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Practically Paradise
Inside Practically Paradise

How do you handle challenges and censorship in schools?

Several times a year I am contacted by school librarians facing challenges to books and websites in their schools who seek advice. Usually I connect them with the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, but today I decided to contact ALA OIF Director Barbara Jones to ask specifically what we can do.

Diane: Visit my library and you’ll find a copy of the Library Bill of Rights including the quote found on your web page:

“Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.” —Article 3, Library Bill of Rights

School librarians receive training in graduate programs on Collection Development and Material Challenges. Yet most school librarians go years without receiving challenges so we could use a refresher. What would you recommend are the first steps school librarians take when they receive a challenge?

Barbara Jones:  I know that when librarians learn about IF in library school, it seems abstract. And then when it really happens, it is a very scary time. I know this from the panicky phone calls we receive from librarians when they are told by a superior to remove a book. I also know how lonely it can seem when you are the only librarian in the building! First, OIF is trying to remedy this with a series of webinars to be introduced in Autumn 2011. These will deal with real-life challenges and the librarians who went through the challenge. I recommend calling OIF the minute you receive a challenge—before you take on your boss. Our experienced librarians will walk you through the possible steps you can take to promote your professional ethical principles, your love for helping children become readers, and your need to keep your job! Call OIF.

Diane: How about if the challenge comes from the principals and administration?

Barbara Jones:  A great many challenges come from the administration. OIF is trying to prevent the problem in the first place by creating programs and webinars for trustees and others who might become involved. The first thing I recommend is that when you interview for your job, find out if the district has a written collection development policy and whether you can live with it. I know it is a hard job market out there, but you will be miserable if you end up in a school district that simply does not live up to your values of the freedom to read. I have spoken to many school librarians and visited them in the field. Many, many of them have very conservative superintendents or principals who have nonetheless not challenged the library’s collections. Get to know your boss or bosses. Make sure they understand the values of ALA and AASL. If you are in a tricky district, start slowly. The worst thing—it will backfire every time—is to come into a district with your trumpet,bells and whistles, and put everyone on the defense. It might make you feel good for a while,but this strategy will backfire in the long run. For example, if you want to do a program for Banned Books Week and you suspect you will run into opposition, OIF can advise you on how to start incrementally.

Diane: How many requests each year does the ALA OIF receive for help with school library challenges as compared to other libraries?

Barbara Jones: The office receives word of dozens of challenges from school librarians every year. We keep this information absolutely confidential when we get these calls. Also, the calls we get are only a fraction of what we know is happening out there.

Diane: There is a page on the ALA website called Reporting a Challenge. What happens with the information after a challenge is reported?

Barbara Jones: After a challenge is reported, it goes on the OIF database, but all names and identifying information is scoured so your information is kept strictly confidential—unless it hits the press. At that time, OIF will contact you. We don’t want to cause you more trouble by interfering in the wrong way. But our decades of experience can help you get a good result. We are hoping that in the next couple of years our database will become more robust and active—with new software and a new user interface.

Diane: What’s the one thing you wish every school librarian knew about Intellectual Freedom?

Barbara Jones:  I wish every school librarian knew that it is really important to defend the principle of intellectual freedom. To many of us, it seems like a huge bother. And, why not please the principal? After all, it’s only one or two books, you might say. I say to you that this is a slippery slope. Once you give in to one book, the principal will ask you to give in every time a parent or teacher complains. You will become very unhappy and feel very powerless at your job. Please know that OIF and your colleagues in other school libraries are here to support you during these hard times.

Diane:  Thanks, Barbara, for sharing this information with us. I think it’s important to remember that even when we are feeling alone in our buildings, we are not alone. Every librarian could be part of the wonderful network of school librarians in AASL andall librarians  in ALA. For anyone who needs further information,

Office for Intellectual Freedom
50 East Huron Street
Chicago, IL 60611
Phone: (312) 280-4223
Fax:      (312) 280-4227