We can all agree that being a school librarian is a rewarding, challenging, and frequently exhausting job. We never think of it as scary until the day we are faced with a book challenge that threatens our mission, the integrity of our program and possibly our personal beliefs. How you react if and when it happens can be a defining moment for you as a librarian and a person.
The Library Bill of Rights clearly defines our responsibilities as librarians. The seven articles spell out the beliefs of the profession, such as article III: “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.” ALA’s Code of Ethics states, “ We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.”
AASL further recognizes the importance of access to information in the National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries. It highlights our obligation to implement these values in the fifth of the Common Beliefs: “Intellectual freedom is every learner’s right.”
Of course, you support intellectual freedom and the access to information — but what happens when you are faced with a decision regarding it. I know there are librarians who don’t buy books that may trigger a challenge. Some of them live in communities where they would be pilloried for such purchases. I can understand and respect their fear. A few of them acquire the books with their own money and keep them in the office, handing them to a student when it seems appropriate. Still dangerous, but less so. In the public library, there are several librarians who can stand by each other in support. You are alone. And it can be scary.
Hopefully, you have a Board-approved policy dealing with this. If you don’t, get started on writing one now and getting it approved. You may never have a challenge. Most librarians never face the issue in their entire career, but you never know. Because it can happen, it’s best to be prepared. To help you, ALA has a new Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, & Academic Libraries.
Having a policy in place doesn’t mean all will go smoothly if someone challenges a book. ALA offers help and a wealth of resources in Challenge Support I also recommend reading How to Respond to Challenges and Concerns about Library Resources to get an idea of what it contains. You can review it, if it becomes necessary.
There’s a specific story that sparked this week’s blog. I’m not going to go into the details, but for the second time, I know a school librarian who had a book challenged. Both courageously stood up for the principles of intellectual freedom, and it makes me proud to know they got a lot of support from the library community and from those in organizations that also strongly support the First Amendment.
In the most recent situation, there shouldn’t have been a problem. There was a Board-approved selection and reconsideration policy. It was the principal who pulled the book. When the librarian reminded him of the policy, he told her it didn’t apply since it wasn’t a challenge but rather an administrative decision. This put her in a particularly difficult dynamic.
What do you do when the censor is your administrator? In this case, the librarian swung into action. She reached out to high school librarians to see who owned the book without having problems. She contacted her state and county school library association, ALA, and AASL. Those on the Board of the library association reached out to other library associations in the state. Soon advocates for intellectual freedom lined up including the National Coalition Against Censorship and the National Council of Teachers of English Intellectual Freedom Center. Letters were sent to the Board of Education. Support was there when the Board met and the media covered the controversy.
Ultimately, the book was allowed back on the shelf. Or it was until a student checked it out. The librarian kept detailed notes of the whole process. She plans to share it with others who find themselves in a similar position. Her next steps include working to mend her relationship with her principal and the administration who wanted to make this decision regardless of policy. Because even though the “fight” was won, she must continue to work in that environment and sustain and grow the success of her library program.
Judy Blume has said, “Librarians save lives: by handing the right book, at the right time, to a kid in need”. She’s long acknowledged the librarians and teachers who have put their jobs on the line to share her (often banned) books. It’s not something we want to face, but there are times it must be done. We are a strong community who fight for our beliefs. I salute all those librarians who have stood up for Intellectual Freedom. We are a vital part of our democracy.