Book Challenges, Part 2: A Resource Handbook

Be prepared!

They Keep Going, and Going, and Going…

Last month, I wrote about the rising number of book challenges facing libraries across the country. I offered a few tools to help school librarians prepare. Since then, the number of challenges has continued to escalate. As of November 19, 2021, the Office of Intellectual Freedom reported 150 active book challenges.

With the increasing number of challenges comes increasing concern on the part of school librarians. In recognition of this, the New Jersey Association of School Librarians (NJASL) decided to add a last-minute session to their annual conference, taking place December 5-7.

NJASL’s Response Resource “Handbook”

NJASL assembled a panel of speakers to share information and insights. They created a “handbook” of resources to help their members be prepared, in the form of a hyperlinked slide deck.

With the plethora of articles and resources that have sprung up, NJASL hopes a curated list of resources will be useful to its members. But there are some central elements that any school librarian could use to help prepare for a possible challenge. At the time of this writing, the NJASL was still in the process of drafting their resource deck, but following are the main topics they plan to cover.

Safe Spaces Statement

The slide deck starts with the NJASL “Safe Spaces Statement”. Read at the start of all NJASL meetings, the statement reminds participants that we can disagree but still be civil. It also reminds participants to listen as well as speak, and to make space for everyone to speak.

This is an important element to bear in mind – the people in a school community may not all agree, but they can still have civil discussions about their differences.

ALA’s Library Bill of Rights

The ALA’s Library Bill of Rights should serve as the foundation of any library’s mission statement. It serves as a reminder to all that the purpose of any public library (and by extension any school library) should “[provide] for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves.” For school libraries, the community served is the study body and faculty. The materials and resources within the school library should therefore offer educational value to students and faculty.

That includes providing engaging, challenging, enjoyable fiction with a wide array of representation and topics. These are the types of materials most frequently challenged. But as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop pointed out, it’s important for students to have not only mirrors, but also windows and sliding glass doors, if they are to develop fully.

NJASL Position Statement on Censorship in our School Libraries

Many library, literacy, and education groups have spoken out regarding the recent spate of book challenges. They all acknowledge the importance of free access to information and intellectual freedom.

These are important values. NJASL’s statement also offers support to “school librarians who stand up to censorship within their schools, supports the use of equitable reconsideration policies, and supports collections with diverse representation.” This is an important reminder that we have supporters out there. It’s also a reminder that we must offer our support to those who might need it.

ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF)

This is the resource that is repeatedly mentioned – and with good reason. OIF has assembled an amazing array of resources to help school librarians be proactive. They provide consulting services to help you create and edit policies. They also offer to help formulate plans for working with communities and families. Also on offer: regularly updated Intellectual Freedom News as well as information on Issues and Resources.

For those already facing challenges, OIF offers confidential support. And you can help OIF support others by reminding colleagues to report challenges.

Refocus Challenges from Books to Missions

In addition to offering resources, NJASL plans to offer suggestions. One key suggestion is to refocus attacks.

When people suggestion school library materials are not to their liking, it’s important to remind them of the mission of a school. Schools have mission statements. School libraries should, too. Both mission statements should focus on helping students understand and engage with the wider world. The mission of educational institutions (including school libraries) is to help students build critical thinking skills. These missions require exposing students to a broad range of materials and ideas.

Despite some assertions, school libraries are not purveyors of pornography. Though some might view some materials through a particular lens, it’s important to remind everyone that there are others lenses as well. And looking through a different lens is part of learning.

Laws and NJ Student Learning Standards as Supports

In New Jersey, there are laws and state learning standards that require certain topics be covered in schools. Since 1994, New Jersey has required the inclusion of instruction about the Holocaust and genocides in K-12 curriculum. In 2002, the state established the Amistad Commission. Its purpose is to “[ensure] that the Department of Education and public schools of New Jersey implement materials and texts which integrate the history and contributions of African-Americans and the descendants of the African Diaspora.”

An LGBTQ requirement added in 2019 includes the provision that “a board of education shall adopt inclusive instructional materials that portray the cultural and economic diversity of society including the political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, where appropriate.” The “Diversity and Inclusion in Curriculum” requirement states, in part, that as of the 2021-2022 school year, all districts must “highlight and promote diversity, equity, inclusion, tolerance, and belonging in connection with gender and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, disabilities, and religious tolerance.”

In addition to these requirements, the NJ Department of Education requires districts be aligned with the “Quality Single Accountability Continuum” (QSAC). Since 2005, QSAC compliance has been in place to “ensure that school districts are providing a thorough and efficient education for all students.” And QSAC requires districts to address the provisions listed above.

The First Amendment

School librarians can point to these reminders that many of the topics being challenged are required by the state as part of K-12 curricula. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court has specifically denied a school board’s ability to remove books they dislike. Specifically, they stated: “Although school boards have a vested interest in promoting respect for social, moral, and political community values, their discretionary power is secondary to the transcendent imperatives of the First Amendment,” and that “as centers for voluntary inquiry and the dissemination of information and ideas, school libraries enjoy a special affinity with the rights of free speech and press. Therefore, the Board could not restrict the availability of books in its libraries simply because its members disagreed with their idea content.”

Consider a Library Advisory Committee

Having teachers, parents, students, and community members engaged with the work and materials of the school library can create a positive experience and a team of advocates.

Soliciting their input for book selection and reconsideration policies ensures that the voice of the community supersedes individual voices of dissent.

Model Book Selection & Book Reconsideration Policies

It’s better to be proactive than reactive. With that in mind, NJASL is providing links to model policies for both book selection and book reconsideration.

NJASL member Martha Hickson has, unfortunately, dealt extensively with book challenges. She shared her district’s policies, as well as her suggestions for how they could be revised to better protect intellectual freedom and school librarians.

Join a Regional Response Team

NJASL hopes to recruit members from a variety of locations across the state to act as “regional response teams”. The idea is to have school librarians (and other educators) who are familiar with a specific area who are willing to get involved in local book challenge situations. This might be via letter writing campaigns to local school boards. It might be by attending school board meetings to offer their professional knowledge.

Whatever level of comfort a member has, NJSAL hopes they will offer it in support of their local peers and colleagues.

Resource & Related Articles

Finally, NJASL provides links to other resources that school librarians might find interesting and useful. Some items that might be of particular interest:

We’re STILL #BetterTogether

Hopefully, some of these ideas can help you prepare. Ideally, they spark some discussions between you and your colleagues, both in-district and in your state organizations. If you have further suggestions that might help others, please leave them in the comments below!


Author: Steve Tetreault

After 24 years as a classroom English Language Arts teacher, Steve became a school librarian in January 2022. He has earned an M.Ed. (2006) and an Ed.D. (2014) in Educational Administration and Supervision, and completed an M.I. degree in Library and Information Science (2019). He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!

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