Q: I am getting questions that aren’t necessarily about specific books, but rather why we have so many diverse books, including books about/addressing race and racism, and LGBTQ materials, in our school library. Our community is not very large, and not very diverse. While I believe I am doing the right thing in purchasing these and making them available, I’m not as confident in what to say, or how to respond.
First, we want to say yes, you are doing the right thing by making sure your publicly funded school library is inclusive and does not discriminate by failing to include materials reflecting diverse identities. We say this because in doing so, you are not only making sure you are meeting the needs and interests of your diverse school community—more on that later–but you’re making sure the library collection is aligning with state (assuming you are in Wisconsin) laws regarding pupil nondiscrimination as they relate to school libraries, as well as requirements to “provide adequate instructional materials, texts and library services which reflect the cultural diversity and pluralistic nature of American society.”
We aren’t legal experts, and districts should always check with their own legal counsel if they have questions about their legal obligations, but even as no law dictates what specifically to collect in a library collection, it seems that a publicly funded Wisconsin school library that doesn’t include diverse materials, including those about the lives and history of Black, Indigenous and People of Color, and the lives and history of those who are LGBTQ, would be failing to meet not only professional standards for collection development, but also its responsibilities regarding Wisconsin state statute and administrative codes, including Wisconsin Administrative Code PI9.03(1)(e), Wisconsin Administrative Code PI8.01(2)(h), and Wisconsin Statute 121.02(1)(h). A district’s board-approved policies and procedures, including those for materials selection, often reference the relevant state statutory requirements as well.
In addition, we want to add that many school districts have a stated commitment to equity; a district can’t fulfill such a commitment without making sure materials in libraries reflect diversity and address equity issues.
We want to add that the same is true for public libraries. As noted in Wisconsin Statute 43.001, the state legislature recognizes the importance of “free access to knowledge, information and diversity of ideas by all residents of this state.”
Both school and public library collection polices are established by their local governing boards, with these broader legislative requirements, as well as professional principles and the mission statements and goals of individual institutions all inform local policies.
Regarding how to respond when such questions arise: As always, try to think about questions, and even concerns, as an opportunity to inform and educate about the library media program. Your role is not to change anyone’s mind regarding their opinion on materials that they find upsetting or unsettling, it’s to listen and then try to help them understand the role of the library collection in the school community, where collection development decisions are coming from, and how they are made. If you can do this conversationally, all the better.
For example, you might explain, “We strive to meet the many and varied needs and interests of our school community as we make decisions about what to purchase for the school library, and that includes making sure we have materials that reflect diverse identities. It’s a responsibility we take seriously, not only because we want to make sure students see themselves and one another reflected in our collections, but because we want to make sure we aren’t ignoring our responsibility regarding pupil nondiscrimination.”
You might continue, “We don’t expect every book is going to be appeal to every student or family. It would be impossible to build a strong library collection if that were the goal. Instead, we build a collection that offers a wide range of materials so that everyone will find things that are relevant or appealing. We do this knowing the library is and always has been a place of choice. In fact, choice is the point—if a student dislikes fantasy or science fiction, they don’t have to check it out; if a student dislikes animal stories, they don’t have to check them out. And of course part of that choice extends to you and the role of other parents and guardians—you can talk with your children about expectations and limits, and we encourage you to discuss the books they do bring home. Our responsibility in the school library, however, is to make sure we are providing choices, based on our board-approved selection guidelines, that meet the wide-ranging needs and interests across the school community, which includes books and other materials that students will find useful and engaging, and materials that support the curriculum (these two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive!). And because we know that all our students, regardless of ways they identify, are living in an increasingly diverse world, we offer books and other materials that reflect the world in which they live.”
Ultimately, it’s important for parents, guardians, administrators, staff members and others to understand that:
- Collection development involves considering the varying information needs, reading interests, tastes and maturity levels among students and providing books and other materials that meet this wide-ranging spectrum.
- Non-discrimination requirements and equity initiatives include the school library collection.
- You know not every book is a good fit or will appeal to every student/family, but you are confident every student can find a variety of books and materials to enjoy
- Opinions vary among families regarding what they are comfortable with their own children reading and you encourage parents/guardians to talk with their kids about their reading choices.
- The school library is a place of choice.
- District staff follow board-approved policies and related procedures in selecting materials.
Ideally, your district’s library selection policies and procedures outline the specific goals of the library collection (e.g., provide materials to support the curriculum, meet recreational reading interests, reflect the diverse world in which students live, etc.) and how collection development decisions are made (e.g, finding out about books from professional reviews, recommended lists, checking age recommendations, etc.).
Finally, as promised in the first paragraph, a few thoughts on your community’s diversity. It’s important to remember that every community is diverse. This includes diversity of opinions and beliefs as well as identities, whether that diversity is highly visible or not. Additionally, even people who are not visibly “diverse” regarding identity or beliefs often appreciate having diverse materials in the library collection, whether or not they openly say so.
Ultimately, attempts to censor books in libraries about LGBTQ lives and race and racism are attempts to render invisible realities about our world and our communities that make some people uncomfortable. That does a disservice to everyone in the community a library serves. But it can do real harm to the most vulnerable. As author Maia Kobabe noted in a recent SLATE magazine interview, “The people who are hurt in a challenge are the marginalized readers in the community where the challenge takes place.” And in a Parents magazine essay, author Meg Medina stated, “When we allow the stigmatization of books that name the lived experiences of a community, we’re cutting that community off from its most powerful resource for success: the power of its own stories.”
Originally published April, 2021.
American Library Association Statement on Censorship of Information Addressing Racial Injustice, Black American History, and Diversity Education
American Library Association Statement in Opposition to Recent Censorship Attempts Targeting Marginalized Voices
Thank you to Monica Treptow and Merri Lindgren for contributing to this response.