School Librarians Can Protect Intellectual Freedom, an interview with April Dawkins
In 2019, 19% of materials challenges reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom took place in school libraries. Librarians working in schools need to be equipped to handle challenges when they arise. They also need pre-service preparation and ongoing professional development on a range of intellectual freedom topics, including privacy and emergent technologies.
One scholar-practitioner working in this area is April Dawkins, Assistant Professor in the Library and Information Science Department in the School of Education at University of North Carolina Greensboro. Her areas of teaching include school librarianship, intellectual freedom, and young adult literature. She was a writer and news editor for the Intellectual Freedom Blog, and worked on the ALA’s Selection and Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, and Academic Libraries. She earned her MLS from NC Central University and her PhD in Library & Information Science from University of South Carolina.
I recently interviewed April Dawkins about the newly-released Intellectual Freedom Issues in School Libraries, which she edited for ABC-CLIO, and her work on intellectual freedom topics.
How did you become interested in intellectual freedom as your area of scholarship?
AD: I was concerned as a practicing high school librarian for 15 years. I remember I added the first LGBTQ books to the collection at my first school. I did a display of new acquisitions, including LGBTQ titles. A faculty member saw and asked, “What is this, and why did you buy it?” We had a frank discussion about intellectual freedom, and about the presence of LGBTQ titles. He didn’t agree with me, but he said, “You are the expert here.” The discussion was important.
We discuss this in our young adult materials class at UNC Greensboro. I felt fairly prepared to handle a materials challenge, but as I talk with other librarians, I see this is an area of great concern.
What helped you to feel prepared?
AD: I went to North Carolina Central University. Pauletta Brown Bracy [Professor of Library Science and Director of the Office of University Accreditation], was my young adult literature teacher and we discussed intellectual freedom. Because I had been a classroom teacher, there also was a certain level of maturity. Early career librarians might not have that level of comfort in their own skins as professionals. I also went to a women’s college, Meredith College, that taught me to speak my mind and feel my power. That’s why I chose materials selection and the role of self-censorship as my dissertation. Censorship is rooted in fear. There is a pressure to give in to the majority. The majority for a school librarian is the principal, who has the most power.
I got in touch with Helen Adams [senior lecturer for Antioch University-Seattle and author of Protecting Intellectual Freedom and Privacy in Your School Library]. We went to breakfast at a conference, and she became a mentor. We worked together on the selection toolkit committee.
I’ve seen that school librarians struggle with knowing their policies, and being willing to speak up for their students. We also have a real issue with school administrators not understanding the role of school librarians. They do not have a clear idea of what a school librarian does. I met with a group of school administrators last Spring to talk about the value of school librarians. Having access to administrators is challenging, but needed. There has been a push to have us [scholars of school librarianship] publish in venues that will reach that audience of administrators, no longer preaching to the choir but speaking to people with power.
It has been very clear during the pandemic that access to libraries is important. In North Carolina we have had ongoing programs to promote access, but it is very slow. It took Guilford County and the Greensboro Public Library about three years to work out an agreement. A lot of school libraries have had no funds for decades. Digital resources are not provided necessarily.
Can you describe the primary topics covered in the new book?
AD: This book is a compilation of articles from the archives of School Library Connection, School Library Monthly, and Library Media Connection. I selected the articles, organized them, and edited to bring them up to date in terms of statistics, citations, or statements from ALA. I tried for minimal overlap in the topics. The publishers first approached Helen Adams, who I acknowledge in the beginning.
There are seven sections. We start with an overview of what intellectual freedom is. It’s about more than censorship. Freedom of speech, expression, privacy, accessibility and making sure the resources you are providing are available to everyone, technology and who has access and who doesn’t. Policies and procedures. Policies give you a safety net. Librarians need something to stand on.
I would like to see the most expansion in terms of future work in the section on technology. Broadband is a big issue in this country. Access, equity, and privacy as it relates to technology. Most schools have not thought about the ramifications for student privacy. Like reading student overdue notices aloud: it’s done from a place of convenience, and intending to promote responsibility, but it should not be done.
What audience(s) does your text aim to reach?
AD: These are short articles aiming to reach practicing school librarians to help them handle certain situations.
Through the process of making the book, did you find unexpected stories or new areas of interest?
AD: I’m offering a new elective on legal and ethical issues in school libraries. Knowledge Quest, the journal of the American Association of School Librarians in their September/October issue focused on intellectual freedom. In the issue, I have a piece I co-wrote with Angela P. Branyon from the University of West Georgia, “Why intellectual freedom and equitable access are even more important today.” I talk about legal principles and intellectual freedom as an underpinning for school librarians.
The other issue is copyright and fair use. Not an intellectual freedom issue, a legal issue, but it has become an issue in the pandemic.
Do you have a favorite course that you teach?
AD: The young adult materials class is always fun. It is required of students in the program for school librarians, and many public librarians also take this class. We have really good discussions. We had a good discussion in class about LGBTQ content in youth materials. One student was saying, “I could not put any content in LGBTQ content in my elementary library.” I asked, “Are you saying these books all have sexual content? I’m not saying include YA books in your Elementary library. Do you have any families in your school? If you don’t have books that reflect the diversity of your families, you have a problem.
For an assignment, we had a list of titles in various categories that students could choose. Students would avoid content they were uncomfortable with, and they were uncomfortable with LGBTQ titles. We decided we had to require them to choose a book that had LGBTQ content.
What intellectual freedom topic will you pursue next in your work?
AD: I have an article under review that I co-wrote with my research assistant, Emily Eidson. We look at selection policies from school districts in all fifty states. We took the selection and reconsideration policy toolkit and applied it to the policies of randomly selected districts. This took a year of research and then six months of writing, amidst other responsibilities.
I am working with a neighboring school district on diversity audits. I led a six-part seminar on diversity issues for 25 participants. We started in May, so not all libraries have access to their collections right now [with closures due to the public health crisis]. We will be starting a new cohort with 25 librarians in January.
For another project, with Angela P. Branyon, we are looking at how school librarians are prepared to deal with intellectual freedom issues in their master’s programs. We will use gap analysis with pilot surveys from three different universities to find areas we need improvement.
I want my research to have practical applications. I’m grounded in theory, but I want to see what I can do with this research to change or improve libraries and better equip librarians.
Lisa M. Rand is a librarian in southeastern Pennsylvania and serves on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. She has worked in a youth services in public libraries, with a special interest in creating safe, welcoming, inclusive spaces for teens. In May 2021 Lisa will complete her MLIS at Kent State University. Her research interests include library services for culturally diverse communities, LGBTQ+ literature for youth, and international questions of equity and access to information.