Q: I struggle with how to uphold intellectual freedom but still protect the students within specific age-groups at the school where I work. How much is too much when it comes to content? Where do I draw the line? I know having supportive reviews and selecting within the policy parameters are a must when considering a book for the library collection, but do positive reviews and age recommendations always mean a particular title is a good fit?
Every librarian struggles with this at some point or another (or many points throughout the year). But we challenge you to reconsider thinking about your work in terms of “protecting children.”
The role of a library media specialist is actually much more difficult: it’s to engage children and teens, educate them, challenge them, and excite them about reading and research by providing them with a wide range of books and other materials.
That’s a big job! And it’s a job you have to approach with a mind that is open to the possibility that any book has the potential to reach an individual child, if not dozens of children. Selection not only requires looking beyond our own tastes and opinions but also being willing to challenge our comfort zones and acknowledge that even if we aren’t ready for something to be in the library, the readers we serve may be. It’s about giving children options, and choices. No book in the library is required reading.
So does that mean every well-reviewed, age-recommended book is a good fit for your library? Not necessarily, especially as no one has the money to buy everything. But in determining whether you will purchase something, don’t let fears, or concerns about how adults might respond, be your guiding factor. And don’t make assumptions about the children, families, and community you serve.
So while you probably aren’t going to buy a book for an elementary school about abuse that is consistently recommended for age 12 and up, you absolutely should consider the book about abuse recommended for 9 and up, or even 10 and up, if reviews recommend it.
The idea of “protecting children” may also be a reason why someone raises a concern about specific materials in your collection, especially if those materials don’t align with their personal beliefs. Your job is to follow board-approved policies and procedures and the guidelines and criteria for selection outlined to make sure you are providing materials for everyone in the school community. If you let concerns about what others might think about the books you are considering for selection impact your decision-making, you run the risk of letting fear of what others may think or do define aspects of your collection, essentially giving power to an imagined, would-be censor, and abdicating your professional responsibility. Don’t approach collection development from a place of fear. Do think about about how you can fulfill your responsibility to provide materials for children, teens and families who welcome books that reflect a wide range of perspectives and experiences.
Approach selection with an open mind, and think about why you SHOULD purchase a book, rather than why you should not. Once you have your list of “these are the books I want to purchase” based on reviews and recommendations, then prioritize based on collection needs. For example, you might say, “We only have a couple of of picture book featuring same-sex parents, and this new one is getting good reviews. I’m going to put it in the ‘must get’ stack*. . . . This biography of Abraham Lincoln has so-so reviews and we have seven others already; I’m going to put it in a ‘get if there’s money left over’ stack … We don’t have many books showing people of color in science; this is a must-buy.” And so on.
This is part of what the hard and good work of being a librarian is about. It’s about making choices that collectively meet the needs of everyone in the community you serve, including students who may be ready for books many other students are not. It’s about realizing that children are dealing with difficult things in their lives all the time, and books can provide both a welcome escape from and needed reflection of those hard realities. It’s about meeting kids where they are at, but realizing that where they are at is different for each and every child. It’s about delighting their imaginations, affirming their many realities, and expanding their understanding of themselves, one another, and the world in which they live.
Thank you to Tessa Michaelson Schmidt for contributing to this response.
*In truth, we hope any elementary school has more than one picture book featuring same-sex parents. Read this What IF . . . question for more on this.