Policy and Procedure Best Practices in School Libraries

Q: Our school district recently went through a book challenge in the library and questions came up about ways we might strengthen our policies and procedures to make them clearer.  We’re going to be reviewing, and hopefully revising, our selection and reconsideration policies and procedures soon. Are there things you recommend we include in a revision?

That’s a great question. And the answer is yes!  We have thoughts based on our familiarity with professional best practices, and on our knowledge of what can happen when policies and procedures are unclear or fall short of professional standards. 

Selection and reconsideration policies and procedures about how and why library materials are chosen and how materials complaints and challenges are handled are essential guiding documents for a successful library program. Here in Wisconsin, they’re also required for library and other instructional materials, including those used in the curriculum. And there’s nothing like going through a materials challenge to understand where your policies and procedures could be stronger, or clearer.

There are three significant pieces of Wisconsin legislation connected with school library selection policies:

  • Wisconsin Administrative Code PI8.01(2)(h) requires a “…current, balanced collection of books, basic reference materials, texts, periodicals, and audiovisual materials which depicts in an accurate and unbiased way the cultural diversity and pluralistic nature of American society.” 
  • Wisconsin Statute 121.02 (1)(h) references library services (with a similar definition as above) as part of school district standards. 
  • Wisconsin Administrative Code PI9.03(1)(e) cites the previous two legislative references when stating the requirement for a library selection policy prohibiting discrimination against pupils. 

Library Media vs. Curriculum: Separate Policies or Combined?

Both school library materials and curriculum materials can be included under the definition of “instructional materials.” Given the unique role of the library media program in supporting the learning and engagement of students across the entire school, we think best practice is to have policies and procedures for library materials separate from those for curriculum materials. If the policies and procedures for selection of library media and curriculum materials are combined, the difference between the purpose of each should be clearly outlined. The goal of selecting materials for the library is to support the informational and reading interests of all students in the school by providing them with a wide range of materials from which to choose, and the primary goal of selecting curriculum materials is to determine the most appropriate materials for guided instruction in a specific class or content area. 

It deserves to be noted that policies are the responsibility of the school board. They are the required legal documents addressing the legislation previously listed. Procedures, sometimes referred to as administrative guidelines, are typically the documents used to put policy in action. They are often created by district staff and administration and do not require board approval to be implemented or changed. Additionally, some districts may adopt or create statements related to selection and reconsideration, such as interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights. The suggestions we make in this response may be part of board-approved policies or related procedures. They are drawn from a variety of professional sources and experiences with the goal of creating a framework for a strong library media program valuing the needs, interests and rights of all students and families in a school community. 

Key Points for Library Media Selection Policies and/or Procedures. These should:

  • Articulate how the library media program supports the mission of the district/school.
  • Reference/cite relevant district positions or statements that provide a philosophical framework for how this is carried out (e.g,. Statement in Support of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion)
  • State the purpose/mission and goals of the library media program
  • Indicate the licensed library media specialist is responsible for selection
  • Provide criteria for selecting materials based on the School Library Selection Criteria provided by the American Library Association
  • Name types of professional resources consulted in selecting materials (e.g., reviews, recommended lists)
  • Include language about the importance of providing a balanced collection of materials reflecting the diversity and plurality of our society
  • Include language referencing pupil nondiscrimination policies
  • Include language affirming the importance of intellectual freedom and professional principles outlined in the Library Bill of Rights and interpretations such as “Access to Resources and Services in the School Library Media Program.”
  • Include a statement referencing that gifts and donations to the school library must meet the established selection criteria

Best Practice for Policies and/or Procedures about Responding to Library Materials Concerns and Challenges. These should:

  • Articulate the importance of due process and responding to concerns fairly and equitably
  • Indicate who can challenge materials (request removal or restricted access) (e.g., students, staff, members of the school district community, as opposed to anyone anywhere)
  • Make clear that no request to remove or restrict or limit access to materials will go forward without submission of the district’s Request for Reconsideration form
  • Provide language to seek informal resolution of  a concern before a formal challenge can be filed (e.g., library media specialist will meet with concerned individual to listen, as well as share how and why materials are selected; the importance of choice in the library media program)
  • Prohibit district staff/administration from removing or limiting access to material at any point during the informal or formal reconsideration process based on evaluation of content out of context; maintaining access to materials throughout the process is best practice
  •  Require a separate Request for Reconsideration form be filed for each item being questioned. The form should include the following:
    • Ask if the person is the parent or guardian of a child in the district or lives in the community the district serves
    • Ask if the complainant represents themselves, another individual, or an organization.
    • Ask if the individual has spoken with the library media specialist about their concern
    • Make clear that the work as a whole will be evaluated in light of the library media program’s mission, goals and selection criteria outlined in policies and procedures 
    • Ask how they became familiar with the work
    •  Ask if the person bringing the concern has read/watched/listened to entire work
    • Ask about their specific concerns with the work
    • Ask what they want to see happen to the work
    •  Indicate that the completed reconsideration form, once submitted, becomes public record
  •  Make clear that the work as a whole will be evaluated in light of the selection criteria during the reconsideration process; all actions and decisions will be based on the material as a whole
  •  Indicate a reasonable timeline for the district to try to respond to a formal challenge (e.g., “The district will make every effort to make a decision following its reconsideration process within 45 days of receipt of the form; multiple requests may delay this timeframe”)
  •  Make sure decision-making authority rests with a group (e.g., reconsideration committee; board) rather than a single individual
  •  Outline the role and responsibilities of the reconsideration committee (e.g., understand intellectual freedom and the intention of the school library program, review the concern, read/view the entire work, consider professional reviews and awards/distinctions, evaluate the work according to the library selection criteria)
  • Define by role (not name) who will serve on the reconsideration committee (exception: if one of those individuals is bringing the complaint, an alternate should be named). At minimum, the committee should include building and district level administration, a library media specialist, and a teacher. Other possible participants are literacy specialists, parents, students, school board or community members. The full group should be uneven in number for voting purposes. 
  • Outline option to appeal decision and time frame for appeal (e.g., “This decision may be appealed within 30 days”)
  • Indicate how long the decision for the material stands if it isn’t appealed (e.g,. “The material will not be reconsidered for any reason for three years”)
  • Indicate the appeal process: who hears appeal/makes decision and timeframe (e.g, “Appeals will go to the full board of education, which will make a final decision within 45 days.”)
  • Indicate how long the final decision for the material stands (e.g,. “After the board’s decision on the appeal, the material will not be reconsidered for any reason for three years”)

Additional Resources and Next Steps

The American Library Association (ALA) Selection and Reconsideration Policy Toolkit digs deeper into many of these points and offers sample language and a sample reconsideration form. Not everything suggested above is part of ALA’s workbook, but it’s a good place to start. 

You can use this response as a checklist as you begin to review your district’s policies and procedures, which is a first step to making any changes. Whether you are taking stock of where they could be improved or clarified, or moving forward with revising or completely revamping your policies and procedures, the goal is to provide a strong framework for supporting teaching, learning, and student engagement, and a clear process for maintaining a library collection that supports and values all of the students and families a school district serves.  

March 2023

Thank you to Monica Treptow for co-authoring this response, and to Caitlin Tobin for contributing to it.