June 18, 2010
One of the characteristics of my MLS program that I enjoyed the most was the diversity in age and experience among my classmates. There were people like me who were (mostly) fresh out of college and whose library experience was fairly limited, but because of the recent changes in Indiana library certification (summary here), some of my classmates were department heads or branch managers or even library directors who had been in their positions for decades without an MLS and who were now in school to get their degrees so they could keep their jobs. This led to a wide range in opinions and experiences in the classroom, which made for great class discussions. It also meant that I got to hear a lot of stories about how things were done in different libraries, many of which had very different policies and procedures.
One of the most disturbing stories I heard during my degree was about a challenge to a book in the teen collection at a particular library. Just for storytelling purposes, I’ll call it the Anonymous Public Library (APL). Because of the worldview of a few board members, APL takes a very active role in deciding what’s appropriate for the library collection. They do not purchase or accept donations of R-rated movies, even if the movie has won awards or broken box office records. The board members who designed and uphold this policy think that APL shouldn’t carry “inappropriate” material like this because children might check it out. Staff members have tried to suggest having adult library cards and children’s cards and not allowing children to check out videos, freeing adults to watch movies for grownups, but the board members remain resolute.
Because of the generally conservative culture at APL, the teen section also comes under a lot of scrutiny. It does serve 6th-12th graders which is admittedly a very wide range, but I’m firmly of the opinion that if a parent is concerned about what his or her child is reading, that parent should be involved in the child’s selection of reading materials–in other words, it’s not the library’s job to be the parent. But APL’s policies differ from my personal philosophy, so no books in the teen collection may contain the F-word, and the board expects the teen librarian to read every book before she purchases it to make sure the forbidden word doesn’t appear and to screen for other “inappropriate” material and themes. If APL were a tiny public library with a tiny budget and few purchases, this might be feasible, but because of APL’s size and budget, there’s no way the teen librarian can possibly read everything before she orders it.
So one of the stories about APL that was told in class was this: a seventh grader checked out Julie Halpern’s GET WELL SOON, thinking from the cover that it would be like a Jerry Spinelli book. In fact, the story is about a girl named Anna Bloom whose parents send her to a residential mental health facility (a “loony bin,” as Anna puts it) to treat her depression. The young APL patron was surprised to find a number of swear words on the first page and showed the book to her mom. Her mom was very angry and brought the book back to the library to request its removal.
In most public libraries, a librarian would listen to the parent, try to assess and reflect back why the parent was upset, and to show the parent that her concerns were important to the library. Librarians usually also try to explain the value of diversity in the collection and the importance of helping kids select their reading material if subject matter is a concern. Then if the parent still wants to challenge the book, the librarian would have the parent fill out a request for reconsideration form. Depending on library policy, a group of librarians, managers, and maybe board members or members of the public would meet, review the book, and make a decision.
At APL, the book was immediately taken to the director, who looked at the first page, decided the book was inappropriate, and had it removed it from the collection. The book itself didn’t even go to the pile of general library discards that’s sold by the Friends of the Library as a fundraiser: it went into the dumpster. This all happened within an hour of the mom’s initial challenge to the book.
And the craziest part of this story is that while this was happening, the teen librarian was on vacation, and when she returned, no one from management told her it’d happened. In her absence, the book just disappeared. She only found out later when the checkout clerk who was the mom’s first point of contact told the teen librarian, which she wasn’t supposed to have done.
Obviously this is a really extreme version of how a challenge process can work in a public library, and it is, of course, up to the community to decide how their library is run. It just makes me sad that the board members who support these policies have such a limited view of intellectual freedom in general and, more specifically, of kids’ ability to choose their own reading material and to stop when they find something they don’t think is right for them, and it makes me sad that the librarians at APL can’t do more to call this out for the censorship that it is.
So it was with great joy that I read the news that the Fon Du Lac School District in Wisconsin had chosen to keep GET WELL SOON on the shelf at Theisen Middle School. Challenges in a school library are particularly tricky because unlike public libraries, the school is acting in loco parentis, so challenges are more likely to be successful. Another school district in the area had opted to put a sticker on another book (not GET WELL SOON) deemed inappropriate for middle schoolers and to require parental permission for students to check it out, so FDLSD’s decision is especially heartening. During the hearings, the media specialist defended the library’s diverse collection and said that if a student checked out GET WELL SOON and was uncomfortable reading it that she would help that student find something more appropriate. This is exactly the right way to handle challenges like this and I’m so pleased with how things turned out.
If a challenge doesn’t get much media attention, the author often never hears about the challenge or the outcome. But in this case, Julie Halpern saw an article about the decision (and noted that no one’d called her) and wrote a blog post about how the challenge affected her writing of the sequel and the role respect plays in reading, writing, and allowing kids to pick their own reading material.
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