By: Ross Sempek
School libraries can’t seem to get a break. They get grief about what materials shouldn’t be in their collections, yet receive resistance when they opt to omit books from the stacks due to educational merit, or lack thereof. An example of the latter is profiled in this recent Augusta Chronicle editorial. Regrettably, the author sets a dismissive tone when considering the complex topic of school library collection development; and the differences between selection, omission, and censorship. Their opening plea for the reader to “calm down” doesn’t inspire great expectations, but I think there’s something here so let’s give it a shot.
Written in response to what must have been vocal pushback against the deselection of three books from a Columbia County school’s supplemental reading list, the author seeks to distinguish between censorship and selection. So despite the juvenile admonishment that invariably produces the opposite outcome, I think it’s worth it to consider their viewpoint, albeit framed by some dodgy logic. Let’s dismantle this lens in order to move on.
Following this appeal for tranquility, the author assures me that my favorite coffee brand was not banned from my local grocer (thank goodness, Boyd’s is life). The store simply chose not to offer it. Hearing this news increased my heart-rate (or was that the coffee?), but it was just a hypothetical to get me to think about what they bemoan as “ban worries.” The school library hasn’t banned your favorite book; they have chosen not to shelve it.
Waitwaitwait… Coffee is not books. Books aren’t coffee. They’re certainly an ideal pair, if their contact is limited, but comparing books to coffee (albeit mana) is a gross oversimplification. Books are legally-protected constitutional speech. There is no Miller-test for coffee. Such a comparison trivializes the space inhabited by speech, literature, and intellectual freedom. So we’re not off to a great start, but the meat of message is earnest.
Selection, while inherently limiting, is our only option as libraries. Try as we might, supplying everything is impossible. As a result, selection also has a positive denotation – it provides where censorship deprives. And on its surface, omission says as much as selection – “these books didn’t make the cut” is decidedly a downside. Some may read this as bias against unselected books. Nevertheless, it’s hard to protest the unavoidable compromise of having some things over having everything.
Even the unsung practice of deselection, or weeding, can be fraught with problems. Especially if it’s misconstrued as censorship, as it was just a year ago in Salem, OR. Though the outrage has waned there remains a less-reportable fallout in which the weeding decisions get documented two times over in order to quell controversy. Weeding is as necessary as selection, in fact the two are inextricably linked. As new material comes in, old material must go out. So in both the Salem, and Augusta example, the perceived-censorship-outrage at weeding and selection was informed by a misunderstanding of library operations.
Case in point, the omission in the Augusta case wasn’t insidious or, as the author puts it, “sinister.” And it wasn’t done on a whim, either. The decision was made by school superintendent Sandra Carraway during her review of book titles that had since gone through the proper channels of selection – committee proposal, educator assessment, and then her review. Books that she approves go on to the school board to undergo a vote.
Sounds good to me. But Carraway’s decisions for omission are, like the coffee-to-book comparison, understandable yet worrisome. Concerning her choice to leave-out “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” “Dear Martin,” and “Regeneration” from extra-curricular reading, she cites her self-proclaimed paternal duty: “As a former English teacher and an English major, when we’re charged with educating children – people’s children – we act in the place of parents.” I beg to differ – Educators educate, and parents parent. Parents also educate, but teachers aren’t employed as surrogates. They’re there to teach. And library collections don’t (shouldn’t?) promulgate value judgments. Those are reserved for the students themselves, and for their parents.
Why this worries me is because Carraway has ostensibly let this approach inform her management of objectionable materials in her district’s libraries. For example, “…if a teacher uses one of the books that contains questionable material, a notice will go home to parents and they will be given the option to receive a redacted copy of the novel.”
Ah. Now THERE’S your censorship.
Ross Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate and a Library Assistant at the Happy Valley Public Library just outside of Portland, Oregon. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.