I am a school librarian in Iowa and would love to offer some information about how our programs work and how we serve students.
In addition to providing access to literature and instructing students in literacy and research skills, school librarians strive to teach students how to be critical thinkers. One of the main ideals of librarianship is intellectual freedom, which is of course, closely aligned with the First Amendment.
The mission of libraries, in general, is to serve as a point of access to diverse ideas and perspectives so people can make informed decisions. In 1939, the American Library Association adopted the Library Bill of Rights and has since reaffirmed it through more specific interpretations pertaining to school libraries and more. The first “right” states that library resources “should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves.”
School and public libraries alike have policies and procedures in place to ensure that the books we select for our libraries do just that: they interest, inform, and enlighten our communities and their diverse populations. Every school district is required by the State of Iowa to include these selection policies in their school board policies (605.1, 605.2, 605.3).
Librarians do recognize, however, that sometimes a selection misses the mark, and that reconsideration may be necessary. So, in addition to our selection policies, we also have thorough reconsideration and challenge policies.
These policies vary from district to district, but in general, require an appointed or standing committee to review any challenges and carefully consider if materials should be retained or removed from their current use. The committee representatives should include an array of community members and educators to ensure decisions are not based in partisanship, a singular ideology, or cultural trends.
These policies have been effective for decades, and have recently been proven so through challenges in our own state. As nearly every school district has a functioning website, these policies and procedures are all widely available online, as well as by request from school administration. Selection and reconsideration policies in particular are supported by the 1982 US Supreme Court ruling Pico vs. Island Trees, which limits the power of junior high and high school officials to remove books from school libraries because of their content, and many federal court cases since then.
Interested parties can locate a full list of related rulings on the ALA website.
The governor and other lawmakers have stated a desire for a parental bill of rights. Based on the concerns that have been shared publicly, this seems an unnecessary piece of legislation.
One proposed requirement is that all school library books be available for review on a school’s website. This is already in practice in every public school I know of—school library websites have hosted our publicly-searchable catalogs for more than a decade, as they are an essential element of our services to students. Students are encouraged to select books independently based on their own interests, and ensuring that the library catalog is accessible 24/7 is one-way librarians provide support for that independence.
Of course, librarians have always strongly encouraged parents to talk to their children about the books they are selecting; not only do these conversations build meaningful connections with literature and the real world, but also allow parents opportunities to address issues in a way that matches their core beliefs and values. In practice, our existing policies, procedures, and dedication to accessibility serve as a parent bill of rights—these ensure that parents have the right to view curriculum and library materials and they provide fair and transparent due process when a challenge is made.
In 1978, US District Court justice Joseph L. Tauro ruled: “The library is ‘a mighty resource in the marketplace of ideas.’ There a student can literally explore the unknown, and discover areas of interest and thought not covered by the prescribed curriculum. The student who discovers the magic of the library is on the way to a life-long experience of self-education and enrichment. That student learns that a library is a place to test or expand upon ideas presented to him, in or out of the classroom. The most effective antidote to the poison of mindless orthodoxy is ready access to a broad sweep of ideas and philosophies. There is no danger from such exposure. The danger is mind control.”
Justice Tauro’s words reflect the constitutional rights of all Americans, as well as the mission of the school library.
This is all to say: book challenges and attempts at censorship aren’t new. Librarians know how to handle this. We know that people acting in bad faith will use content out of context to attempt to gain public support for removal of access to what they deem inappropriate. As the ALA’s Freedom to Read statement declared in 1953, “It is wrong that what one can read should be confined to what another thinks proper.”
If you have further questions about the ways in which our school library programs function, or about how proposed legislation may impact our students—especially our most vulnerable— please contact your local school librarian.
by Chelsea Sims, South East Junior High School Teacher Librarian