Q: I’m watching what’s happened in Texas and other places with books being banned from libraries and classrooms, or being attacked as being unsuitable for children or teenagers, and I’m horrified. I’m not a librarian or teacher (though I am involved with our library Friends group), so maybe this is the wrong place to ask this question, but is there anything I can do?
Yes! There are absolutely things you can do to support the work of librarians and teachers and the rights and of all children and teens in your community to have libraries and classrooms that reflect their diverse needs, interests, identities, and experiences.
We’re going to begin by listing some things it’s important to know, and then discuss some specific things you can do in your community.
Things to Know:
- Challenges are local.* By that we mean both that the selection of materials for school libraries, public libraries and classrooms and the process for addressing any concerns raised about those materials is determined by local policies and procedures. These typically outline how and why materials are chosen for the library or classroom, and the process for addressing concerns. That process–whether followed or subverted (more on that shortly)–involves local decision-makers (usually outlined in the policy). This may include individuals within the library or school, and/or the library or school board.Why is this important? Local voices matter–your voice matters– when there are challenges to books, or public attacks about certain kinds of materials available in the library or taught in the classroom, in your community. (*The current divisive political climate means books are being politicized at higher levels, as has happened in Texas, so even though challenges are generally local, efforts at censorship may not be limited to individual communities.)
- Public libraries and public schools have a responsibility to provide materials that meet the diverse needs and interests of everyone in their community. Public schools also have a responsibility to educate about the world in which students live.Why is this important? Many of the challenges and public attacks taking place right now are against books that reflect and/or affirm the experiences and identities of people in your community and the larger world.
- Libraries–both school and public–are places of choice.Why is this important? Choice means exactly that: no one has to read any specific thing, let alone everything, a library provides. The assumption in choosing materials for a library collection is not that every book is a good fit for everyone the library serves; but that everyone the library serves can find a wide range of books and other materials that will appeal to them and they can enjoy.
- Parents and guardians have the right to determine what they want their own children reading; they do not have the right to limit what other people’s children have access to.Why is this important? Schools and libraries take concerns about books and other materials seriously. But they also need to take the rights (and needs and interests) of everyone else the library and school serves just as seriously. That means keeping in mind that the outcome of a challenge is likely to determine whether or not anyone in the community that library serves, or in that classroom, will have access to that material. (We want to note that when it comes to materials in the classroom, many schools and districts offer students alternate choices if parents/guardians object to material that is required reading.) In other words, the outcome of a challenge is likely to determine whether that material will be available to anyone served by that library, or taught to anyone in the classroom setting in that school/district. We want to add that in our experience, the majority of challenges arise from places of genuine concern, often by parents or others who aren’t comfortable with their own children having access to the material in question–perhaps not ready to have a conversation with their children about the content. But it is the responsibility of those parents and guardians to talk with their own children about what they do and don’t want them reading.
Things You Can Do:
If there is not currently a challenge or attack against materials in your community:
- Show your support for diverse materials.
The majority of challenges and public attacks happening right now are against materials for children and teens about racism/race and with gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (LGBTQ) characters/content. You can make clear that you not only value but expect that these and diverse materials that reflect and affirm the identities and lived experiences of all children and teens are part of what the public library and schools provide.
Public library: You can do this in conversation with a librarian, but also consider an email or letter to the public library director, perhaps copying the board president. If you can share a specific title or two from the collection that you are familiar with and appreciate, all the better! (Now is a great time to visit the children’s and teen collection to see what they have to offer.)
Schools: If you don’t have a child or children in the schools, you can still write the district superintendent, copying the school board president, and say that given what is happening with censorship attempts nationally, you are reaching out as a member of the local community, to say you value diverse materials in school libraries and support the work they do to make them available. If you do have a child or children in the public schools, consider writing their classroom teacher(s), and/or school librarian(s), copying the principal(s), expressing appreciation and support for having diverse books that reflect, support and affirm the identities and lived experiences of all students, available in the library and part of the curriculum. Again, if you can call out specific books your child has brought home or read for school even better.When you offer your perspective, don’t hesitate to share a story or two about how and why diverse materials are important to you, your family, and others you know.
- Show your support for librarians, teachers, district administrators and library and school board members.
Even if nothing has happened in your community, know that school and public librarians, teachers, school district administrators, and public library and school board members in your community are aware of, and may be feeling stressed by, what is going on nationally and around the state. Support can be as simple as sending a personal note to someone you know who is in one of these roles, stating that you appreciate the work they do. But if you value something specific a librarian or teacher has done for your child, let them know, copying their principal or supervisor as you feel comfortable. And if you can call out appreciation for something they have done in making diverse books available, even better!
If there is a challenge or public attack in your community:
Showing support for diverse materials and the lives of those they reflect, and for librarians and educators, are things to also do at the time of a challenge or attack (when moral support may be more important than ever). If you want to take more specific action, that’s great!
Start by getting the facts about what is happening in your community. What book or books are being attacked or challenged and why? Keep in mind that those objecting to books may not have read them, or read them in their entirety; it also isn’t uncommon for them to cite specific words, scenes or images out of context of the book as a whole. You can read the book or books in question to be more informed.
Is any action on the material currently being taken by the library or school? This may depend on whether a formal complaint about the material has been made as outlined in the library or district’s board policies and procedures. (This may be harder to determine unless a public statement has been made or there is media coverage.)
Once you are informed, you can:
- Use your local voice.
If you haven’t had a chance to read the material, you can still speak out in broad support of the importance of providing materials that reflect diverse identities and experiences. If you’ve read the book(s) you can talk about their value, or counter the image being presented by those who object to specific elements. You can also make clear that every individual and family is different regarding what kinds of books they may want to read, or want their children to read, and you appreciate that the library provides access to a wide range of choices, because every parent or guardian has the right to make decisions for their own child, but not for yours or other people’s children.
This could be in a letter to the editor or other public forum, but consider also registering to speak at any public meeting on the challenge, if public commentary is allowed. At the least, you may be able to register your view.
You can also spread the word among others to do the same, be it other members of the library Friends group, your book club, or friends and neighbors: become informed, and speak out. Finally, keep in mind that “local” is relative. While, as we noted above, challenges are generally local, attempts to censor may happen at higher levels, such as in state government, in which case you can certainly speak up as a citizen of your state.
- Hold those in positions of authority accountable.
Public attacks and challenges, especially in the current climate, can be divisive. They can also be scary. For these and/or other reasons, it may feel tempting for those in authority (administrators, boards) to give more weight to the opinions of those who are visible and highly vocal with complaints. But it is the responsibility of those in authority to respect the rights of everyone in the community they serve. And that starts with following the library or school district’s board-approved policies and procedures for responding to a concern or challenge.Most school districts and public libraries make these policies available on their web sites. Often (hopefully), they require that a person who wants material removed from a library collection or the curriculum fill out a materials concern form (sometimes called a “request for reconsideration”), or something similar. If that form is required by policy but has not been completed for the material in question, then presumably there is no challenge and the material remains in place, although it isn’t always that simple. There may be allowances for internal decision-making, for one thing–an internal review committee or even an individual may have authority to make the decision, with right to appeal. But it’s also possible the process has been subverted in the hopes of appeasing those raising the concern.It’s important to get as many facts as you can about what has already happened (e.g., there was a public attack on a book on social media or at the school board meeting; someone has challenged the book). If the library or district has already made a statement stating they will be following their board process for concerns about materials, that’s terrific. But if you can find no such statement, you can write the district superintendent, copying the board president, or the public library board director copying the library board president, saying you are aware about the concern expressed about X book. In addition to taking the opportunity to broadly express your support for diverse materials, and the book if you can speak to it, you can add that you have read the library’s/district policy on concerns about materials, which you trust they will be following.If you are worried or suspect that they have already violated that policy, you might say. “My understanding is that ____ should happen when a complaint about a book is made. Can you tell me if it did, or correct me if I’m wrong? I’d also like to know what the status of the material in question is.”
We hope this gives you ideas on ways you can show your support for libraries and classrooms in your community, and all of the children and teenagers in your community, too.