Requests to “Level” the Collection

Q: I’m feeling pressure to “level” the collection at my K-5 school so teachers can easily direct their students to books at their reading level. I feel strongly that this goes against what I believe a library is for—freedom of choice and open access. Do you have any suggestions for how else I should respond?

We are hearing more frequently about librarians and teachers struggling with this issue. Teachers’ desire for their students to choose books that will help advance their technical skills in reading—because the books are not too hard, or just hard enough to challenge them—are sometimes coming into conflict with librarians’ desire to preserve the library media center as a place of free and open access to any and all materials.

We affirm the professional standards of the American Library Association (ALA) in its interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights on Labeling, asserting that if the purpose of labeling is in any way intended to restrict or limit access, it is a form of censorship. We also affirm the professional standards of ALA, and the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), asserting the importance of open access to materials in the school library media program as outlined in its Library Bill of Rights interpretation on Access to Resources and Services in the School Library.

A key issue at the heart of this discussion from a library perspective is that libraries are, as you note, places of choice. “Leveling” a collection can open the door to many things, including the practice of telling a child they “have” to pick something from a certain section, or with a certain code, thereby undermining one of the core library values.

The wide array of choices available in the school library benefits students and teachers alike, and should be seen as complementing and enhancing the hard work of teaching reading/learning to read being done in the classroom by helping to motivate students to read, and by fostering and nurturing the love of reading and investigation that is so critical across the curriculum. As you know, some children in the library will choose books on a topic that intrigues them even if the books are too hard, pushing themselves because of their interest. Some will turn to the comfort of a familiar title, series or format, and their enjoyment and the pleasure and success will keep them coming back. Some may be picking out books for other people to read to them. Every child has unique and specific tastes and reasons that inform the choices they make, but giving them that choice is critical.

Students who can’t choose freely from among the wide range of books, magazines and other resources the library offers may find themselves checking out materials they are able to read but not necessarily ones they are excited about. Limiting choice also has the potential for making children reading below grade level feel stigmatized, embarrassed, and frustrated if they select from a section or a color code that is less advanced than their classmates. Additionally, when school librarians are required to shelve or code books by reading level, it can also confuse young children learning how libraries are organized. It doesn’t prepare them for using the public library and puts a barrier between them and library materials.

It is also important to note that reading levels often do not correspond to either maturity level of the content or the complexity or literary richness of the work. “Leveling” and the practices that inherently come with it ignore these and other realities.

Now is a great time to review your policies and procedures to see if language that affirms open access is clearly articulated so you can point to it when questions arise. If you don’t see such language, or if it’s only implied–perhaps in an affirmation of the Library Bill of Rights (append a copy to your policy!), it is something you can consider stating more implicitly during the next policy revision process for the library media program.

Just as important are the conversations that need to take place between teachers, library staff and administrators–all partners in student success and achievement, all playing distinct and critical roles. Talk about how the library staff and classroom teachers can continue to work together, brainstorm new ways to collaborate. But be clear that in looking for those ways, you believe it’s critical that the role that each group–teachers and library media specialists/library staff–plays in the school and in students’ achievement is recognized and affirmed, along with the professional standards that guide them.

December, 2008

(Thank you to Helen Adams, Mark Goldstein, and Tessa Michaelson for contributing ideas and insight to this response).