Tag Archives: Intellectual Freedom

Freedom to Read and the School Library: A Delicate Balance

During my seven-year tenure as manager of a public library, I constantly battled with myself to stifle my own prejudices, most of which I was unaware of prior to the job; I consider myself a fairly open-minded person. I believe deeply in intellectual freedom. I embraced the responsibility to provide material that my patrons requested, without judgement. Adults have the right to read whatever they choose and any responsibility for what children read is placed on their parents, not the library.

In a school library, however, the perspective is quite different. I have sympathy for those who must compromise to meet the needs and requirements of both the public and students in joint libraries. In a school library, especially at the elementary level, we are expected to meet the needs of the curriculum and offer young students examples of varying perspectives, while protecting them from erroneous and prejudiced material. The library collection reflects the school’s values and maintains the trust that parents place in the school system.

In a K-12 school library, the challenge is similar to the joint school/public scenario, where students from five to eighteen years old are accessing your collection. All students deserve to be offered material that will challenge their ability to think critically, but it is even more important at the senior high level. As soon-to-be entrants into the world-at-large, exposure to a broader range of perspectives is essential.

At the same time, school library managers are responsible for ensuring that a novel that may be perfectly palatable to an eighteen-year-old,  is not accessible to a child four years younger, for whom the content may be deemed ‘inappropriate’ by parents or the school community.

My young adult section is reserved for junior and senior high students and the grade sixes can’t wait to be allowed to borrow books from there. There are some that I mark for senior high only, frustrating the in-betweens, but I often refer readers to the public library to borrow some of the books they want to read. I am so glad it is there for them.

While objectivity and impartiality are the cornerstones for those who develop public library collections, a school library manager is forced to judge potential material, while maintaining vigilant awareness of, and guarding against, his or her own personal biases. It is essential to maintain a balance of different viewpoints, selecting materials that present those viewpoints without propagandizing them.

An awareness of personal biases comes with time and introspection. I am a believer in childhood. I am conscious of placing images and scenarios in the minds of children that may threaten their innocence, even though that concern seems to have diminished somewhat in the minds of parents who allow young children to be exposed to previously considered inappropriate media.

I am not a fan of Disneyfied fairy tales, often chosen by children for their familiarity rather than beautifully interpreted and illustrated examples from the world of art and literature.

I want my students to read edifying books; books that lift their self-concept and help to grow their character. I select books that I like and that I know that they will enjoy, to read to them and to recommend. Very subjective.

However, I also want them to love to read; to discover the joy of transporting the self through text and pictures. So I buy Spongebob, Transformers and Walter the Farting Dog (which is actually quite funny). I buy the Disneyfications, but I weed vigorously when I run across a book that no longer reflects society’s changing values if it is intended for an age-group that is not ready to apply historical perspective. Most will have been replaced with more appropriate material.

Click to go to the Awful Library Books blog for more great examples of books that most would feel ought not be in a library collection.

Selection of appropriate material is important, as is the need to monitor the collection over time: the constant necessity to remove books from library collections. I Can’t Believe You’re Throwing Out Books! by Julie Goldberg is an excellent essay on what school libraries face when staff are challenged by well-meaning community members who revere books a little too much.

“Realizing that people object so strongly to throwing out books, I began to save a few of the most egregious examples to show people who got upset.   The library owned a book entitled Careers for Women that included secretary, piano teacher and flight attendant, but strangely enough, not public school teacher, let alone financial analyst specializing in mergers and acquisitions.  An anthropology book  called The Races of Man explained, scientifically of course, why some races were more evolved than others.  A book originally published in the 19th century and gamely reprinted in the 1920s, defended the early European settlers of North America, downplaying their casual brutality towards the Indians by recasting their actions in light of their Christian intentions.” ~ Julie Goldberg

Anyone who chooses what materials to provide for, or withhold from others, is censoring in some way. I do my best to suppress personal prejudices, select from reviewers I trust and to listen to my students and teachers. How do you insure against an unbalanced collection?

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Recommended related post:
What We Talk About When We Talk About Inappropriate Books For Kids

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Sunday Surfing Selection: Freedom to Read Week – Feb. 26-Mar. 3, 2012

“Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak
just because a baby can’t chew it.
~ Mark Twain

Unshelved

Freedom to Read Week – Freedom to Read Week is an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Their website includes activities and resources including “a selective timeline of book bannings, burnings, and other censorship activities” beginning at 259 BC.

Lawrence Hill awarded Freedom to Read prize for his grace under fire This year’s prize goes to the Hamilton, Ontario author of The Book of Negroes:

“Burning books is designed to intimidate people. It underestimates the intelligence of readers, stifles dialogue and insults those who cherish the freedom to read and write. The leaders of the Spanish Inquisition burned books, Nazis burned books.” ~ Lawrence Hill

Top 10 Banned Books Of The 20th Century I have class sets of 5 of them in my high school novel studies. (There are other, different lists out there.)

To Ban or Not to Ban: Books Recently Challenged – Indigo September 2011

Censorship in a different form and a dangerous venue for misinformation: In The ‘Undue Weight’ of Truth on Wikipedia, author Timothy Messer-Kruse writes of his struggle to have “the people who had assumed the role of keeper of this bit of history for Wikipedia” accept his verifiable changes to an article because they value secondary over primary sources.

Shakespeare and Native American Authors Among Those Banned From Tucson Schools – As part of its compliance with a state ban on ethnic studies, the Tucson Unified School District has banned its Mexican American Studies program and a number of books including The Tempest by William Shakespeare and Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years. Some of the authors weigh in at the update.

“Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.”
~ Potter Stewart

Book Burning by Edward Andersson

“Censorship always defeats it own purpose, for it creates in the end the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion.”
~ Henry Steele Commager
Text of position statement on library image background - No restrictions on image use

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