What Does Intellectual Freedom Mean for Collection Development

Recently, a fellow blogger from NYC, Ashley Hawkins, penned an excellent post about a disturbing trend of school librarians putting graphic novels on “vacation.” Ashley labeled such actions censorship. I agree. And if recent headlines are any indication, this trend will only increase as school boards, parents, politicians, and anyone else raises objections to books in school libraries for various reasons.

Nobody wants to go through the challenge process. So we might self-censor our current collections and future ordering. We want to play it safe and not be under the spotlight. Unfortunately, this response is entirely rational and understandable. Who wants to be the target of outrage? News articles abound about workers fired for public opinions, university students and faculty publicly shamed for particular viewpoints, educators facing potential lawsuits for having certain books in classrooms or libraries.

Collection Development is not Endorsement

Last month, the New York Times published an op-ed titled The Battle for the Soul of the Library, argued libraries should be “ideologically neutral.” What that means is open to interpretation, but I think a credible definition lies in our Library Bill of Rights: “Materials should not be excluded because of their origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.” And “Librarians should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.” (I bolded the word all). Librarians purchase books and resources to inform, engage, and enlighten our students, not persuade and indoctrinate them.

So, let’s discuss. We know (or now know) that many prominent authors and biographical subjects have done things, said things, or opined viewpoints many people would find objectionable. Should those books be discarded or not purchased because someone somewhere may object? It depends on the book/topic/subject’s contribution to the “interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves.” Celebrities should not be held to the same standard as historical figures. The prominent historical figure can fit into the information and enlightenment of students for building background knowledge and understanding. The celebrity? They may fit into student interest, but consider if your learners know who the celebrity is and if said celebrity represented something more significant in a social/historical content: breaking barriers, being the “first,” activism, etc.


Author selection depends on context. Is the author renowned, and why? What are the merits, themes, and joy of their books? In other words, do the book(s) stand the test of time in terms of readability, engagement, and quality? Or are there more contemporary series or books that are better with tone, character, plot, and style? If so, go with the recent title; if not, by all means, buy that classic. You have done your due diligence if you are making your selection based on quality, student engagement, and enlightenment.

Multiple Viewpoints

Of course, there are limits to all viewpoints on a topic, mainly if the information is false. I wouldn’t advise purchasing books claiming climate change is a hoax, vaccines contain unsafe toxins or cause autism, or GMOs are unhealthy. Exceptions would be if the opinions are part of a pro/con series, but most students’ research opinion/op-ed articles and posts online. But topics in history, economics, social issues, technology, and health – to name a few – have several divergent perspectives for comprehensiveness. For example, on the topic of 9/11 focused on middle school, you could include:

  • The 9/11 terrorist attacks
  • EMS to the rescue (Never Forget: Heroes of 9/11)
  • Accused: my story of injustice
  • I survived the attacks of September 11, 2001 (I Survived, Book 4)

These titles explain 9/11 and present multiple perspectives of our country as the victim, villain, terrified, and heroic. Some people would want to remove one of the listed titles because of how they perceive the events of 9/11. But as educators, it’s our professional responsibility to help students understand and debate a topic in its entirety, not telling them what to think and shutting down critical analysis. To combat challenges of our students’ intellectual freedom, every district (and school) should have a strong collection development policy. Here is a link to the New York City Department of Education’s Collection Development Policy.

School librarians must curate collections that support students to become critical thinkers, reflective learners, and effective communicators.



Author: Leanne Ellis

I am a School Library Coordinator for the New York City Department of Education’s Department of Library Services. I plan and deliver workshops, provide on-site instructional and program support to school librarians, coordinate programs, administer grants, and am program coordinator for MyLibraryNYC, a program administered with our three public library systems.

Categories: Collection Development, Intellectual Freedom

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