Restrictions on Books and Access to Materials in the School Library

Q:  I’ve seen several news stories recently in which districts have “restricted” some titles and students must get permission to check them out, and/or parents have the option of prohibiting their children from checking anything out of the school library without permission. As a school librarian, I find both of these things extremely upsetting. What are your thoughts on these practices?

We, too, are uneasy with the idea that some books are placed under “restricted” access, and the idea that parents/guardians can choose to prohibit their child from checking out any materials from the school library, an essential resource for K-12 education, without permission. We’ll address each topic separately.

Before we do, however, it’s important to acknowledge that some districts are facing enormous pressure to make it easier for parents and guardians to exercise their rights when it comes to deciding what they want their children to read. We don’t take issue with empowering parents and guardians—with both tools and information—but believe that doing so should not ignore the responsibility of parents and guardians when it comes to their children’s reading, or compromise students’ access to information. 

When Districts Restrict Access to Specific Books

The idea that there are books in a school library that won’t be the right fit for all students (or families) is one of the fundamental tenets of not just school libraries, but all libraries. No library collection is built with the idea that every book or resource will be suitable for everyone the library serves. Instead, a library collection is developed with the understanding that libraries are places of choice, and providing a range of choices is essential. For school libraries, this is not only true because of the wide variety of tastes, needs, and interests in a school community, but also the wide range of maturity levels among students a particular school library serves. 

The school district, through school library staff, is responsible for building a collection that fulfills the school library mission and purpose and aligns to the district’s board-approved selection policy and related procedures. Items determined to be of value to the collection should be accessible to all, with limits or restrictions being the responsibility of each individual family.

Building a collection that is varied and dynamic enough to meet the needs of everyone in the school community—supporting learning and student engagement—is challenging work that draws on professional expertise and resources while following the district’s board-approved policies and related procedures for selecting materials for the library.

On the one hand, the idea of “restricting” books with more “mature” content, or specific kinds of content or qualities, so that they are only available with the permission of parents or guardians, may seem like a great solution, and perhaps an easy one depending on available space and technology capabilities. But the reality is that doing so …

  • Ignores that there are different perspectives among parents/guardians on what books/content they may (or may not)  find “concerning” or too “mature” for their child
  • Assumes that all  books with specific kinds of content can be agreed upon and identified  (for example, parents’/guardians’ definition of what constitutes “sexually explicit” content may vary, sometimes widely)
  • Creates a false sense of security for parents/guardians because there is no sure way to identify every book in a library that might contain specific kinds of content, even if a definition is agreed upon (“Well if this book isn’t restricted, it must not have any of the content I’d find concerning.”)
  • Evaluates/judges the potential suitability of some books based on specific aspects of content rather than the work as a whole 
  • Places an alarmist label/stigma on some materials
  • Requires all parents/guardians to navigate a barrier in order to allow their students to access all materials in the school library 
  • Denies students the opportunity to discover some materials and determine if they have an interest in them
  • Undermines the work and role of the library media specialist, second-guessing their decision-making and negating their professional ethics related to intellectual freedom 
  • Ignores legal decisions in the federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, regarding students’ right to read and receive information (see especially Counts v. Cedarville School District)

We believe the best practice is to help parents and guardians learn about the school library program, providing them with information on how and why materials are chosen for the library and how they can browse or search the collection, and emphasizing the importance—and responsibility—of having conversations with their own children about expectations with regard to choices they make, and what they are reading.

When Districts Allow Parents/Guardians to Prohibit Their Children
from Checking Anything Out of the School Library 

We find the second concern you raise, about giving parents/guardians the option to prohibit their own children from checking anything out of the school library without permission, deeply concerning.

The school library program is a foundational part of education in public K-12 schools in Wisconsin. We cannot emphasize this enough. Strong school library programs, led by licensed library media specialists, play an essential role in every student’s educational journey. Libraries provide resources that develop background knowledge, empathy, social and emotional learning, and interest, which are all key to literacy. In addition, school libraries are the hub of increasing information and media literacy, inquiry skills, and the understanding of the complexities of digital citizenship evolving with the use of artificial intelligence.

Giving parents/guardians the option to prohibit their child from checking any materials out of the school library is far different than allowing them to request an “alternate” book in classroom instruction. Providing an alternate choice for a single title in the classroom still leaves the ability to support specific curricular goals intact. But stripping a student of the ability to check anything out of the school library is denying them access to myriad resources critical to supporting their learning. 

Districts should not create policies and procedures that undermine students or disregard the essential role of the library media program in their education.

Parental Restrictions on Specific Titles

Having said that, we acknowledge that allowing parents/guardians to restrict their own child’s ability to check out some books in the school library collection has become more common in recent years. We don’t recommend this practice, and it goes against professional standardsBut it does at least center the responsibility for deciding what books are and aren’t  appropriate for a specific student where it belongs: with their parents/guardians.

If a district decides to allow parents/guardians to put restrictions on what their own child can check out, however, the restrictions should be title-specific, not subject-based, so that district staff aren’t responsible for identifying all the books that a parent/guardian might find inappropriate for their own child–an impossible task as noted in the bullet points above. (Read more about the complexities of implementing such an option here.) 

Again, we understand the desire to affirm the rights of parents and guardians. Again, we think the best way to do this—and the only responsible way when it comes to the school library—is to inform parents and guardians of their rights and their responsibilities. 

It’s important for library media specialists, like other educators, to form relationships with parents and caregivers. This allows for open communication and may lead to more conversations and fewer challenges. It also provides opportunities for helping them understand how and why library materials are chosen, how they can  access what’s in the collection, and the importance of engaging with their children about their choices.

March 2024

Thank you to Monica Treptow for contributing to this response.