Q: I struggle with selecting materials for our school library that are not compatible with my personal beliefs. I realize that the ALA Code of Ethics VII states that we “must distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties” and …”not allow our personal beliefs to interfere…” with “the provision of access to …”information resources.” My concerns lay in the areas of selecting materials on guns and weaponry. Working in an urban setting, we don’t need to encourage any more violence, but I find teachers who are allowing their students a wide berth of freedom in choosing research topics. Last year several students were doing reports on guns and wanted to know the ins and outs of automatic weapons. The only resources we could go to were online. I tried to guide them to sites that spoke about guns from a historical viewpoint.
This is one of the most challenging aspects of librarianship, because in order to do collection development responsibly, librarians will inevitably have to purchase materials that don’t reflect their own values, or that they don’t personally admire. So it’s understandable that you struggle even as you work to uphold the professional ethics of librarianship. Good for you for being willing to raise it as an issue with which you are struggling.
We want to address your struggle in two parts: looking first at the struggle with self-censorship, and second at what can be reasonably expected of any school library.
As a profession, we don’t talk enough about self-censorship—why it happens and what we can do about it. And the reality is that one of the biggest challenges librarians may face in choosing books or other materials for a collection are their own fears or biases. We need to encourage one another to talk about barriers that can arise in materials selection openly and honestly, and we need to create environments where these discussions can take place without fear of judgment. In doing so, we might not be able to alleviate everyone’s fears, but we can certainly help mitigate them, and decrease the sense of isolation that is certainly a reality for some librarians who feel out on a limb when making material selection decisions.
Acknowledging that self-censorship happens is the critical first step to overcoming it. And a good place to start is admitting our own fears and biases—most of us struggle with them, and not all of us are able to move beyond them. But it’s scary. It’s scary to admit to ourselves that we can be fearful or biased in ways that might impact our professional decision-making, and it’s even scarier to think about admitting it to a colleague. Because, to put it bluntly, if we are NOT selecting materials out of fear, or simply because of our own feelings about the topic, we are censoring.
In addition to finding trusted colleagues or others with whom you can talk through this very real struggle, it’s important to remind yourself that you play a critical role in providing access to materials that meet the diverse needs and interests of your school community, and in upholding the First Amendment rights of students. That’s a huge responsibility and challenge. The role you play in terms of what you select and have available, and what you can help them find, is essential to their education. So, too, is meeting them at their point of interest without judgment. For some students, the school library and related resources may be their only or best source for finding reliable information and resources; for all students, the school library should be a place they can go for help with whatever information need they have.
Even as you seek to help every student with their information needs, and to provide a collection that will reflect their many interests, you cannot be expected to purchase everything individual students might be interested in. Individual student topics sometimes go far beyond what a school library can be reasonably expected to have on hand in an ongoing materials collection. Many topics cannot be anticipated and will not be repeated, and most school libraries do not have the funds and therefore the luxury of spending money for resources that will be rarely used.
With regard to what you do collect, it’s important to rely upon the library’s selection policy requiring professional recommendations in determining what the school library will purchase or accept as a gift or donation. It will be helpful if the selection policy provides several examples of the lengths to which the library can reasonably be expected to go in terms of purchasing or cataloging materials for one-time or limited uses. If your policy currently doesn’t do this, perhaps it is something that can be considered the next time a policy review takes place.
In terms of helping students who come in with requests on topics for which the school library does not have in-depth resources, start by providing them with the resources you do have, and help them look at the bibliographies of resource materials these may cite. Does you policies and procedures support students using interlibrary loan at school? Can you help them obtain additional materials that way?
If the student is looking for a certain point of view or very specific information on their topic, it may be necessary to seek out a particular web site for information or materials. The internet is one of the tools you have as an information professional to meet the needs of the students. But as you know, the internet cannot be thought of us a reliable information source in and of itself. And so as with any research being done by students in your library, use this as an opportunity to remind the student of the importance of looking critically at their sources of information. Is a web site promoting a particular point of view or trying to sell a product? Is the information on the site “fact” or “opinion”?
Filters may complicate online searches, so work with technology staff as needed to help students have access to reliable sites.
You might also suggest the student work with you or their teacher in contacting a regional representative of a special interest group or government agency that might be able to provide more information or send materials for their research. For example, if information about the workings of guns is necessary to a student’s capacity to complete a school assignment, a local gun club, an NRA or National Guard affiliate, or the state agency regulating hunting laws might be able to help.
Be sure to check on official policies of your school or district if you have any question about whether or not an assignment is “going too far.” And if you seriously doubt that a teacher has okayed a particular topic, tell the student that it’s your responsibility to contact the teacher, who is, after all, the person responsible for what any student undertakes as a topic in order to fulfill course requirements.
Remember that you have other resources to draw upon, in your community and elsewhere. Think outside the box when meeting the needs of students whose requests for information go beyond what you can reasonably be expected to provide.
Finally, and importantly, in terms of what it is reasonable to provide, make sure you are following your collection development policy, working to meet the needs and interests of your student body as a whole, and not overlooking materials that fit into your collection simply because you don’t agree with them or don’t personally think they belong. We know that might not make your struggle easier, but it will mean you are doing a terrific job for the students in your school.
March, 2006; updated 2020