Religious-Themed Fiction in Public School Libraries

Q: Are there any concerns to consider or have there been any challenges related to bringing religious-themed fiction books into a public school library?

“Religious-themed” fiction that is published with the intent of promoting specific religious tenets and viewpoints very likely does not meet the professional selection and evaluation criteria in a public school’s collection development policy. Such books, often published as part of a series, might be found in a public library genre collection, depending on the public library’s collection development policy. But it is hard to imagine how this type of fiction would fit into a public school library collection. At a public school, the collection development policy focuses on materials to support and supplement the curriculum. While public school collection development policies typically include the purchase of materials to meet students’ recreational reading interests, allocating public funds and shelf space for this type of fiction seems difficult to rationalize.

There are certainly many nonfiction materials that provide information about one or more world religions, and in which some readers will be able to see their own or other religious perspectives explained or reflected, that are more likely to have a place in a public school collection. Works about specific religions or religion in general certainly might be of interest to students using the school library for their informational and recreational reading, whether they are adaptations of stories from the Bible or from other religious texts. At higher grade levels, it’s also possible explicitly religious materials might support a district or board-approved course of study, such as a course on World Religions or The Bible as Literature. If the school or district selection policy states that nonfiction print materials like these belong in the school library media center, then look at reviews in professional journals to help decide what to purchase.

We want to note that many books chosen for public school library collections, and even the curriculum, for their literary merit or appeal may have—-or be perceived to have—-religious themes. Many literary works of fiction may express spiritual or religious themes or values, or even, as one dimension of the work, reflect specific religious stories through allegory. If this dimension of a novel is significant, it will usually be noted in one or more professional reviews, and it is often something an individual reader will perceive, based upon his or her personal background. But it’s important not to confuse such literary works with the kind of overtly religious-themed fiction published specifically to promote specific religious viewpoints that we discuss above.

Ultimately, as always, it’s important to follow the school’s collection development policy when evaluating and choosing materials. Hopefully, a public school’s policy will include criteria and procedures for selection that will assist a school library media specialist in purchasing materials that support the collection development goals of the library media center. Ideally, the policy will also outline the use of professional library/education review sources and/or other professional selection aids in materials selection, and these are invaluable resources in determining how to make best use of public funds.

As we have expressed elsewhere in this forum, it is also essential that any library collection development policy specifically state that gifts to the collection will be evaluated according to the criteria outlined in the policy, and accepted or turned down based on whether they fit into the collection. No one should be able to “get around” a library collection development policy by donating materials they feel the library “should” have.

Finally, you ask whether anyone has challenged a public school for having religious themed books. Looking in the most recent edition of the American Library Association’s Banned Books Resource Guide (American Library Association, 2007), there are a number of books under the topic “religion,”but most are adult books.. There was a challenge to the Bible in a Pennsylvania school district in 1993 because it “contains language and stories inappropriate for children of any age, including tales of incest and murder.” (p. 25)

March, 2009