Sunday, 26 July 2009


During the recent facilitation of a summer short course about the roles of the teacher-librarian, a discussion of methods for building a choice collection spurned a debate about books with sensitive topics.

The teacher-librarians in the audience reported that they dealt with resources deemed objectionable by parents, the staff, or themselves in many alarming ways. The books were not purchased, hidden from view and could only surface with a parent request letter, or labelled with warning stickers. The threat of controversy seemed to facilitate forgoing the concept of intellectual freedom.

Fear should not dictate collection acquisitions. I recall the controversy that surrounded the 2007 Newbery Award winner, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. The inclusion of the word “scrotum” (in reference to the location in which a dog was bit) was sufficient to ban the book from many of the library shelves' in our school division. A recent book challenge in the public library sector reported by CNN, Library fight riles up city, leads to book-burning demand, has embroiled the community in a large-scale dispute. My professional experience involved a group of parents who expressed concerns with the inclusion of Halloween books in the school collection. After a denial of their request, a parent-volunteer entered the school library when I was facilitating a classroom visit, gathered the questionable holiday books and drove away with the resources. Although I applaud the group's tenacity but not their method, I became aware of the teacher-librarian's role in developing a collection that reflects not only the curriculum, but the varying interests and values found within the community it serves.

In her article, Debra Lou Whelan reports self-censorship is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify due to the lack of open discussion and available data. The American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom only documents written challenges to library books and materials, and even then, it estimates that only one out of five cases are reported. The only available statistics of self-censorship stem from a recent survey conducted by The School Library Journal . It found that 70% of librarians will not purchase controversial titles due to fear of parent response. Personal objection and possible backlash from administration and/or students were cited as other common reasons for avoiding possible troublemakers.

While purchasing materials, teacher-librarians must be cognizant of the three C's (source unknown) - curriculum, clientele, and currency. However, the selection of resources is the managerial role of the teacher-librarian. The teacher-librarian also encompasses the role of a literacy liaison - engendering and strenghtening students' passion for reading. Book selection strategies, book talks, and staffed book exchanges help students select reading material that meets their needs and interests.

Self-censorship denies students information and insight into relevant topics. Debra Lou Whelan insists that teacher-librarians embrace a proactive stance to collection development by “building the collection you feel you need and dealing [with the controversy] later.” Personal objections to material should not influence purchase.

To derail possible self-censorship, educate yourself. Complete the Self-Censorship Checklist from The New York Library Association to analyze your selection practices and possible bias! Talk with others regarding your fears and how this may be barrier in materials selection Reviewing it is one way to start thinking more critically about your own work and your library’s practices. (Re)acquaint yourself with your school division's collection development and book-challenge policies, support your selections with good reviews, and highlight the book's adherence to curricular concepts.

As a final touch of irony, we concluded the workshop with a reading of And Tango Makes Three. The response - teacher-librarians were scrambling to include the title on their "Must Purchase" lists and the threat of controversy never did not rear its ugly head.

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