professionals to make the policies and decisions.

NCAC can also help students who wish to get involved. Included in its resources is information on student advocacy and their rights in schools. In Central York, PA, an attempt to remove a long list of books was stopped when students and community members protested and received media coverage spotlighting the attempt by the school board. It was a model example of students and the community coming together to oppose censorship, said Emeran.

"We applaud community involvement and participation," she said. "We've seen the success in driving policy where things are contested. It's great to have the communities, children, and educators working together, engaging in activism. It's not very often we see the entire community supporting students' right to read."

[READ: Fight Against Censorship Intensifies]

Librarians will not always have that kind of support. They might not even have the support of their principal to follow a policy. They might be afraid of personal attacks or loss of a job. Pushing back might not always be an option, said Pekoll.

"While we have these principles and core values in mind, we understand this is not always an easy decision, not always a clear-cut decision," she said. "We don’t know the full picture."

Call and report it anyway, she said. It is important for OIF to gather this information to help others, update resources, and possibly help others in the district or nearby areas. If nothing else, Pekoll said, she has been there and will provide an "open ear."

"Oftentimes, to see the mental and emotional stress that comes with a challenge like this—it just helps to have somebody to talk to about it,” she said.

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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