An unquestioned tenet of librarianship is that the library collection will encompass diverse materials to meet the needs of all users. Sounds good, but in practice this is not always easy to accomplish. There are challenges librarians must face along with difficult choices.
On the surface, a diverse collection contains fiction and non-fiction and all genres are represented in as many formats as possible. While it took a while in some places for graphic novels to be accepted, they now are in most if not all libraries. But there is far more to diversity.
As the liaison to ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) from ALA’s Committee on Professional Ethics, this topic is on my mind frequently. Currently, IFC has a draft resolution in the works on Library Bill of Rights Interpretation – Equity, Diversity, Inclusion. In fully defining what those terms encompass, the draft is a strong reminder of what libraries stand for—and the challenging decisions implicit in this stance.
Here are some highlights of the document:
- Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. In a school library, this means you can’t be limited to what the jobbers make available. If you need books in languages other than English (and Spanish), you need to seek out those publishers who have books for whatever ethnics are represented in your school. Fortunately, this information is becoming more widely available. Your collection should also include materials representing difficulties many students face such as homelessness, a parent in prison, a parent serving the military, foster homes, learning and physical limitations of self or siblings, and the stressful situations. It’s important they see themselves reflected in the collection. Those who have more traditional lives benefit from being made aware of their good fortune as well as developing empathy for their classmates.
- Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval. Although those working in parochial schools which have a strong doctrinal view on certain subjects do not have to adhere to this, public school libraries are expected to follow this principle. Among the “current” issues that can cause a school librarian to pause before ordering would be climate change and evolution. In some places a sizable group does not accept the general scientific viewpoint.
- Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment. This another area where it gets difficult for librarians, particularly those who are the sole librarian in their school. You are charged with meeting the needs of everyone in the school. This means those who have same sex parents or are LGBTQ. In some communities these topics are a red flag and are likely to bring forth challenges. It is easy to just not purchase them. Who would know? Your budget is limited in any case. You can’t afford to put your job at risk. All true statements. Each librarian needs to make a personal decision between doing what our ethics and philosophy require or taking the safe route. I can’t condemn their choice. But I do applaud and acknowledge those who face this head on. We are supposed to create a safe, welcoming atmosphere for all our students. Our LGBTQ students struggle to feel safe, in and out of school. Countless adults have told stories of how important their school library was in giving them a measure of security and acceptance.
- A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views. This is one is obvious, but it harkens back to the days of segregation. It’s important for students to know our history – the bad as well as the good- so they see injustice can be corrected. There is much nonfiction on the subject, but it’s in fiction—including picture books –that students can discover what it was like in those days, and develop empathy for those who lived then and extend it to those now who are targeted as being “other.”
It’s incumbent on every librarian to be familiar with the ALA Code of Ethics, the Library Bill of Rights, and the Access to Library Resources and Services for Minors. Protect yourself and your students by having a Selection Policy approved by your Board of Education. You can get help in doing so from the Workbook for Selection Policy Writing.
Have you been faced with a difficult choice in purchasing a book for your collection? What did you do? How do you make your library a safe, welcoming environment? What help do you need or can you offer to others?