Reading Not Encouraged | Scales on Censorship

A teacher fears students will select "unacceptable" library books.

I’m a retired public librarian who just moved from another city. I volunteer with the Friends of the Library book sale at the public library. I was recently sorting books and arranging them on shelves when a volunteer insisted that all LGBTQIA+ books be placed on a shelf labeled “controversial.”
It may be time to review the Friends of the Library guidelines or policy regarding the book sale. If the organization doesn’t have a policy, one should be developed and adopted by the Friends board. It should include a statement about labeling. Books for sale, like ones in the public library, must remain viewpoint neutral. This woman may have an agenda. She needs to be told that labeling books “controversial” is a form of censorship. I suspect she’s acting on behalf of a group like Moms for Liberty.

One way to avoid these censorship attempts is to assign volunteers a genre to sort. Perhaps those who are uncomfortable with certain works of fiction should be assigned nonfiction. Of course, a volunteer may always find something objectionable. Talk about this issue with other volunteers. You may garner a lot of support.

I believe that Friends of the Library sponsors ­programs for the community. Suggest one on censorship. If it’s a panel, make sure you include someone from the ­LGBTQIA+ community. The citizens from this community pay taxes like everyone else, and they need reassurance that their voices are heard. The Friends group could also sponsor a Zoom webinar for citizens who aren’t able to attend in ­person. Advertise it and chart participation.

How do you respond to an elementary school reading teacher who says, “I teach them to read, but I don’t ask them to read”? She worries about her students selecting a book their parents may find unacceptable and avoids the library.
I would ask how she could possibly expect students to improve in reading if she doesn’t promote it. Unfortunately, every subject taught is up for scrutiny. English, social studies, and science teachers are a target of a few parents, groups, and politicians. We can’t let fear of controversy stop us from doing what’s best for students, including reader guidance. Ask the teacher to send students to the library (one at time, or in small groups). Say that you will take responsibility if controversy follows.

Reader guidance hints:

• Ask students what they like to read.

• Ask them to name a favorite book and say what they liked about it. It can be one someone read aloud to them.

• Don’t pass judgment on any book named.

• Tell students to return a book they don’t like. They will likely have an opinion by the end of the first chapter.

• Do this until every student connects with a book.

All readers need guidance, but reluctant readers will remain reluctant if someone doesn’t take them under their wing. That someone is likely you.

I live in a city with several school districts. I’m an elementary librarian in one, and my daughter attends a high school in another. Her school library has always celebrated Banned Books Week. The English teachers asked the students, with ­parental permission, to read one book from ALA’s Top Ten Most ­Challenged Books List. This year, the principal shut down the celebration because two parents complained. The ­principal told me he couldn’t risk controversy.
This is happening all over the nation. Consider organizing a group of parents in support of the program. The principal needs to see that there is a group much larger than the two parents he’s catering to. I am sure you’ll find some like-minded people in the PTA. Address the PTA board as a concerned parent. Take this issue to local civic groups. Also encourage your daughter to organize a free speech group outside of school. They should develop a strategy for telling the board how unhappy they are with the principal’s actions. He may reconsider with community pressure. The best way to fight organized groups that want to redesign the school curriculum is to form larger, louder groups of freedom to read activists. Nothing will change if we don’t say NO to this type of control.

Pat Scales is the former chair of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. Send questions to .

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