The legal basis for selection of library resources is a material selection policy formerly approved by the school's governing body. Some states including Wisconsin, where I live, require public school districts to have a board approved material selection policy and procedures for reconsideration.
A policy provides an explanation to the school community about how and why library materials are chosen. It ensures the orderly acquisition of resources under a standard set of criteria. The policy also offers a formal process under which library resources can be reconsidered when a book's place in a collection is questioned. The ALA office for intellectual freedom has created an online workbook for selection policy writing tool. It provides a useful outline with recommended policy components, gives brief explanations of each, and includes a sample policy and reconsideration form. The policy components include the objectives for selection such as the objective of the library is to make available to faculty and students a collection of materials that will enrich and support the curriculum and meet the needs of the students and faculty served.
The second component is responsibility for selection. Usually the school board is legally responsible for selection but delegates authority to library professionals. Selection criteria provide guidelines for resources selected. They may include appropriateness for the age and maturity level of the intended audience, treatment of controversial issues, and the diversity of viewpoints.
The section on selection procedures includes all the steps from initial screening to final selection. There should be a section that addresses selection of controversial materials. It may include a statement such as the one from my former school district's policy. Although the board of education recognizes that any item may offend some patrons, selection of resources on controversial topics will not be made on the basis of any anticipated approval or disapproval, but rather on the merits of the resources and its value in the collection and patrons.
It may include a statement such as the one from my former school district's policy. Although the board of education recognizes that any item may offend some patrons, selection of resources on controversial topics will not be made on the basis of any approval or disapproval that is anticipated but rather on the merits of the resource and its value to the collection and patrons.
The final component is reconsideration. No matter how carefully a resource is selected, it may offend someone and cause them to seek its removal from the collection. It is essential that the selection policy include a reconsideration process by which questioned resources may be reexamined. This is done by a formally-appointed committee representing the school community. Most reconsideration procedures include a step for seeking an informal resolution of the concern prior to any formal reconsideration process. Our reconsideration form to be completed by the complainant is also a part of the policy. The URL for the ALA workbook for selection policy writing is included on the key resources bibliography.
Selecting school library resources is one of the most critical responsibilities of the school librarian. The resources selected become part of the print and electronic collection which students will use for curricular and personal purposes. Teachers will also need materials to support their instruction. Selection includes evaluating and monitoring the collection, determining where new information is needed and out of date and material should be removed.
Selection is an ongoing process, often complicated by fiscal, school and community climate, and other constraints. It is impossible to select a resource that does not have the potential to upset someone within the school or community. School librarians use the policy selection criteria to guide selection of library resources. In the event of a challenge, he or she will also use the criteria to defend the selection. An effort should be made during the selection process to match the prospective resource with as many selection criteria as possible.
Every research should be directly defensible because it met one or more of the selection criteria prior to purchase. Correlating resources to criteria is critical. Those met during the selection process will be the same criteria along with reviews and other information used to defend a resource during a challenge.
Some books never make it into the collection not because there are insufficient funds or the resource does not receive good reviews but rather because of self-censorship. If we are honest, every school librarian will acknowledge struggling with self-censorship. It may mean not purchasing a resource based on personal prejudices or conscious or unconscious bias or fear of challenges. In a time when school librarian's jobs are being cut, that fear may increase. School librarians must combat against self-censorship.
In 2009, School Library Journal published the article "A Dirty Little Secret: Self-censorship." It revealed that out of 655 librarians surveyed, 70% said they would not purchase certain controversial titles because they were afraid of parents' responses, 29% were afraid of backlash from administrators, 23% said they would not purchase a book to the personal objections. It is difficult for a school librarian not to allow personal values, beliefs and biases as well as their fears to impact selection decisions.
Every school librarian has wrestled with the temptation of self-censorship. It is easy to look at the community and anticipate a challenge if a book is edgy or on a hot button topic. Realistically, however, we cannot see into the future and should not prejudge a book thinking it may trigger a challenge. We owe it to our students to select the best library resources possible. As the popular quote by Jo Godwin states, "A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone."