The Importance of Considering Content in Context

Q: I’m struggling with how to explain why words or a scene or images in a book taken out of context should not be used to discount the book as a whole.  Can you offer some ideas for talking about why it’s so important to consider content in context, and not judge a book in a library based on material that’s been excerpted, often with the intent to get people upset?

That’s an important question.

Sometimes it is a word or handful of words, or a single scene or image, that triggers someone’s discomfort or disapproval when they encounter it in a book for children or teens. Currently librarians are facing question after question like this because of individuals and organizations compiling and sharing lists of books that call out, as you note, specific content inside those books without any context, and with the intent to shock and encourage people to call for the books’ removal. Sometimes those raising concerns locally haven’t seen the book/s firsthand. 

The idea that material should be removed from a library based on objections to excerpted text and/or images has three primary—and interconnected—false assumptions: First, it assumes that an excerpt taken out of context can provide a fair assessment of either the specific content or the work as a whole—with the work as a whole being what is considered when curating library collections. Second, it suggests that there is a consensus among everyone in a community regarding what kinds of content and topics children and teens should —and shouldn’t —have access to in a library. Third, it presumes that school and public libraries should only meet the needs of some children, teens and families, not all the children, teens and families they serve. 

Let’s look at each of these assumptions in greater detail, with emphasis on a few talking points.

Content Out of Context

You are absolutely right that no book should be judged for its suitability for a library collection or classroom based on content taken out of context of the work as a whole. Words matter, images matter, and their purpose matters. That purpose cannot be determined without context. And the merit of a work as a whole cannot be determined by words or images taken out of context.

Imagine if “The Star Spangled Banner” was unknown to someone and they were only given the lines, “And the rockets’ red glare / the bombs bursting in air.” They could conclude it’s a song with violent war imagery, or that glorifies the violence of war. Imagine if someone only saw a fist holding a pitchfork rather than the entirety of Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic; they might conclude the pitchfork is being held as a weapon, in preparation for attack or defense. The imagery in Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” is unsettling: a festering wound, the stink of rotten meat. Take that imagery out of context and the poem’s critical question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” and the thought and discussion it can encourage is lost. Or think about it in terms of a recipe: You can’t get any sense of what the whole dish will be like if you only are told one ingredient. Baking soda is not appealing on its own, for example, but it’s a key ingredient in many baked goods.   

In other words, it’s possible to take words or images out of context in many works and find them upsetting, or consider something about them problematic, depending on one’s perspective.

That’s why most library and school “request for materials reconsideration” forms ask if the person bringing the concern has read the work as a whole: Words or images taken out of context can’t provide an informed assessment of the work as a whole. 

Talking point: It is the evaluation of the entire work that is considered when determining whether it has a place in a specific library collection, and it is the entire work —including the words or images cited taken in context of the work as a whole and in consideration of the range of patrons the library serves — that should be reconsidered if it’s being challenged. 

What Consensus of Opinion?

From picture books to young adult novels to books of information for children and teens, books for youth encompass a wide range of topics, content, and themes, from silly to serious, playful to thought-provoking. Among them, there are books with words or images that can be upsetting to some, such as swearing or sexual content. There are books dealing with hard things that exist in the world and in the lives of children and teens, from depression to abuse to violence and sexual violence to racism to war, and the trauma that can result from any of these. There are books with informational content on topics not everyone thinks are suitable for youth, from where babies come from, to sex and sexuality, to gender identity. The professional assessments librarians turn to when selecting books consider how content is approached, presented, and navigated when suggesting an audience age or grade range for an individual book.

But not everyone believes the same things are inappropriate for their children. A book with a scene in which a child is masturbating or thinking about masturbating may be shocking to some parents; others parents may welcome the honest depiction of adolescence . Some families welcome books about puberty, or gender identity; some don’t want to read them. Some families don’t want their children reading stories with witches or magic, others don’t mind. Some parents don’t think teens should read novels that include discussion of sex, or characters having sexual experiences, others see this as part of the landscape of the literature and the world teens are navigating. 

The idea that libraries have to “protect children” from certain kinds of content assumes that there is a clear line of agreement that can be drawn in communities, and a clear line of delineation that can be drawn regarding content. The truth is much more complicated and nuanced, because both people and books are complicated and nuanced. Parents and guardians should absolutely decide what they think is best for their own children; it’s also why they must take responsibility for monitoring and talking with their children about the choices they make.

Talking point: Although there may be clear ideas among individual parents and guardians regarding what they do and don’t want their children to read, there is no community consensus —every family is different. 

Serving All Children, Teens and Families 

Every child, teen, and family in a community is different: different reading tastes and abilities, different interests, different information needs, and different ideas about what is “appropriate.” 

It would be professionally irresponsible for a school district or public library to decide that only books that meet the standards of some families are included in the collection. Just as it would be professionally irresponsible to summarily rule out collecting materials because they contain specific kinds of content without considering context, for the same reason.

School and public librarians look at their collection mission and goals and apply professional standards (which should be outlined in their local, board-approved policies and procedures) that include evaluating materials based on professional assessments and the context in which they will be used. That’s why, for example, a K-5 library or children’s collection will likely include picture books and readers and middle grade novels and books of information for children, but not young adult novels. 

Finally, the concept of choice is both a critical consideration and core value in libraries. A strong library collection offers a wide range of choices aligning to its mission and goals and selected according to its policies and procedures. A strong library collection is professionally curated knowing not every book will be a good fit for every child, teen, or family— because their tastes, needs, interests, and preferences vary widely. A strong library collection is curated with the goal of providing every child, teen or family with a wide range of materials they’ll find useful and enjoy.

Talking point: School and public libraries must serve everyone in their communities and do so with the understanding that every child, teen, and family has different tastes, needs, interests, and preferences, and with the goal of providing them all with a variety of choices.

Books in the Classroom/Curriculum

We want to add that it’s equally important to not consider content out of context when it comes to evaluating books for use in the classroom/curriculum as well. Curricular materials should be selected based on the assessment of the work as a whole in consideration of how it aligns to curricular goals and how it will be used (e.g. are all students required to read the book, or is it one among a number of titles they can choose to read for a class?). Books selected for the curriculum should have professional assessment materials that support their use with the particular grade or age range of students in the classroom. We encourage open communication with parents and guardians about classroom reading requirements and choice, including the fact that as students get older, books selected for use in the curriculum are more likely to reflect the complexities of our world. They should also be informed on district policy regarding alternatives, as most most districts are open to offering alternate options to books that are required reading in a class if a parent or guardian objects to their own child reading the assigned work.

We hope this provides some helpful ideas and talking points.

February 2023

Thank you to Merri Lindgren, Tessa Michaelson Schmidt and Caitlin Tobin for their contributions to this response.