Q: I live and work in a conservative community. I’m scared to collect books about transgender children or with gay- and lesbian-parents for my elementary school library. I’m afraid at the least the principal will be upset, and I might even lose my job. Isn’t the public library a better place for these books?
We want to address your question in two parts.
1. Collecting picture books about transgender children or featuring gay or lesbian parents:
You ask whether picture books featuring transgender children (and, we’d add, gender non-conforming children), or with gay or lesbian-parented families are more appropriate for a public rather than an elementary school library. In a word, no. They belong in both places.
If the school is a publicly funded institution, it should not proscribe to any specific philosophy (religious, political, or social) that might prohibit any specific subject from being collected. So when it comes to selection, you should approach books featuring gender-diverse characters and gay and lesbian-parented families as you would any other book you are considering adding to the collection. This means applying the criteria outlined in the library selection policy for what to collect and how to select. (As always, we are proceeding under the assumption there is a policy in place.)
Most selection policies cite using professional reviews and/or recommended lists created by and for librarians and teachers as sources to turn to in the selection process. There will be books with gender-diverse and gay or lesbian characters that are recommended in these sources you typically turn to for selection.
Of course, most librarians can’t purchase everything that meets the collection’s scope, purpose, and specific criteria for selection and have to prioritize what they can purchase. But prioritizing doesn’t mean excluding any topic outright: that would be censorship. Instead, school librarians inevitably end up purchasing fewer books on some subjects and more on others based on what they know about the curriculum and the needs and interests of the school community. But it is important that these decisions be based on knowledge and not on fears or biases.
To that end, it’s also important that school librarians don’t make the mistake of assuming that they know everything about the families of children in the school, or their community as a whole. No community can be summed up in a single word such as “conservative.” Some of these books may be appreciated because they reflect the reality of a particular student’s immediate or extended family or circle of friends, and some parents may particularly value books that offer diverse perspectives; some books may also be appreciated by students and families simply because they tell an appealing story.
Additionally, school librarians shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that as long as the public library purchases a particular book, they don’t have to purchase it for the school library. Unless there is a formal arrangement with the public library for joint collection development, the school librarian needs to purchase materials across subject areas. All students in the school have access to the school library, while they may not all have access to the public library, even in a small community.
Finally, you specifically reference picture books in your question, but the same principles we discuss above should be applied across the elementary school collection to include fiction and informational books and resources in other formats.
2. Concerns about repercussions for purchasing picture books featuring transgender children or gay or lesbian parents:
Regarding your concern that your principal will be upset, and perhaps you will lose your job, if you do purchase picture books with gay or lesbian characters: We encourage you to try to determine whether these fears are based on things the principal has said or done, or if they are rooted in more general concerns that books seen as being about gay- or lesbian-parented families have been much more highly visible in recent years as targets of would-be censors.
If you find that your fears are rooted in a more general concern that selecting such books will lead to a challenge (and possible repercussions from the principal as a result), we encourage you to remember that to summarily exclude such books not only violates professional principles but also—most likely–the spirit and intent of the school or district collection development policy. If the district or school policy affirms the Library Bill of Rights this is additional assurance that the intent of the policy is to allow free and open access to a wide range of materials.
In short, when you collect books based on their merit as outlined in the selection policy, you are doing your job—nothing more, nothing less. We know it may still be scary, but we hope that as time goes by you will feel more confident. While we can’t guarantee that a picture book with a gay or lesbian character won’t be challenged, we are confident that in literally hundreds of school libraries such books in have never been challenged. And we are confident that a librarian who abides by their collection development policy and professional principles is doing the right thing.
And if a challenge does arise, the very same policy that provided guidance for determining what to purchase is the first—and best—line of defense.
If the principal has said or done anything to make you believe your fear is grounded in the reality of your specific situation, then we encourage you to read this What IF question from a high school librarian and think about how you can apply the advice we provide to your situation. While we would like to think that no school librarian would ever be in such an untenable position, we know this is not the case. We encourage you to seek out support where you can find it as you decide what steps you want to take.