Q: What if a parent requests that their child not be permitted to check out a particular book and then the child brings that book to the desk to check out? Do I let them check the book out?
Your question is an important one, and one that does not necessarily have a simple answer.
There are two areas that we want to cover in our response: what you need to know regarding any responsibilities, expectations or procedures your school district expects you to uphold, and what you will want to communicate with parents or guardians who make such a request.
Responsibilities and Expectations
First and foremost, before you ever find yourself in this situation you must find out if the library has a circulation policy, or the school or district has any policy, that allows parents or legal guardians to make such a request regarding library materials (as opposed to curriculum materials; this situation is is not the same as requesting an alternative book for a required reading assignment). Do this now, so that you will know if you are required to honor such a request if you receive one. What you learn will determine what you need to communicate to any parent or guardian who makes such a request.
We would like to think that library and school policies will support professional standards of librarianship, which affirm unrestricted access and the privacy of library users. But we also recognize that some districts will view allowing such requests as a way to be responsive to parents and guardians.
If your school district has such a policy in place, then you must follow it. We hope that any such policy states that “every effort will be made” to fulfill such a request rather than implying a guarantee that it will be done. Technical capabilities of the circulation system, circulation procedures and the many responsibilities that library staff may be handling at any given time means that even the best intentions to honor such a request may fail.
If your library does not have a policy or any guidelines for how to respond to such a request, it is, on the one hand, up to you whether or not you want to offer to do your best to accommodate it. Your response should reflect what you are willing to do now and in the future, because you can’t say yes to one person or request now and then no to another later, at least not without inviting a complaint or accusation of unfairness.
On the other hand, it is also possible that if you affirm professional standards and deny the request, the parent could complain to an administrator, who might tell you to honor it regardless, without understanding the implications or limitations of doing so.
Therefore, consider being proactive and find out now about any expectations your administrator or the district might have regarding how you should respond to such a request. This is no small feat, because what that administrator or those at the district level need to think about—and what you will probably need to inform them of—is the feasibility of doing so (no guarantees, remember?) and the fact that the response to such requests should be consistent across the district.
You—or someone—will also need to educate them about—and affirm—professional standards of librarianship with regard to open access to materials and the privacy of the students and others whom the library serves.
If there are other school library media specialists in your district, work with them and the district-wide library media coordinator (if it isn’t you) to ask questions and address the issues above with administrators so that everyone is clear on what to do.
Communication with Parents/Guardians
The other thing to think about NOW is how you will respond to parents or guardians making such a request.
Yes, you will want to inform them of the policies or procedures your school district has in place regarding such requests, and be clear on what you can and/or cannot do.
Likewise, if you district has no policy or guidelines for you to follow and you need to inquire, explain that you have never had such a request and that you need to find what can be accommodated. Assure them you will get back to them with more information. You will then want to talk to your administrator and others as outlined above. If obtaining an answer takes awhile, keep the individual making the request informed of the fact that it is being addressed.
However, your conversation with a parent or guardian making such a request should neither begin nor end with merely informing them about what is and isn’t allowed or what you need to find out. You are being given an opportunity to share information about the school library media center and children and reading, and you should take advantage of it.
You might start by expressing your appreciation for their involvement in their child’s education and reading. You can go on to explain that you strive to have a wide variety of books and other materials from which students can choose, and you hope that students visiting the library will find many things that will appeal to and excite them.
You might also add that your experience is that children most often make choices that reflect the family values that have been communicated to them by parents or other adults with whom they live. Say that you hope they will take the time to talk to their child, if they haven’t already, about the many books the library has to offer and any specific desires they have regarding choices their child makes.
If you do have a policy or procedure allowing the parent or guardian to restrict checkout and the individual still wishes to do so, make sure to ask that they talk to their child about what they have requested the school library restrict s/he check out and why.
It is also important to reaffirm that while staff will do their best to honor the request, there are no guarantees. Even if this is not expressed in any policy, it’s a reality you will want to make clear. You can do so without being severe—use it as another way to affirm the importance and value of their communication with their child, and their involvement in their child’s education.
And because there are no guarantees about what the parent or guardian will or won’t communicate to the child, or what the child will do regardless, you also need to think through ahead of time how you will handle a child coming to check out a book that has been restricted in order to minimize the potential for embarrassment for that student.
Finally, we also hope that ANY book or other material in the library is available for ANY student to read while she or he is in the library. While this may feel like a small consolation in a situation such as this, it is a way you can affirm professional ideals that have been otherwise compromised by a circulation restriction.
We want to thank our colleague Helen Adams for helping us think about and respond to this complex question.