Omission or censorship? Meta-outrage overlooks legitimate controversy
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.
I believe that you will find that we do hire school teachers as parental surrogates during the school day. It is the legal principle of in loco parentis (https://usedulaw.com/345-in-loco-parentis.html). They are mandated reporters because of it.
Her argument falls not because she understands in loco parentis, but because she is imposing her personal values on all teachers and all parents. Classroom teachers have the right to assign those works, if they meet the needs of the curriculum. And their responsibilities end when the students leave the school grounds to go home. Parents continue to have the right to determine what their children can read, and by imposing her value judgments on the collection, this superintendent has denied those parents that right.
I have been a teacher, a school librarian, a public librarian and a school board member. I think everybody should read whatever they want. However, there is a big difference between providing a book, recommending a book and assigning one. If a book is on a list, the person who put it there should be able to say why. Sometimes, books end up on lists because they were on other lists, not because those in charge of making the lists have actually read them and see particular value. Sometimes, books are used because the person teaching the class is not well-read enough to know of a better one. ( Make more use of your school librarians. This is their field of expertise!) Others are then left to defend those choices. Educators do have a responsibility to know that what they are assigning or recommending has value.
In this case, there is a huge over-reach on the part of the Superintendent, whose asserted qualifications to make this choice both start with the word “former”. Why on earth hire professional teachers and have what sounds like a cumbersome process of approval for titles, during which they presumably had to explain their reasons for including these books, if she is just going to pull anything she doesn’t like or doesn’t want to defend? This is a clear case of censorship.
And why on earth does this person have the last say? Teachers have tenure for this very reason – to defend intellectual freedom. They should not be standing on the sidelines, letting this happen. Censorship in schools carries over into public libraries, bookstores and other places where people are threatened by the possibility of coming in contact with ideas they don’t understand or don’t like. If they can make schools cave under pressure, why not the rest of society?
Hi, Suzanne, and Annie.
Thank you for your comments! I appreciate your challenges, and I now recognize that “surrogate” wasn’t the best word to use in my argument. If my poor word choice didn’t already make it clear, I’m more enmeshed in the public library space than that of school libraries. I’m also grateful for the link on in loco parentis – it makes sense that educators have authority to enact disciplinary and custodial responsibilities to ensure a safe, educational environment.
But, here’s where I think the editorial has a point – The issue in front of us isn’t black and white. It’s not censorship v. freedom of inquiry because there are ways around the omission. The author essentially says “Go to a different store to buy your coffee,” so with the books, it seems, librarians and teachers can still encourage reading these titles even though they won’t be available in the media center, or on an sanctioned school reading list. Heck, they might even be able to get something through an ILL request. Ostensibly educators and librarians can still dole out unofficial recommendations via readers’ advisory interviews.
So access is still possible, and the Columbia County High School media center can’t offer everything. I’d prefer access by proxy over “having teachers redact profanity and other content from all copies of those books.” as Carraway suggested. Which brings me to my point – while my bad word choice led to a misrepresentation of educators’ duties, we’re still not addressing the legitimate censorship that, by the superintendent’s admission, had already been in practice prior to this controversy. Giving parents “the option to receive a redacted copy of the novel” crosses the line from omission into censorship.
If teachers’ rights are being infringed, then why institute this vetting process at all? And this process is not totally impractical – academia is replete with such practices in terms of admissions, publications, research proposals, degrees etc. Additionally, if this instance denies parents’ rights to their value judgements, can you not say that of every title not offered in the media center? These books weren’t already part of the collection; they were a collection recommendation. When in actuality they had been redacting school-owned titles. I believe that censoring books in loco parentis is an overreach.
I am arguing that teachers have a responsibility to have reasons, beyond “It’s on somebody else’s reading list.” to recommend books to students. Then they need to stand behind their decisions.
Certainly, not everything will be available in a school library – or any library. Public libraries are often the source for books that don’t meet the qualifications to be in a school library. However, allowing an administrator to make arbitrary decisions about what is recommended or available after the educators have made their choices, is censorship. And assuring parents that their children can get redacted versions of books they object to (Where are these available? Is she going to hand parents a book and a Sharpie?) is bad for all purveyors of ideas. Encouraging this level of thoughtless attack at schools only encourages people to move on to the next vulnerable institution – the taxpayer funded public library – where their children, who probably swear like stevedores, may be exposed to bad language and dangerous ideas.
Most libraries do, and all libraries should, have a challenge procedure. The purpose of the procedure is to make people actually read the books they are objecting to and formulate an argument for removing them. This process is rarely completed because most objections are pretty baseless, which becomes obvious even to the person objecting. This administrator should have gone through the process.
While the administrator may not be removing books a la Pico v. Board of Education https://www.oyez.org/cases/1981/80-2043 , She is certainly making sure they never get put on the shelf; which amounts to the same thing.
You made a factually inaccurate claim, and based your argument, in part, on that inaccuracy. It was not “poor word choice.” It was ignorance on your part of the duties of educators and it led you to make mocking and demeaning comments about those educators.
You’ve also misconstrued the editorial you refer to. This is getting awfully close to “fake news.” At the very least, you appear to have misrepresented the issue.
I’ve done what I should have in the first place, and read the editorial. According to the editorial, this is not about a school library collection. It is about titles appearing on a supplemental reading list for the entire school system. Strangely, you acknowledge this, then leap to the conclusion that this means they will be withdrawn from school library collections. On what are you basing that conclusion?
The Board of Education voted on their removal, at her recommendation. She did not make this decision unilaterally, nor did she merely present the Board with a list of titles to approve. According to this editorial, she made a specific recommendation, so the Board knew which books she was recommending for removal.
Does this mean that these books will not be in school libraries? I can’t tell from this letter. Do you have any information about whether they are being withdrawn? All of these are older works (2003, 2013, and 2017) , which would have been purchased when they were published. Are they being withdrawn from the collections of all school libraries in that system?
I suggest you further research this issue and determine the actual facts.