Concern Library Attempting to “Indoctrinate” Children

Q: A recent concern raised by several people is that our library is attempting to “indoctrinate” children with the materials we provide. What are your thoughts on how to respond?

Like accusations that libraries are providing pornography, the claim that  libraries are indoctrinating children is coming up more and more right now among individuals expressing concerns or  complaints, or challenging library materials. It is, to put it bluntly, a tactic being used by those who are encouraging people to object to certain types of materials, such as books affirming the lives and experiences of LGBTQ indivduals, or books that talk about racism in our society in the present and past.

It’s important to note, however, that it may not feel like a tactic to the person making a complaint in your local library. The idea that the library is indoctrinating children may feel genuine and very real to them when they see material on the shelves, or on display, or coming home with their children, that they find personally objectionable or upsetting, or counter to their beliefs.

Libraries curate collections with the purpose of providing choices for recreational reading and to support research and inquiry. This is the opposite of indoctrination. The library isn’t forcing anyone to check anything out, let alone attempting to indoctrinate them by encouraging them to accept a set of beliefs without question or criticism. 

Libraries exist within the context of our society, and their collections and services are a reflection of our society. Behind this argument of indoctrination is unease with increased societal recognition of historical and contemporary racism and affirmation for LGBTQ lives. One of the ways this shift has had an impact on libraries (and classrooms) is in the increase in the number of books published for youth that reflect diverse identities and experiences and address inequities of the past and present in our society. Of course not every book published is purchased, but among the increased numbers of diverse books are many books that will align to various selection criteria outlined in an individual library’s board-approved policies and related procedures for collection development. This shift in society is also reflected in the fact that institutions and government, including publicly funded libraries, are carrying out their work, fulfilling their missions, and following their policies and procedures with heightened awareness of their legal and ethical obligation to nondiscrimination. 

Of course these are good things for the work we do, even if their impact isn’t appreciated by everyone.

In addressing the claim of indoctrination, we think it’s important to articulate some of the ideas essential to how libraries function in our society and your community, and to affirm the role of parents and guardians in children’s lives. Examples of points you might make include:

  • We support our community members’ recreational reading and research interests by providing access to thousands of books and other materials on a wide range of topics reflecting many aspects of the world in which we all live. 
  • We provide choices but don’t endorse any single point of view.
  • We curate the collection following board-approved policies and related procedures, which outline a range of selection criteria for us to weigh in choosing materials, such as ____ (e.g, potential appeal, accuracy, attention of critics and reviewers). The personal opinions and views of those selecting materials have no place in selection, and individuals who select materials have a professional responsibility to work to overcome their own bias. 
  • We know that among the range of materials we provide, there will be those of interest to and valued by some that are considered controversial by others; however, one person’s idea of “controversial” is not necessarily the same as another’s. 
  • Parents and guardians are the single most important influence as a child makes choices about what to read—we not only encourage but expect them to guide their own children’s reading. 
  • Trust that your guidance matters.

Your response may or may not make a difference to someone claiming indoctrination, but your points are also critical for others in the community to understand, including those in positions of authority who have the responsibility for deciding the outcome if there is a materials challenge. 

March 2022

Thank you to Monica Treptow, Julia Lee and Merri Lindgren for their input on this response.