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Banned Books: A School Librarian’s Perspective

5 minute read
Sharon Coatney

Many years ago, when I began my teaching career in a small rural high school, the library was in a cage. Literally. The books were all locked inside a large metal cage in the corner of a study hall, and that was the library. At that time the library was staffed only one or two days a week, and I suppose it was considered necessary to lock it up for security. Still, I remember thinking that it was a great shame the students had so little access to the books. For most of the year, all of these books were essentially “banned.”

But banning or censoring books is certainly not a new concept in any kind of library. All libraries have specific policies that are followed in selecting books for inclusion in the collection. Many libraries have very narrowly defined purposes, and books are only selected in those particular fields. Selection is also limited by funding and available shelf space, and often is age- and time-sensitive. For public schools, libraries have the very narrow function of having library collections that adequately support the curriculum.

Each year as Banned Books week arrives, I reflect on the ways the collection in my elementary school library has been censored. Every time I chose a book for our shelves it is done according to our school district selection policy, which says books must be age-appropriate and related to our school district curriculum. School librarians are, like all teachers, considered to be “in loco parentis” and are thus responsible for the safety of the children in their care. Over the years, I have developed a very fine collection of materials, but I have often “banned” books. That is my job, but we call what I do “selection,” not “censorship.” The hardest part of the job is to constantly keep in balance all viewpoints, not push my own agenda and remember that the education and safety of all of the students is my top priority. The exercise of the right to know must be tempered by a child’s need for physical and emotional well-being.

Still, there is the very real issue of what to do when an individual parent asks that a book be banned from the library collection because he does not want his child to be exposed to it. Certainly, as patrons of that school district, parents do have that right. All school libraries have specific procedures that must be followed to review a contested book; when these are well crafted and followed meticulously, they usually work well. They allow for the school community’s representative group to calmly review the book in light of the school’s stated selection criteria and evaluate the book on its own merits.

Sometimes a book is removed. This usually happens because the selection criteria were not fully met or the process for reconsideration of materials was not followed, or if, upon reflection, the book is deemed to be inappropriate for that age level. In most cases, the complainants begin to look at the book in light of the whole process and realize that although they may not want their child to read a book such as “Bridge to Terabithia” by Katherine Paterson because it has several profanities, it is actually a very fine book that other parents might want their own children to read.

Several years ago, the mother of a Muslim child in our school asked that I not allow her son to check out any book about Christmas or other Christian holidays. She was not asking that those books be banned, only that her child be banned from reading them. But I could not ban her child from checking out Christmas books. She needed to do that with her child. Even small children can learn to evaluate materials and decide what is best for them to read or not. This is where teachers, librarians and parents have the very real responsibility to expose kids to only the very best in literature and the most fair and unbiased nonfiction materials.

In my library we teach very young children to try to read a page in their selected material. If they cannot read and understand five words in the first paragraph, the book is probably too hard for them to read by themselves. In this way, children will grow up to be discriminating adult readers. I remember my own daughter, who at the age of eight had already created several criteria to help her select recreational reading materials. She would not read any book in which the main character was older than she was at the time — actually, not a bad beginning criterion for a young child to have.

It’s dangerous to think that the only banned books are the sometimes outrageous examples highlighted during Banned Books Week. All of us ban. Censorship abounds. It’s more important for us to think about how we should be educating our students to make good choices, to know what is worthwhile and to be able to think logically and weigh all ideas in order to choose wisely. Books may no longer be kept in cages, but our students are still often being denied access to the materials they need. Educating discriminating readers today is the way to reduce the inappropriate censorship of tomorrow.

Sharon Coatney is the library media specialist at the Oak Hill School in Overland Park, Kans. She is a past president of the American Association of School Librarians (a division of the American Library Association), and has been a librarian in grade schools at all levels.

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