Want to Avoid Self-Censorship

Q: With the threat of a challenges feeling constant, I’m finding it hard not to second-guess myself with selection decisions. The fear of a complaint, or of an administrator questioning my choices, is making it hard not to self-censor, and I hate it. Do you have any advice for how I can avoid self-censorship?

We’re sorry you are struggling. And, unfortunately, you are not alone

We wish we had a definitive solution that could ease your fear and reassure you that in following your board-approved policies and related procedures as you select materials–in short, by doing your job–that no one will be unhappy. But of course things are not that simple.

However, we have several suggestions that we hope will add perspective to your current feelings, and also help decrease your uncertainty and isolation. (And while this question is in the context of school libraries, if you work in a public library the points we make below can be adapted for your working situation.)

First, even in these extraordinary times when complaints and challenges regarding materials in school libraries have risen exponentially, it’s important to remember that the potential for concerns and challenges has always existed, and being prepared to respond to them has always been part of the job of being a library media specialist. You simply can never predict what particular book might offend someone–that’s true today, just as it was true in the past, even if we can see trends in the kinds of books and even specific titles that are being challenged nationally. Regardless of what others may think, there is no such thing as a wrong decision if you are following your district’s selection criteria in selecting books.

Second, we encourage you to develop a support network–think about colleagues within and/or beyond your district you can talk with when you are struggling–with specific decisions or about self-censorship in general, or other questions you have. These can be important conversations for feeling less alone and more supported, and also for gaining additional perspective. Selection is complex work; choices are not always clear cut for myriad reasons, including the need to balance various needs and priorities. It’s perfectly fine to need an occasional sounding board. (We also encourage you to think about personal support for yourself, and people who are or can speak out as supporters of the library. We think of this as your “Who Will You Call?” list)

Third, plan a conversation with your immediate supervisor/administrator. Making selection decisions from a place of fear is untenable and so knowing you have support is critical. In preparing for such a conversation, think about whether your fear about what your administrator might say is coming from something concrete that’s happened in the past, or rooted in your general unease in the current climate. 

You will need to decide what approach is best for such a conversation. If you have a good relationship you might want to be upfront about your fear or unease (something the administrator might share) as a lead-in to discussion; you can also approach such a discussion from a proactive position, such as “Given the current climate and what has been happening elsewhere, I wanted to suggest we talk about the library media program and the policies and procedures that inform selection decisions and our reconsideration process so we’re better prepared to respond in case a concern arises.” During that conversation, be prepared with talking points that touch on how and why library materials are chosen, including the importance of diverse materials in the collection, and the reality that no selection decision is challenge-proof but every selection decision is made with the goal of creating a collection that supports student learning and engagement with materials that offer a range of choices to meet their varied needs and interests. 

Finally, your self-awareness is your greatest strength. While it’s also what makes this so difficult, the fact you are actively grappling with self-censorship speaks volumes to your professionalism. Take that to heart.

October 2023