School & District Management Q&A

School Libraries and Controversial Books: Tips From the Front Lines

By Evie Blad — November 19, 2021 6 min read
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Around the country, school librarians have found themselves on the front lines of the culture wars. As states pass laws that restrict teaching of “controversial” or “divisive” subjects, school libraries have seen calls to remove books about issues like race, gender, and sexuality from their shelves.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, for example, wrote to his state’s school boards association this month, saying districts should remove “pornographic or obscene material” from school library shelves. That letter came after a state senator launched an inquiry into whether schools shelve a list 850 books titles about issues like transgender identity, AIDS, the history of the abortion debate, and racial justice.

In Utah, one district immediately removed nine books— including The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison— from school libraries after a parent said she grew concerned about them after watching videos on social media.

But school librarians have a responsibility to assemble collections that represent all students, helping them to learn about themselves and the world around them, said Jennisen Lucas, the president of the American Association of School Librarians.

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

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is it like to be a school librarian in this moment?

In a word, it’s a little scary.

It can be seen as an opportunity for us to really talk about what it is that we do. But, because the discussion is being led by an opposition of sorts, that makes it a little bit more difficult to really put the positive spin on what it means to actually have materials available for all people in our society. It’s not just whoever happens to speak the loudest or who has the majority of community members as part of their group.

It feels it’s a lot like it’s essential to our democracy to make sure that we have understandings of multiple viewpoints from multiple people. We believe that in our hearts, but the controversy ends up being a little bit difficult in practice, especially when you think about the fact that the people who are speaking out have children’s best interests in their hearts as well.

Tell me more about what you mean by that.

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

It’s great if you’re protecting your own child; it becomes a censorship issue when you are trying to decide for everyone else what is and is not appropriate for them.

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

It does feel different ... it is a lot more national in scope. It’s not individual schools that are facing this. We know that there are some some groups providing information on a national scale about some of these materials that go against certain viewpoints and certain beliefs.

In the past [the conversation] has been: “We object to this book. We would like to have it reviewed. We would like to have it removed from the library.” But now it seems to be escalating ... it’s not just about the [individual] books anymore. It’s about access to information. And there are [school librarians] who are receiving threatening messages on social media. That crosses a line. We would rather have a civil discourse.

What are some ways that school districts can anticipate these discussions before they arise in a letter from a parent or a tense school board meeting?

Double-check your policies and make sure that you know them.

We ran into this in my district a few years ago ... We ended up with a policy for how to select learning materials that did not address how to select library books. And so when we did have a book challenge, the committee that was looking at the books was confused about that difference between instructional materials—those that are assigned to students—and library books, which are available to students, but nobody’s forcing you to read them. That was an eye-opener to us 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], double-check that you are following that policy, and make sure everybody knows about it. And make sure that there is a policy for reconsideration [of a book’s inclusion in a school library], because part of the conflict is going to be when a parent who is trying to voice their opinions doesn’t have a process by which they can be heard. Having that policy in place helps parents navigate this as well.

I’ve been keeping my administration abreast of what’s going on nationally. We don’t always pay attention to small things that are happening in other districts, but this has become really big. This very well might come our way, so we have to know are we going to address this and talk about it in a way that is respectful and positive and non-adversarial.

Advice for School and District Administrators

  • Review your policies on library materials before books are challenged. Don’t wait until there’s an active controversy, said Jennisen Lucas, president of the American Association of School Librarians. Policies on selecting library books should be distinct from policies on textbooks and classroom materials. They should also include a clear process for reviewing materials so that parents and librarians know that any complaints are handled consistently and transparently.
  • Consider the context. A good district policy will encourage the complainant to read the entire work to put any concerning content into context, Lucas said. “In anything, if you just pull out one or two sentences, it may be very controversial.”
  • Build trust with parents. Parents’ concerns about their own children can often be handled on an individual basis, and that often starts with a call to the school librarian, Lucas said.

How do you think about what to include in a school library collection, and what should parents understand about that?

We think a lot about the age-appropriateness and what we know about child development, because school librarians are also trained teachers. And so we have kind of gone through that process of thinking, “OK ... this book might have a difficult topic, but it’s designed for children this age.” And then we look at our communities as well and say, “Is this book going to be appropriate to my community?”

And we also then look to make sure that it is connected, in that we can connect it to curriculum. So if there are topics that are being taught in our school, we want to make sure that we have the materials that are needed for kids to explore beyond what they talk about in their class.

Some of the murkiness might come from when we’re providing materials for fun reading. For example, our 2nd grade boys are very, very into dirt bikes. That’s not taught in our curriculum, but we want to make sure we have that interest material because that’s how they’re actually going to learn how to read. Dirt bikes are not controversial, but it turns out that in my area, zombies are.

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

In our district, we have specifically written it in the beginning of our [policy for challenging a library book] that [a parent] should come to talk to me... Sometimes they have a concern for their child, and that we can address. We will always back up a parent about their own child.

We can put a note in the child’s record in our circulation system that says that per parent request they’re not allowed to check out certain books. For instance, that [the child] is not allowed to read about zombies, witches, and ghosts. And that can be for a variety of reasons. It could be because of parental concerns based on religion, or just the fact that their child gets nightmares.

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