Wednesday, January 23, 2013
The challenges we face
A colleague on the Google Community TLChat posted a question today about a complaint she received regarding a book in her library. The complain came via e-mail from a parent who thought that the language in a particular book was inappropriate for their 15 year old daughter to be reading. Furthermore, it was inappropriate for a school library and should be removed because it was "common sense" that books with words like "the s word" or "the f word" or the letters "WTF" are inappropriate for high school students and this book was clearly not a classic and therefore they didn't understand why it was included in the library.
After reading her post I reflected and thought wow- my first response would not have been helpful. It would have gone something like this: "Have you been in a high school lately? Do you know how 15 year olds talk to their friends? Are you the morality police for the whole community?"
My second response may not be very helpful either, but it was a bit more objective...
I begin every booktalk and library intro with a statement to my students and teachers. I remind them that we have students in our school ranging in age from 14 to about 19. We provide materials for all of these age ranges and while a book may not be right for them, that doesn't preclude it from being appropriate for another student. I let them know that in the same way they can change the channel when something inappropriate is on a cable channel, they are also welcome to close and cease reading a book that contains materials that offend their sensibilities. Teens are curious and my guess is that most wouldn't turn off the tv or change the channel, but part of learning to be a responsible adult is knowing how to guard yourself from things that may cause you harm. Parents and educators can give students the tools to protect themselves, but will not always be there holding that child's hand. Perhaps they should have a conversation with their daughter about what is and is not appropriate in their opinion, rather than trying to have a book removed from the library over a few words.
Sometimes though, calm reasoning does not work. This is when a solid collection and materials selection policy makes all the difference. These policies can be shared with parents, teachers and members of the community when materials are brought into question. Doug Johnson is right in his blog when he warns professionals "don't defend any book." This is because defending the particular book buys into the complaint. It makes it personal. I have known librarians to borrow books in their own name and keep them in a back room so as to avoid potential controversy over a book they did not personally want to defend. This goes against the fundamentals in the Library Bill of Rights from ALA. It is about allowing access within the parameters set forth for collection development.
If I was asked to personally defend the specific merits of a book based on a single word or phrase out of context, it would be difficult and could lead down a slippery slope. Does cursing add to the merits of one book but not another? If the book was written in a dialect is it considered unacceptable because it isn't written in "proper English"? What if it's The Canterbury Tales? If one voice or opinion becomes the law, then we undermine the very foundation of our democracy and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 looks less like fiction and more like a prediction.
For a compilation of collection development policies see this page created by Follett Library Resources.