Advice from the front lines

School librarians across the country have found themselves at the forefront of cultural wars. As states pass laws that restrict the teaching of ‘Controversial’ or ‘divisive’ topics, school libraries have seen calls to remove books on issues like race, gender and sexuality off their shelves.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, for example, wrote to his state’s association of school boards this month, saying districts should remove “pornographic or obscene material” from school library shelves. This letter came after a state senator launched an investigation to find out if schools maintain a list of 850 book titles on issues such as transgender identity, AIDS, the history of the abortion debate and racial justice.

In Utah, one district immediately took off nine pounds– including The bluest eye by Toni Morrison – from school libraries after a parent said she worried about them after watching videos on social media.

But school librarians have a responsibility to bring together collections that represent all students, helping them to know and better understand themselves and the world around them, said Jennisen Lucas, president of the American Association of School Librarians.

In a tense political climate, school and district administrators need to prepare for book challenges before they arise, said Lucas, who is also the director of the Park County School District 6 library in Cody, Wyo.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does it feel to be a school librarian right now?

In short, it’s a bit scary.

It can be seen as an opportunity for us to really talk about what we are doing. But, because the discussion is being led by some sort of opposition, it makes it a bit more difficult to really put a positive spin on what it really means to have materials available to all of our society. It is not just the one who speaks the loudest or who has the majority of community members in his group.

It is as if it is essential for our democracy to ensure that we understand the multiple points of view of several people. We believe this in our hearts, but the controversy ends up being a bit difficult in practice, especially when you think about the fact that those who speak out have the best interests of children at heart as well.

Tell me more about what you mean by that.

A lot of people who are a lot of parents speaking out — they’re trying to protect their kids, and that’s a good and noble thing. We should always protect our children.

It’s great if you protect your own child; it becomes a censorship problem when you try to decide for everyone else what is right and wrong for them.

We’ve seen controversies over library books from authors like Judy Blume and Toni Morrison for years. Is this moment different from discussions of library content in the past?

It’s different … it’s much more national. It is not individual schools that are faced with this. We know that some groups are providing information nationally on some of these documents that go against certain views and beliefs.

In the past [the conversation] was, “We oppose this book. We would like to have it revised. We would like it to be removed from the library. But now it seems to be escalating … it’s not just about the [individual] pounds more. It is about access to information. And there is [school librarians] who receive threat messages on social networks. It crosses a line. We prefer to have a civil speech.

In what ways can school districts anticipate these discussions before they arise in a letter from a parent or in a tense school board meeting?

Check your policies and make sure you know them.

We encountered this in my district a few years ago … We ended up with a policy on how to select learning materials that did not address how to select library books. And so when we had a book challenge, the committee that was reviewing the books was confused about this difference between educational materials – those that are assigned to students – and library books, which are available to students, but no one is forcing you to read them. It opened our eyes to the fact that it was time to go back and look at our policies in this climate.

So make sure there is a policy [for selecting books], make sure you follow this policy, and make sure everyone is aware of it. And make sure there is a review policy [of a book’s inclusion in a school library]because part of the conflict will arise when a parent trying to express their views does not have a process by which they can be heard. The implementation of this policy also helps parents find their way around.

I have kept my administration informed of what is happening nationally. We don’t always pay attention to the little things that are going on in other neighborhoods, but it has become really important. This could very well happen to us, so we need to know if we are going to approach this issue and talk about it in a respectful, positive and non-adversarial way.

Tips for School and District Administrators

  • Review your library materials policies before books are challenged. Don’t wait until there is active controversy, said Jennisen Lucas, president of the American Association of School Librarians. Policies on the selection of library books should be separate from policies on textbooks and classroom materials. They should also include a clear document review process so parents and librarians know that any complaints are handled in a consistent and transparent manner.
  • Consider the context. Good district policy will encourage the complainant to read the entire work to put any worrying content into context, Lucas said. “In anything, if you just pull out a sentence or two, it can be very controversial.”
  • Build trust with parents. Parents’ concerns about their own children can often be addressed individually, and it often begins with a call to the school librarian, Lucas said.

What do you think about what to include in a school library collection and what should parents understand about it?

We think a lot about age adequacy and what we know about child development because school librarians are also qualified teachers. And so we kind of went through this thought process, “OK … this book might have a tough subject, but it’s designed for kids this age.” And then we look at our communities too and say, “Is this book going to be suitable for my community?”

And we’re also looking to make sure it’s connected, in that we can connect it to the curriculum. So if there are topics that are taught in our school, we want to make sure that we have the materials that the kids need to explore beyond what they are talking about in their classroom.

Part of the blur may be that we provide material for fun reading. For example, our grade 2 boys are very fond of off-road motorcycles. It’s not taught in our curriculum, but we want to make sure we have this material of interest because that’s how they’ll actually learn to read. Off-road motorcycles aren’t controversial, but it turns out that in my area zombies are.

So many of these problems in education right now feel like they are exacerbated by mistrust of schools or institutions in general. Is there anything school libraries can do to build trust with parents?

In our neighborhood, we wrote it specifically at the start of our [policy for challenging a library book] this [a parent] should come talk to me … Sometimes they have a concern for their child, and we can answer it. We will always support a parent about their own child.

We can put a note in the child’s file in our circulation system that says that at the request of the parents, they are not allowed to borrow certain books. For example, that [the child] is not allowed to read about zombies, witches and ghosts. And this can be for various reasons. This could be because of religious parenting concerns or just because their child is having nightmares.

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