10 Tips for Responding to Book Challenges in Schools
by Carolyn Foote
As schools open this fall, school libraries are facing unprecedented challenges. Still recovering from the pandemic and on the heels of a year filled with book challenges, many may also need to deal with new state educational content laws. As one of the co-founders of FReadom Fighters, a grassroots group in Texas that has been fighting for intellectual freedom since October 2021, and a school library director (now retired), I’ve seen the slow unfolding of unprecedented censorship and the attempts of school, public, and academic libraries trying to respond to attacks from the public and cope with new
WHAT WE DID—THE #FREADOM CAMPAIGN
Our local FReadom Fighters effort started when Texas state representative Matt Krause released a now infamous list of 850 book titles, asking school districts to examine their collections to see if these books (and any others that might cause shame or guilt around race or sex) were present in their libraries. Shortly afterward, the Texas governor doubled down on this request, implying that school libraries
Several librarians in my personal network texted, wondering what we could do to tell a different story about librarians and their work. We decided to take action, coining the hashtag #FReadom. My colleague, Becky Calzada, suggested a takeover of the #txlege hashtag to get attention for the many wonderful diverse books on our shelves.
On Nov. 4, after secretly notifying colleagues, authors, and teachers and designing graphics for their use, the tweeting began. That day, more than 13,000 tweets went out, celebrating diverse books and the librarians and the authors providing them; the hashtag #FReadom trended 6th on Twitter, nationally. This spoke to the desire of librarians and educators to speak up for inclusive libraries. And it was the birth of our group, as we saw the hunger out there for pushback to the negative rhetoric.
So many communities view libraries as foundational to literacy for children and to our democracy. Now we have a Twitter account with 10,500 followers as of this writing, a website with resources for librarians ( www.freadom.us), and an active hashtag (#FReadom) that is commonly used to respond to censorship stories. We have done news interviews with publications large and small, including European news outlets.
Our goal is still a simple one: to support librarians and help them know they are not isolated, to help them with resources to fight censorship, and to support students, authors, and teachers. Just as the forces that promote censoring books use social media to mobilize their public, we’ve been able to use our social media to engage defenders of #FReadom. We are motivated by service to our students, who deserve access to meaningful and inclusive reading materials.
Being a grassroots group, we monitor our community for trends. When we hear of a need, we can quickly add resources to our site or respond online and direct someone to places for more help. On our Twitter account (@freadomfighters), we offer events that are meant to provide hope and to encourage librarians, authors, and teachers. During the school year, we had frequent FReadom Fridays, when we asked participants to share. One week, we had folks share diverse books that moved them, and another week, we had them share photos of book covers. We also had authors share letters from readers. In addition, we held monthly actions, such as writing school board members appreciation letters for library support. We also share censorship news and have become a behind-the-scenes sounding board for librarians facing challenges that they feel they cannot speak about publicly.
RISING TO THE CURRENT CHALLENGES
As this past year unfolded, we’ve had to shift our thinking about book challenges and how to respond to them. Librarians are used to responding to individual book challenges and know how to talk with one parent or two. Now the environment is much more organized and heated. Librarians need to know how to respond to groups of angry parents showing up at the school board meeting, emailing principals or public library boards, or posting negative comments about them on Facebook and practicing other forms of harassment. Sometimes, the challenges librarians are facing are internal as well; for instance, administrators could be pressuring librarians to withdraw materials and bypass their processes, limit purchases, or check books out so no one else can access them. It is a very challenging atmosphere that taxes our best professional judgment in every type of library.
Book challenges can be isolating experiences that may cause a librarian to question their own judgment or feel like a pariah. Since school librarians are often the only librarian in their school, it is even more isolating. In this era, many of the same titles are being challenged and censored around the country, but individual librarians have been made to feel singled out, as if they alone purchased these titles. So, finding a supportive group or network that can offer resources, give advice, or just listen is important to a librarian’s mental health, because this is actually a shared experience. In this unprecedented environment, having that support is
ADVICE AND RECOMMENDED BEST PRACTICES
So, what can a librarian do? If your library hasn’t been experiencing these issues, it’s tempting to just hope that they don’t happen. However, these challenges are spreading like wildfire, jumping from one district to another and one state to another, as the challengers organize and network. So being as prepared as possible is essential, and here are 10 ways you can do it:
Certainly, one key way to be prepared is to make sure your library selection policies are airtight. This is true for any library, school or not. How often can a book be challenged? If it’s reviewed and removed, how long before it can be reconsidered? Can a group file a challenge, or can it only be submitted by an individual? Does the challenger have to be a resident of the district? Does the complainant have to have read the book? What does “age appropriate” mean? Is a term such as “age relevant” better? All of these questions and more need to be addressed by the policy.
All involved stakeholders have to be educated on the policy. Hopefully, by now, that has happened in most districts, but as these challenges spread or staff changes each year, it’s important to make sure. Are school boards well-versed in how to follow the policy? Are principals? Do school secretaries know how to handle a call from an upset parent? The more informed all parties are, the more likely the policy will be upheld. In our observations throughout the last year, nationwide, it seems that when policies are followed, more books remain on the shelf available to students who need them. But librarians also need to get clarity about what they will do if their board demands they violate the policy or if their superintendent does. Strategizing ahead of time on how to respond to these sorts of situations may help librarians become better communicators before there are wider problems.
This leads to the next piece of advice: Librarians need to be sure there are established support groups for intellectual freedom in their local area. A Friends of the Library group is critical, or a librarian might connect with equity and diversity teams in the district. Student library clubs or book groups may also be advocates. Inform groups like these about library policy, how books are selected, how professional journals work, the demographics of the school, etc. The more informed everyone is, the better they can advocate for intellectual freedom. Consider networking with local groups too, such as the Children’s Defense Fund, Rotary Clubs, and others who care about education.
Unite Against Book Bans has an excellent online toolkit, and ALA’s website offers many resources on intellectual freedom. PEN America has a webinar for students on how other students have fought to keep books on the shelf. In Texas, Texans for the Right to Read has developed a page of resources; in Michigan, MI Right to Read has as well. Groups like these are eager to share their resources with other states. Our #FReadom Fighters website also has resources for parents on how to write to school board members or speak at a board meeting. Reach out to your network of library colleagues for more resources as well.
Another way to prepare ahead of time is to discuss possible scenarios with your district’s legal department. What would it do if a parent is maligning the librarian on Facebook? What if the parent is filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for librarian emails—what is the district policy on that? What is allowed at your school board meetings? Educate yourself, but also make sure the district has its policies in place, especially districts that haven’t faced these sorts of challenges yet. Finding positive examples of best practices in other districts to share with your own makes you a good resource to the administrative team and helps everyone think ahead. Networking with colleagues is crucial in these heated times.
Be very intentional about things such as programming and displays. Continue to create the displays that you feel are significant and important to your student body, and when you do, write a rationale for the display and share it with your principal. Having that work already done shows your serious preparation, and when you tie it into the district’s mission statement or goals, it makes it much harder for the district to not support the display or program. Plus, if written ahead of time, it removes the stress of doing it under duress if there is a complaint.
Seek to understand state laws, such as those addressing divisive concepts, LGBTQ+ materials (Florida), or “obscene” content. Terms may be thrown about very loosely, and it’s important that as an informed librarian, you know what the law actually says. This is also helpful information to be sure your district is clear on. It’s not for the individual librarian to determine what is in compliance with state law around, say, critical race theory, but it is the district’s responsibility to offer clarity on the law. State library organizations can be very helpful for this; for example, the Texas Library Association offered a webinar with legal advice from school board associations and intellectual freedom specialists.
Consider how your state library standards or AASL (American Association of School Librarians) Library Standards can assist as well. Most districts’ job postings request an ALA-certified librarian. By stating this, the district is tacitly accepting the positions ALA holds about the work of libraries and intellectual freedom. (Thanks to Martha Hickson in New Jersey for this insight.) Local librarians in my area were being criticized for advocating for intellectual freedom by sharing information about how libraries purchase materials. But in Texas, the state standards for librarians require that they uphold intellectual freedom and, in fact, include the term “intellectual freedom” more than 19 times within the standards. So, if a parent or administrator thinks that is not the librarian’s role, state standards may indicate otherwise.
Social media can certainly be an ally in fighting against censorship or in staying up-to-date on what is happening in your area. Because these cases are being replicated across the country, being informed about potential issues ahead of time is crucial. Resources such as the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom’s blog are helpful for that. Following your state library association, United Against Book Bans, or sites such as @FReadomFighters in Texas, @FLFreedomRead in Florida, PEN America, and the National Council Against Censorship is another way to quickly track news or trends.
If faced with a challenge, librarians should notify ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, which is tracking book challenges. The office can also offer support and helpful resources and is literally just a phone call away. Reach out to your state library association as well, and if you’re in a union, your union representative may be helpful. Challenges can also be reported to groups such as PEN America and EveryLibrary, which are tracking cases too. In the past, the tendency was to keep challenges discreet, but in the current environment, community support is often needed. The librarian will have to use their own discretion on figuring out the proper approach for their situation, but all of these reporting services are confidential.
Lastly, a word about mental health. These situations are extremely stressful. While it is so important to stand up for students’ rights to access materials, sometimes restrictions are beyond your control. It is very painful to be asked to violate your professional ethics if your own district asks you to cross a line. It may be difficult watching a good library selection policy be thrown aside and replaced by a repressive one. There may be no quick fix to the situation libraries are currently experiencing. Each librarian has to come to this with their own boundaries and to know when the situation has become untenable. But whether or not the situation gets extreme, even short-lived book challenges are very stressful. So, it’s very important to get breaks from the situation, spend time with friends, find joy in other things, or talk to colleagues who will support you. Even little acts of courage will be very meaningful to your students, and some days, just reading is an act of courage. It’s important to uphold the principles of library ethics, and seeking colleagues who can help figure out the best way to do that within the boundaries that each librarian faces is very helpful.
Ultimately, defending intellectual freedom protects our democratic institutions, which seek to serve student and adult learners. Whether a librarian is protecting those values individually, at the local level, or nationally, every effort helps support the freedoms our students and institutions deserve.