By Kristie Oxley, President, BC Teacher-Librarians’ Association
The term conjures images of books being pulled from shelves and tossed into bonfires. While the truth may not be so dramatic, the result is. Every time a student is denied a book it is in an effort to keep “undesirable” ideas out of that child’s reach. Of course, what is considered “undesirable” changes from generation to generation. The sweet story of a child’s two moms might be read now during a Grade 1 unit on family. Just two decades ago, the same book was banned for precisely the same reason we include it in our schools today.
No one wants to be accused of banning books or censorship. In education, we have an obligation to protect intellectual freedom, and teachers will passionately defend this ideal. On the other hand, teachers, parents, and other educational stakeholders want to protect students from harmful, negative messages in books and other media. We take seriously our commitment to ideals such as equity, reconciliation, and antiracism and want to see this reflected in the lessons, environments, and resources we create for students. The possibility of crossing the line from careful curation to censorship is ever-present in the school library learning commons (SLLC) and classroom.
So, what do we do? The answer lies partially in the careful creation and application of collection development policies.
Collection development policy
A collection development policy is a set of guidelines that oversees both the acquisition and removal of books and other materials from an SLLC. Far from being a prescriptive list of “approved” materials, a good collection development policy will set out considerations such as content, audience, curricular fit, and social considerations. This helps teacher-librarians (TLs) ask themselves important questions when considering a book for their collection. It also aids TLs in deciding between equally great books when budgets are tight (as they almost always are!). For example, in recent years, many TLs have prioritized authentic Indigenous texts and SOGI materials for purchase as a response to changing curricula and efforts to achieve diversity in their SLLC collections. While these titles may have been prioritized, the collection development policy would still help guide the overall evaluation of these materials.
Building an SLLC collection through new purchases is only one part of collection development. Removal of items, commonly called “weeding,” is the other half of the process. Weeding is a constant process and involves scrutinizing materials in an SLLC collection according to specified criteria before removing them from circulation. It is important to note that weeding is a normal part of collection development and does not constitute censorship. As a matter of fact, a vibrant SLLC collection depends on a purchase-weed cycle, without which the collection stagnates and students lose interest.
During weeding, some materials are removed and offered to teachers for classroom libraries. Other items are removed and recycled. Yes, recycled. We tend not to want to throw anything away in education, likely because decades of cutbacks and austerity measures have made us fear that we will never be able to replace what we discard. Some SLLC materials, however, should not be placed in classrooms or donated to other agencies. We’ve all heard the old story of a student opening a textbook and seeing the sentence, “One day man will walk on the moon,” and giggling because it happened decades ago (and only refers to men!). Material that is out of date, factually inaccurate, culturally insensitive, misleading, or even coffee stained and held together by staples can be recycled. Classroom teachers should consider going through their classroom materials and making similar weeding decisions. While items purchased by the district cannot simply be thrown out, discussing identified issues with administration may result in the acquisition of more suitable material.
Collection development nuts and bolts
Overarching collection development policies will be developed by each district, but your district’s policy may only refer in general to learning resources and may be equally applicable to SLLC and classroom materials. In this case, TLs can use evaluation tools, such as locally developed rubrics, that help apply the policy and guide purchasing or weeding decisions.
One incredibly helpful resource is the evaluation form in Appendix 1 of the First Nations Education Steering Committee’s (FNESC) guide Authentic First Peoples Resources, available on the FNESC website (www.fnesc.ca) under the Learning First Peoples tab. This form can be used on its own or to inform the creation of a locally developed evaluation form.
Those who want to learn more about resource selection can also choose to complete the Learning Resource Selection for K–12 Educators course available on Focused Education’s website (www.bcerac.ca). This course highlights the importance of cultural and social considerations when evaluating resources. Focused Education’s K–12 Evaluated Resource Collection is a collection of resources that has been evaluated by educators using the criteria set out in this course. Many districts stipulate that if a resource has been evaluated and approved through this collection, then it is approved for use in their district.
Challenged book policy
Inevitably, books and other materials will be challenged. To be considered “challenged,” a TL or teacher must receive a complaint about a book or other material that includes the request that it be removed from use. Often, the challenge comes as a quick question, gone once answered. Other times, stakeholders may want the immediate removal of items from an SLLC collection, classroom, or school.
While parents ultimately have the right to decide what is best for their child, the temptation is to make a sweeping decision that affects all students in the face of parent or stakeholder complaints. Censorship such as this is truly damaging for students who could be denied the opportunity to connect to material that reflects their life experiences, raises their feelings of self-worth, and shows them they are not alone.
A challenged book/materials policy is absolutely essential in ensuring that complaints about materials are taken seriously and put through a rigorous set of steps before a final judgment is made. Often these policies begin with speaking to the TL or classroom teacher and filling out a form; the challenge then proceeds through steps that include a review of the material by a committee composed of teachers, administrators, and senior administrators before a formal, written response is received by the person issuing the complaint. The material being challenged remains available while the challenge is underway. A policy such as this may seem time consuming and onerous, but it protects all parties from unilateral decisions made in the heat of the moment.
Can I keep it as a teaching resource?
When the redesigned curriculum was first rolled out, many TLs were concerned about the lack of Indigenous literature and other Indigenous resources in their collections. Fast forward several years and many professional development events, and the beginning of a collective understanding around authentic Indigenous resources can be seen among TLs. Collection development policies now support the weeding of materials that do not fit this criterion. The question of keeping some inauthentic materials to support teaching topics such as cultural appropriation or racist portrayals has now surfaced. This is starting to become true in other areas too.
There is no definitive answer to this question. Teachers are an incredibly creative, resourceful group of professionals with the ability to use a variety of teaching resources in meaningful ways. When considering using a resource that might be outdated or contain language, images, stereotypes, or themes that are racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise harmful, start by considering the following:
- What is the purpose of using this resource?
- Is the resource likely to cause damage to those interacting with it?
- Is there something else I could use that would better help me achieve this purpose?
- Answering these questions may give you greater clarity around using the resource or an argument for purchasing replacement materials.
Opportunity and reflection
Curating SLLC collections that reflect the diversity of our students is one of the biggest challenges TLs face. It is also one of the biggest opportunities. Collection development policies can help us select quality resources and weed out older materials that no longer speak to our students. They can also help us fight the urge to withdraw materials without proper consideration, an action that may in fact hurt students by denying them the opportunity to see their reality reflected in print.