Request for Additional Selection Criteria

Q: Our selection criteria require we look at professional reviews, recommended lists, and other sources to select materials recommended for the ages/grades we serve in my high school library, with the goal of building a collection that supports student learning and interests and “reflects the cultural diversity and pluralist nature of American society.” My administrator wants me to develop more detailed criteria for certain types of books, and I’ve even been casually (not officially) asked why we need to collect ___  (graphic novels, books with references to sex are two among several things have been mentioned). This request alarms me for several reasons, including that it seems counterproductive to try to “fix” something that isn’t broken (not to mention incredibly time-consuming and challenging to implement). Am I correct that this isn’t a good idea? 

Unfortunately, in the current climate, those seeking to eliminate specific types of materials and content from school and public library collections have been agile in adapting their approaches. So even though this request is coming from your administration, we are guessing it is in response to external pressure they feel. 

 Essentially, requests like this have the potential to place barriers in the path of collection development when it comes to certain types of materials. And we agree that it’s alarming. 

 We don’t want to minimize the pressure and scrutiny districts may be feeling, but when administrators (and/or board members) cave to the pressure, they have in essence said that avoiding public criticism is more important than serving students and supporting their rights to access information. The willingness to erect such barriers also reinforces the idea that some materials are inherently “dangerous” or “problematic” or “questionable” or “unworthy.” Finally, this request disregards the fact that selection criteria that align to professional standards provide guidance for building a collection of materials to meet the wide range of maturity levels, interests, and needs of a school community without limiting or restricting access to specific types of materials or content, while absolutely considering the age-or grade- range that materials are recommended for while making selection decisions. (Read more about content, evaluation and selection here.)

You note that your policies and procedures direct that the school library collection should reflect “the cultural diversity and pluralist nature of American society.” This language appears in both Wisconsin Statute 121.02(1)(h) and Wisconsin Administrative Code PI8.01(2)(h). It provides the broad statutory framework for your collection development work. Your locally developed, board-approved policies and related procedures provide the local framework and required guidance in how you carry that work out. We would hope that no district adopts policies and procedures or practices that in either spirit or fact undermine the intent of that statutory language for building “a current, balanced collection … which depicts in an accurate and unbiased way the cultural diversity and pluralistic nature of American society.”  

You also note that developing such criteria would be akin to fixing something that isn’t broken, so we assume that your district’s existing selection criteria have been providing you with the guidance necessary to develop a collection that includes a broad range of materials that align to the school library’s purpose and collection goals. We note this because it’s important to acknowledge that selection criteria, like any other element of your policies and procedures, can certainly be revised. And you can certainly initiate a conversation with administrators asking for more specifics: What criteria would they like to add to the selection criteria, and why?  But it’s important to keep in mind that revising criteria to make it harder to select certain types of materials, or to require that criteria beyond what is outlined in policies and procedures be met, is to approach collection development with the intent to exclude. It reminds us of the literacy tests historically given to some Black voters in the south: exceptional rules that applied only to Black voters in communities intent on preventing them from casting a ballot.  

As for the question “Why do we even need _____*?”  We’re glad that you’ve not been asked this “officially,” but it’s chilling that you’ve been asked it at all. Here are a few thoughts to consider if you decide you want to respond, or are put in the position of having to respond to an official inquiry.

We need ____ because materials in the school library are selected to provide students with choices. We need _____ because and there are students who want to read ____, and so we look for  _____ that meet our selection criteria. We  need _____ because we cannot summarily exclude  ____ and still claim to be striving to provide students with a balanced collection offering a wide range of choices to meet their diverse information needs and reading interests. And we need  _____ because refusing to collect  _____, in principle or practice, is censorship.

 *Fill in the blank: graphic novels, adult books in high school collections, books about activism, YA romance…whatever is being singled out by format or content.


September 2023