When I first noticed the theme for the 2021 Banned Books week from the American Library Association, I loved that the statement was so clear and encouraged unity. Little did I know when I posted these signs along with my informational display in my school library in September, that just a few months later, our country would be in the midst of a very clear, very troubling representation of this call to action. “Books unite us. Censorship divides us.”
As the chapter delegate for the Nebraska School Librarians Association (NSLA) to the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), I have been very fortunate to be able to attend and participate in discussions about the increase in book challenges in schools and school libraries across the country. I have walked away from each of those discussions with two very clear thoughts. 1) No one is alone in facing book challenges as they are occurring everywhere in all types of schools. 2) No one is alone in facing book challenges, because there are amazing resources available through the American Library Association (ALA), AASL, and the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF).
There are so many fabulous resources available that many of the words below are not my own but come from the experts and advocates working on our behalf at the national level. My hope is that they will provide information and guidance for all school librarians in Nebraska and beyond.
As we see a large uptick in challenges to materials in school libraries, it is important to remember that our school library collections are developed and maintained by certified school library professionals who have been specifically trained in strategies to select materials that fit the needs of the students in their specific school environment while also being fiscally responsible with the budget they are given.
Often, this is a lengthy process that includes weeks if not months of research reading book reviews, looking at “best of” lists, and seeking recommendations from other professionals. This responsibility to select materials is not taken lightly. School librarians work diligently to curate collections that support the curricular needs and interests of their unique student body.
Students in schools accredited by the Nebraska Department of Education under Rule 10 are very fortunate that, at this time, they each have a certified school librarian working in their building (or someone working toward certification) at least part time. This means that each school employs someone who is trained to create a well developed collection that supports a wide variety of student needs and interests.
AASL shared recently on Twitter: “Committed to inclusion and equity, school libraries provide the widest possible range of viewpoints, opinions, and ideas so that every learner has the opportunity [to] read freely and pursue success in college, career, and beyond. It is a school librarian’s responsibility to use their professional expertise to provide information relevant to all learners, educators, and members of the learning community.” Read the full statement on book censorship from ALA and it’s divisions, including AASL, here.
Furthermore, the Intellectual Freedom Brochure provided by AASL states, “Intellectual freedom is a core value of the library profession, and Article V of the Library Bill of Rights affirms special protections to minors using libraries: ‘A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.’ The school library center has the unique responsibility of introducing young citizens to the world of information. Nowhere else do children and young adults have unlimited daily access to books, magazines, newspapers, online resources, and the Internet. Students have the right to a relevant, balanced, and diverse school library collection that represents all points of view; school librarians assume a leadership role in protecting minors’ First Amendment right to read and receive information and ideas.”
In today’s climate, it is not a matter of if but when a book challenge will come your way. Schools and school librarians can prepare for these important conversations about a student’s right to read and their intellectual freedom by reviewing resources that have been curated from ALA, AASL, and OIF and are available on the NSLA website.
It is important to remember, as was shared by the National Coalition Against Censorship, “Libraries offer students the opportunity to encounter books and other material that they might otherwise never see and the freedom to make their own choices about what to read.” And, access to materials is a first amendment right, no matter how old you are. “The First Amendment guarantees that no individual, group of individuals, legislator, community member, or even school board member can dictate what public school students are allowed to read based on their own personal beliefs or political viewpoint. It is freedom of expression that ensures that we can meet the challenges of a changing world. That freedom is critical for the students who will lead America in the years ahead. We must fight to defend it.”
One of the ways to be proactive when facing potential challenges is to have a board policy regarding selection and reconsideration of materials. “Every library — academic, public, and school (public, private, charter, independent, and international) — should have a comprehensive written policy that guides the selection, deselection or weeding, and reconsideration of library resources. The most valuable selection policy is current; it is reviewed and revised on a regular basis; and it is familiar to all members of a library’s staff. The policy should be approved by the library’s governing board or other policy-making body and disseminated widely for understanding by all stakeholders.” If you need support creating or updating policies for your school library, visit this site or reach out to NSLA.
If a challenge is made to material(s) in your school library, there are many supports available to you through ALA, AASL, and OIF including preparing for and responding to challenges. “With the severe uptick in local and statewide book challenges, ALA offers this clearinghouse of resources to assist library workers and library advocates in responding to and supporting others facing those challenges. Remember to report challenges to the Office for Intellectual Freedom, and let ALA know if you need assistance.”
With an increase in book challenges, it is also important to be aware of how self-censorship can affect the development of a school library collection. Self-censorship by librarians or schools occurs when a choice is made to remove or not purchase materials due to concern of a future challenge occurring related to that material rather than basing the choice on professional selection criteria and/or selection policies approved by the school board. A 2016 survey conducted by School Library Journal showed that 9 out of 10 elementary and middle school respondents said they have “not bought a book recently because of the potential for controversy.” The likelihood for this practice to increase in the face of the sheer number and visibility of challenges in our country right now is concerning.
Remember that you are not alone in facing challenges about materials and programming in your school library. Please reach out to NSLA or ALA/AASL/OIF if you need any assistance or have any questions.
Chapter Delegate for NSLA to AASL
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This blog is a joint effort by members of the NSLA Executive Board. We hope to provide relevant information, tips and tools to help you in your journey.