What Updates Should Library Collection Policies Include?: Book Censorship News, February 23, 2024

Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She’s the editor/author of (DON’T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

It’s been close to two years since writing about why libraries need to have strong book challenge policies; in the fall, this guide helped to consider where and how to actively incorporate inclusivity in collection policies. Because library collection policies are living documents and need to be regularly updated to accommodate the climate around them, it’s time to revisit this topic and look at what contemporary book banning has made clear needs to be better articulated in these policies.

This guide is for library workers, of course, but it is also useful for library advocates. It is an opportunity for you to look at your local library’s policies and champion strengthening them in order to encourage and support the most inclusive collection possible.

Below are four areas of consideration. It’s not comprehensive, but instead, a series of places to start now.

Where and how do you sticker items?

Autauga-Prattville Library (AL) recently made headlines for two major changes to its policies. First, the board decided no books for those under the age of 17 could include LGBTQ+ content. Second, the board would require every book in the collection that has any LGBTQ+ content to be given a red label to warn patrons. It is not the only public library to make such a decision when it comes to using labels to “out” books with queer content in it. In some cases, public libraries have gone so far as to put those LGBTQ+ stickers inside the covers of books in order to warn readers in an even more insidious manner.

Demco, Broadart, and other library suppliers create an array of stickers for use in helping readers find items of interest quickly while browsing. These stickers include genre — mystery, science fiction, romance — as well as themes — humor, holiday, LGBTQ+. What is meant to help readers find, though, can be used to not only stigmatize but to target those titles.

Your library policy should note what stickers you use in your collection and why. That second piece is important because it forces stakeholders to consider the purpose. It also clarifies to users what the purpose is.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to do away with stickers that could potentially do more harm than good.

Book Display and Reader Advisory Materials

Book displays have been targeted in dozens of libraries. The complaints range from being “indoctrination” — Pride displays during June — or that displays for adult books are located too close to children’s areas, and kids might accidentally see a book with (gasp) two men holding hands. Displays have been targeted, too, for “promoting ‘Critical Race Theory’” (i.e., there was a Black History Month display). Many of these complaints include the rhetoric you’d anticipate about how there are no displays with Christian books or those which present conservative viewpoints.

Collection policies should address book displays the same way that they do materials acquisition. Note that displays will cover a variety of themes and topics of interest to the community and that their purpose is to highlight what is in the collection and/or what community members have been asking to see more of. You could list regular display themes that happen annually, too, including Pride, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Black History Month, Horror for Halloween, and so forth.

Library displays happen throughout the library, and the actual space in which they happen may not be consistent. Note this! When you note it, give language to the things you take into consideration when creating the display. For example, your library is only so many square feet, and because the young adult section is in the same space as the picture books, there might be times when the book display for teens is up in the same space.

Reader advisory tools follow the same formula. Note what you create and why it is created. You have a big contingent of mystery readers, and thus, you often create printed booklists of mysteries on various themes and tropes, such as queer mysteries, cozy mysteries, procedural mysteries, and so forth.

Taking the time to articulate display and reader advisory tool policies is helpful not only to ensure you’re covered but also to help you look holistically at places where you may be able to do better. Have you put together a display of recent Christian fiction? Maybe it’s time! Perhaps you put together a display of books featuring a range of political pundits across the spectrum — you acquire them because they are of interest to your community — with a fun or catchy display title (“You love to hate them!”).

Here’s a bonus: take photos of those displays and keep them in a file. This will be incredibly useful if complaints roll in about how “one-sided” your displays are. They aren’t.

Clarify What Sources You Use to Select Materials — and Those You Don’t

Most library collection policies include that they use professional resources to decide what to acquire. But take this a step further. Name what those sources are and include why they are used. For example: “We utilize three professional review sources, which are Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. All three are peer-reviewed journals that include material reviews written by professionals in the library and academic worlds. This allows for considering titles based on expert insight, potential audience, and reading trends.” You can customize as appropriate, of course.

It is likely you use customer reviews on sites like Amazon, as well as consider purchase requests from patrons. Not only should you note this, but explain why. Example: “Sometimes it is important to consider other reviews when deciding to make a purchase, either because an item has not been reviewed in one of the professional resources or because the professional reviews offer conflicting information. We utilize reviews from customers on Amazon and Barnes & Noble to get a sense of what readers think of these items to help inform our decision.”

As important as highlighting what resources you use is naming those which you do not use. We know where the book banners are getting their “information,” and it is crucial to address this. Professional reviews do not come from BookLooks or RatedBooks. State this in the policy and make it clear those sites are not used for decision making and they are also not acceptable for use in materials challenges. We know book banners download and paste those “reviews” into their complaints, plagiarizing the work of others who are not experts in librarianship, literacy, or child development.

Professional reviews also do not come from Common Sense Media — this one is particularly thorny because there are professionals involved in evaluating the site, but its history and ownership are not without bias. Common Sense Media can be a helpful tool for library workers as they help with reader advisory with parents looking for specific types of content for their child. For example, a parent wants to borrow books for their 10-year-old that do not have profanity; this is where Common Sense Media can help library workers. Put this right into your collection policy to protect your collection from those who want to turn to Common Sense Media as a trade journal. It’s not.

A note about Booklist as a review source: it is a legitimate resource. We know the value it has, especially because it only includes positive reviews of materials. The problem is, though, that it is affiliated with the American Library Association (ALA). The ALA has been an early and long-running target of book banners, and thus, Booklist itself is seen as a non-credible source in their eyes. If you use Booklist, it’s important to note that its affiliation with the ALA is important because the ALA is the largest professional association for the library world. Emphasize profession and professional here; that’s what it is, and it’s what the book banners are actively undermining.

Define Exactly What Happens During the Challenge Process

The collection management policies an institution has are there to protect the First Amendment Rights of everyone, both inside the institution and those who use it as taxpayers. This needs to be clearly reflected in the language and transparency around the book challenge process.

When a book is challenged in your collection, what happens? The book should remain on shelves throughout the entire process. If it doesn’t, this is a form of quiet/silent censorship and revokes the rights of other people in your community to access that item. In Elkhorn Area School District (WI), the collection policy allowed for 444 books to be immediately removed from shelves when one parent challenged them — this is a gross violation of the rights of students, educators, and the taxpayers of the community. See also the fact that Escambia County Schools (FL) removed student dictionaries, Bible stories, and more from shelves when titles were challenged late last year. State that the book stays on shelves and that new copies of the book will be purchased for review by each member of the committee. But don’t just state it — actually follow it so your institution isn’t in the position of banning titles as policy (and yes, it’s banning because the books are inaccessible when once they were).

Outline the process of a challenge. Clearly state what needs to happen on the end of the challenger. This might include filling out the challenge form completely, presenting complaints in their own words, and requiring that they have read the material in full. State that reviews from sources like BookLooks and RatedBooks are not acceptable substitutes for doing the work themselves. Complaints who don’t read the whole book do not get to have their challenge proceed until they do. Explain why, too: it is essential because a book is not considered obscene without being considered as a whole.

Once you have that piece in your policy, specify what happens next. Who gets the challenge form and why? How do they determine it can proceed? Who creates the review committee? Who is represented on the review committee? How can people get involved in the review committee if they want to be a parent, student, or community representative?

Be clear on the timeline of the process. Once the form is received, how long does it take for the challenge to be reviewed and then proceed? How long does the committee have to read the material? When will it be discussed, and how will the community know when the meeting happens?

All of this protects the entire community.

Lay out in your policies what happens once a decision is made. Can it be appealed, and if so, how long is the period of time in which an appeal can be made? Once a decision has been made and there is no appeal, how long does the decision remain (consider a timeframe mirroring the term of a school or library board member)?

Then, include a projected cost for a single book ban. You know who is on the committee from your staff. Estimate the cost of the hours they will spend reading and reviewing the material, as well as the cost of the material itself. We know that these book bans are, in part, meant to be a waste of time and financial resources and that some have cost upwards of $3,000 for a single title and anywhere from $6,000 to $25,000 to $30,000 and more.

When you include the costs in your policies, you help your average citizen better understand how much of their money is being stolen by partisan hate.

Remember: the library is not neutral. It CANNOT be neutral because it is paid for by tax money. This applies to public libraries and public school libraries. What libraries are, though, is nonpartisan — at least insofar as they can be. When libraries are on the ballot and are a target, they cannot be nonpartisan, either. They must be partisan in favor of their own survival.

Your policies need to reflect this, as your policies are your opportunity to continue positioning yourself as you are: institutions of democracy and civic engagement, upholding the First and Fourteenth Amendment Rights of all.

Book Censorship News: February 23, 2024

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