School Libraries and Censorship Analysis

At Issue

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Attempts to censor in classrooms and school libraries have grown steadily, and the success rate of censors in having materials removed from school libraries is disturbingly high. Of the fifty most-banned books in the United States during the 1990’s, forty-eight were banned in school libraries.

In Loco Parentis

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

No librarians are more vulnerable to censorship attack than school librarians. The reasons for this are best seen by comparing school and public libraries. Public libraries are fairly well understood as places holding all sorts of materials for all sorts of readers, including adults, children, and teenagers. Their broad mandate gives them some degree of protection. In addition, many public libraries have strengthened their position by adopting an open-access policy. Open access makes all materials in the library available to everyone regardless of age. This means that the librarians do not interfere with patrons choosing and borrowing any materials that they desire. Such policy declares that librarians will not assume responsibility for a child’s selection and use of library materials. This burden is placed back on the parents, who are generally required to sign a child’s borrower’s card acknowledging this arrangement.

Although this approach has been effective in discouraging censorship challenges in public libraries, it cannot be used by school libraries. Most school librarians sign teaching contracts when they are hired. Such contracts contain clauses specifying that all teachers act in loco parentis, that is, in the place of the parents. In the case of school librarians, this principle is taken to mean that librarians must assume responsibility for all the library materials that students borrow or read.

Censorship and Selection

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Censors sometimes point out that every time that librarians make decisions to include materials in a library, they are also deciding to reject other materials. In other words, what librarians call selection may be seen by others as censorship. In particular, librarians have been criticized for excluding materials that may present traditional viewpoints on, for example, the role of women in the family. There is a rebuttal to this argument. The approach of those who select is positive, that of censors is negative. Selectors look for reasons to buy or keep a book; the values, virtues, and strengths of a book overcome negative objections. Censors find reasons to reject a book, looking for any objection. There is, arguably, no flawless work, and even the Bible has been censored not for having flaws but because of the possibility that its readers might err in interpreting it. The censor’s approach is to discard, the selector’s to keep. If all imperfect works were discarded; there would be no libraries.

School library censorship cases occur when the interests and rights of parents, teachers, students, and school boards come into conflict. The school resource center, unlike the public library, is seen as specifically intended for the use and instruction of children and young adults. There are differing views, however, about the nature of the educational process and the role of the school library in it. Some parents regard education as a process in which young...

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Vulnerability of School Libraries

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

School librarians are also made vulnerable because of their professional isolation. Public librarians generally work as part of a team of professionals who can be turned to for support, understanding, and encouragement in times of trouble. The school librarian, however, is often the sole library professional in a school, outnumbered by classroom teachers, who may or may not have thought through the issues concerning the library and intellectual freedom, and the principal, who may prefer to run a quiet ship than to face political heat for doing what is right.

Most complaints come from parents and guardians, and most of these complaints are made individually, rather than by groups. Well-organized procensorship groups do exist, and may be consulted by parents who are not satisfied with the initial results of their complaints. Most of these groups are based in the United States, but they have been quite effective in using electronic methods of communicating their messages over the fax wires or the Internet. As a result, chapters of American organizations have been formed abroad, particularly in Canada.

Organizations concerned with limiting materials available in school libraries include Parents for Quality Curriculum, who have as their goal “to express concern about the perceived negative implications and anti-Christian slant in certain poetry, short stories, and plays that can be or are currently being taught to secondary school students.”...

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(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

School librarians sometimes hope to avoid censorship problems by sagaciously anticipating what may be objected to, and carefully excluding such materials from their purchase list. This strategy is unlikely to succeed. The variety of materials attacked in school libraries is truly bewildering. An A-B-C book was removed from a school library in Alberta because a parent complained that the reference for the letter N, a nudist eating noodles in Naples, was not appropriate for kindergarten students. Two volumes of an encyclopedia were removed from a rural school because they dealt with human reproduction, which the complainant saw as explicit sex. Bad language—quite often a matter of one or two words in the entire book, and words that are presented in a context of disapproval for their use—is the reason given for attempts to censor many children’s and young adult classics.

Paul Zindel’s novel The Pigman (1968) has been attacked for profanity, although there is no profanity in the book; the characters are shown using such typographical symbols as “ and ” to represent cursing, and this was enough to draw a challenge.

Another traditional reason for complaints has been sex. Two romance novels were declared pornographic by the parent of a Texas high school student. The parent demanded that all romance novels be removed from the library. Other titles attacked for sexual content include many literary classics and many sex education books. Sex education books were removed after complaints that they contained material that dealt with such topics as alien to adolescent experience as masturbation, homosexuality, and premarital sex.

Violence is also a source of concern. Traditional fairy tales require that villains be punished, and realistic young adult novels sometimes record the violent nature of society. Some parents seek to censor such books in order to protect young readers. C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) was criticized by a parent in Howard County, Maryland, for its “graphic violence, mysticism, and gore.”

Religious Challenges

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

During the 1990’s a new concern took over as the most common reason for censoring school materials. Books were attacked for being anti-Christian, satanic, or “New Age.” There has been a strong concern with witchcraft and the supernatural. For example, Madeleine L’Engle, a Christian writer, had her award-winning book A Wrinkle in Time (1962) withdrawn from a Winnipeg school following complaints from parents that the book was anti-Christian and too fanciful. The Impressions reading series has been said to advocate occult and satanic topics. Any title containing the word “witch” has been apt to draw attacks, a fact that has made nearly every book in the fantasy genre a target. The materials which were chosen to serve as fuel for the bonfires lit by a Dayton, Ohio, minister of the Victory Bible Church provide an inventory of the latest targets of censors: books and materials considered satanic or pornographic, horoscopes, tarot cards, rock albums, materials related to Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, and New Age religions.

A growing area of concern among those of the liberal left are books accused of being racist, sexist, or otherwise objectionable. Babar (1966) was banned in a Massachusetts school because the elephant “extols the virtues of a European middle-class lifestyle and disparages the animals and people who have remained in the jungle.” Rudyard Kipling’s story “How the Leopard Got His Spots” and Mark Twain’s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) have been opposed because of their use of the word “nigger.” Little House on the Prairie (1935) has been banned in Alberta because of the book’s “negative stereotypes about native people.” William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596-1597) has been banned in a large Ontario school district in response to parents’ complaints that the play is anti-Semitic.

Defenses Against Censorship

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The first line of defense against censorship is a clearly written collection policy. The first section of this document indicates who is responsible for selecting materials. This is generally the school board, which delegates this responsibility to the school librarian. This fact should be made clear in the policy. Also included in the first section are the criteria and procedures used in selecting materials.

The second section of the collection policy describes the procedures implemented when someone complains about a book. At the initial level, the complainant is urged to meet with the librarian or teacher and the principal to discuss the complaint. Most often the problem is solved at this point. The complaint may be withdrawn on the basis of the explanation given, or the offending book may be replaced by another for the complainant’s child.

If an agreement is not reached, a more formal challenge is made. A form, which is included in the collection policy, is filled out by the complainant, and the book is reconsidered by a special committee. If this decision is also rejected, the process moves on to the school board. It is extremely important that every school jurisdiction have a carefully written collection policy. Research has demonstrated that those schools which have a policy have a better record of retaining challenged materials than those that do not have a policy.

The other important preparations which school librarians can make are to keep informed about trends in censorship; make allies of local, state, or provincial organizations that oppose censorship and defend intellectual freedom; and stay in close touch with parents, teachers, and principals. Explaining what the library does in the education system, and the importance of intellectual freedom is a vital task for the school librarian.


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Herbert N. Foerstel’s Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994) analyzes several major book banning incidents in American schools and libraries from 1976 through 1992; it also summarizes challenges to the fifty most banned books during the 1990’s. The American Library Association Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom (Chicago: American Library Association, 1986-) provides a registry and description of censorship challenges and a running bibliography of intellectual freedom. Dave Jenkinson’s “Censorship and Canadian Schools” in Contemporary Educational Issues: The Canadian Mosaic, edited by Leonard Stewin and Stewart McCann (rev. ed. Toronto: Copp Clark Pittman, 1993) is a survey. A resource for ways to deal effectively with censorship is Henry Reichman’s Censorship and Selection: Issues and Answers for Schools (rev. ed. Chicago: American Library Association, 1993).