Censorship in Public School Libraries

Getting our display started for Banned Books Week 2016.

Getting our display started for Banned Books Week 2016.

In addition to being Hispanic Heritage Month and Library Card Sign-up Month, September is also when Banned Books Week begins. My co-librarian and I have already started gathering brown butcher paper and caution tape to assemble a display in the library. Coming from a district where parents challenged John Green’s Looking for Alaska and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I take special care to observe Banned Books Week and reassess my own school library policies.

In our school library we have books with YA stickers that are only for 8th-grade check out. We’ve gone back and forth on this issue. On one hand it seems restrictive to students who aren’t in 8th grade, and we don’t want to cross into parenting by deciding what is or is not appropriate content for anyone’s child. Then again, the emotional needs and maturity of an 8th-grader may be more developed than those of a 6th-grader, and we don’t want to deny the 8th-grader access to books reviewed and suggested for their age group. Am I censoring too much, or is there a different standard within a school library? My selection policy states that I must consider the social and emotional level of the students who access the materials I choose. For some students the library may be their only access to books, and my collection development choices could be shaping someone’s reality.

We have also struggled with manga. Several students asked for the book Sword Art Online by Reki Kawahara, but when it arrived, there was an illustration of a mostly nude girl on several pages within the book. We joked that maybe we could draw some clothes on her. Then we read the book. There is approximately half a page that would not be accepted in our school library due to the sexual nature of the text. We kept thinking if only we could get rid of the naked illustrations and these lines in the book, we could keep the book on the shelves. Ultimately, we can’t bring ourselves to censor the book. We would not only alter the author’s work; we would damage our integrity as school librarians. That leaves us with several disappointed students and a pretty fun read languishing on the shelves of the staff library in the back office. Is there a better way to handle this? These are the types of issues we revisit during Banned Books Week, and we keep trying to come up with ways to get more books to more students while maintaining the standards of our district selection policy.

Incidentally, Looking for Alaska is only banned from required reading lists in our district;  school libraries are able to keep the book. However, I don’t think I could successfully defend the book in a challenge. Maybe if I was able to give a passionate speech about the First Amendment and the freedom to read I could make a few people reconsider, but in the end I think we would have to pull it.

Author: Mica Johnson

I’m a school librarian at Farragut Middle. I like the lib to be loud, messy, and full of student activity. I love tech stuff as much as I love books, and I’m part of an awesome rotating maker space.

Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development

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2 replies

  1. Mica,

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I had a challenge for Looking for Alaska this year, and just today students were requesting Sword Art Online. Thanks for the heads up. We also use YA stickers, but it’s our internal code for more mature content. We don’t want to advertise this to the students or they would want the “bad” books. It’s such a delicate balance and a particular challenge for those of us in middle school libraries. We are truly caught in the middle.


  2. Sara,

    It’s also weird to see kids bring in books like Ready Player One from home while we aren’t sure if we could get away with that book in the collection. We have been adding books we buy that turn out to be a little mature to the staff collection. If teachers want to check out a book and let students read it in class as part of their DEAR reading, that’s fine with us. We just try to push the limits enough to provide students with what they want to read. Hopefully we aren’t going too far or playing it too safe!
    “We are truly caught in the middle.” —YES!

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