Cultural Inaccuracies in Books and Intellectual Freedom

Q: I’m unsure how to balance positive professional reviews with criticism elsewhere that points out stereotypes and cultural inaccuracies. It seems important to pay attention to those concerns, but also important not to limit access to titles that have many other positive features–this is a basic tenet in defending intellectual freedom, right? What should I do as a public librarian? As a parent? What about school librarians and teachers?

What a terrific question. And an important one.

You are right that you cannot and should not disregard important insights that knowledgeable critics bring to works from specific cultural perspectives (and good for you for seeking out those perspectives!).

Collection Development

Librarians have a responsibility to collect materials that meet the library’s collection development policy guidelines. There will be books they select based on professional reviews or their appearance on award and/or best-of-the-year lists, and to replace worn copies of books that have been and continue to be popular among library users. At the same time, decisions to NOT purchase–or replace–materials are made all the time. Budgetary restrictions and the need to prioritize is one reason you might not purchase even some highly regarded materials; weighing various perspectives on a book, including those offered by professionals providing cultural content reviews on blogs, web sites or other online venues, may well be another, especially as you consider issues of accuracy and authenticity in light of your selection criteria. What is critical is that you follow board approved policies and procedures, including specific collection criteria and guidelines, as you make your decisions for purchasing and weeding.

Even if you choose not to purchase some things based on content reviews and other considerations, inevitably, there will be books that are NOT recommended by those who evaluate books from specific cultural perspectives among your purchase selections. Maybe it’s a replacement copy of a worn book still circulating highly. Maybe there is patron request or high demand for a particular new book.  Having the book on the shelf doesn’t mean you have to feature it it any way.

Programming and Displays

Making informed choices when it comes to selecting materials for library displays and programming is important. (The same is true for teachers who are choosing materials for the classroom, whether to share as a read-aloud or for required reading.) There should be a conscious effort to avoid choosing books for display or programming (or classroom use) that are seen as misrepresenting individuals from a particular culture. Maybe a book contains serious cultural misinformation, or reinforces a negative, hurtful stereotype; maybe it’s a work of historical fiction that uses offensive terminology from the past without a note providing historical context and an explanation for readers.

This is complex and complicated territory. There will not necessarily be a single opinion, even among content experts, about a particular book. However, content reviews offering insights from specific cultural perspectives provide information we can learn from and consider as we make decisions about books to feature or use. And of course, we can look for ways to promote titles that are highly regarded from specific cultural perspectives.

Making informed choices sometimes can mean “letting go” of favorite books—books that have been used in programming (or in the classroom) for years. That can be a hard thing to do. But it’s also the professional and responsible thing to do.

Education, Discussion, and Activism

We encourage you to be an activist in your role as a consultant. You can connect other librarians with content review sources you use and find reliable. You can encourage discussion around this issue with colleagues, too. Be aware that it can be emotionally challenging territory, and emphasize the fact that being willing to learn and to apply what we are learning is the single most important thing any of us—librarian or teacher—can do around this issue.

You can also consider contacting review journals and organizations that sponsor awards and best-of-the-year list, and encourage them to take responsibility for seeking out content experts when evaluating multicultural literature. If you or a librarian you know didn’t purchase a book because the information in a content review was the tipping point for a title with good but not great reviews, or if you did purchase it but with great reservations because of the content review, write the publisher and say so. Ask them to take responsibility for making sure the books they publish are accurate and authentic.

As a parent you may also find yourself in the position of questioning a book choice made by a classroom teacher. We encourage you to talk about it with the teacher in the same way you would with a colleague—by expressing your concern and by sharing the insights, information, and resources you find helpful as you think and learn about these important issues.

Children’s Choices

Finally, you asked about what you can do as a parent. Be involved in what your child is reading. Rather than limiting or restricting choices, ask your child/children questions and share your observations/perspectives on books that they choose. If it’s a book you read and enjoyed yourself as a child, you can start there. For example: “I loved “Little House on the Prairie” too! But I’ve found out that the way the author showed the Native people isn’t very real.” Depending on the age of your child, you could talk about some of the specific stereotypes and misinformation and why you are glad you now know this.

In other words, look for ways you can begin to help her or him become a more critical reader and evaluator of books.

April 2010; updated March 2020