By Jennisen Lucas, District Librarian
Park County School District 6
Censorship. It’s a word that causes many a librarian’s blood to boil. It’s a hot topic because we have strong beliefs that no one should interrupt our rights to access information and stories. It’s a First Amendment issue. However, we also fiercely want to protect our children. And censorship tends to call these two beliefs into conflict. This conflict came forward in force last year in Cody, Wyoming. I was not in the district at that time, so what I understand about this situation is mostly hearsay.
So, let’s go back a little. The issue began in November of 2017 when a parent discovered that her son had checked out the book A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone. In perusing the book, this parent became incensed at the content, which she determined was not acceptable for her child to read. This concern was compounded by her realization that her child had access to materials at school that she determined were unsafe for her child, and she brought this concern to the school. The library staff referred her to the principal, and the parent ultimately decided to submit an official challenge to this material being in the library, as provided for in district policy.
When the book came before the reconsideration committee, it was discovered that the policy regarding the selection and reconsideration of library materials had been deleted in an effort to streamline policies, assuming that the policy for the reconsideration of instructional material, which is assigned for students to read, would be sufficient. However, this left the committee struggling with how to consider a library book, which may be read by choice. After much discussion, including some debate on whether individual members of the committee would feel comfortable with their children reading the book, the committee ultimately voted to retain the material in the library.
This is when things got a little murky. Because the district policy on instructional material says that the School Board is tasked with choosing instructional materials, and some members of the School Board disagreed with the committee’s decision, the School Board overturned the committee’s decision and voted to remove the book from the library collection, effectively banning the book.
Because I was not the librarian in the Cody School District at that time, the book was being considered by the School Board before I was completely aware of what was going on. I did not have time to read the book before I spoke to the school board about why they should keep it. Therefore, my plea to keep the book was more emotional that it probably should have been. And, as I was the only one speaking on behalf of the book, I was largely ignored. However, when the Board decided they needed to look again at the policies around selection and reconsideration of library books, I offered my services to help write the policy.
When the Cody District Librarian retired in May of 2018, I was lucky enough to get hired back into the district. The School Board also allowed me to have a seat at the table as we rewrote the selection policy. It was several months of long nights at Board meetings as I explained best practices in book selection and library policies and procedures, not to mention disagreements about what topics should NOT be in books for our students.
Protecting our children means different things to different people, I discovered. I think we protect our children by giving them access to stories and information that will help them make decisions in their lives. Others think that we should only provide materials that show our students the best sides of what humanity has to offer (although often this is based in a specific world-view) so they will aspire to that. As a strong supporter of the Freedom to Read, remembering the motivations of those who seemed to want to censor books was an important part of remaining professional throughout this process. We now have a fairly good policy that encompasses criteria for selecting materials for the library as well as processes and criteria for weeding and reconsideration of materials.
And, there were still three books left from last year’s challenges: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, The Wizard’s Apprentice by Herbie Brennan, and The Holy Bible (different complainant). The School Board chose to put those challenges on hold until after we had rewritten the policy.
In January, the new reconsideration committee (known in our district as the KEC, after the policy code) started with looking at some social studies resources that had been questioned. In March, it was the turn for library books. I was not at last year’s committee meeting, but I can tell you how this year’s meeting went. As the librarian, I was invited to address the committee, along with the complainant. We had timed turns to address the committee, and then the committee was allowed to ask us questions, followed by a discussion among the members of the committee before they voted.
During my turn, I presented a chart that I created with the selection criteria in the first column, followed by a column for each book. In the corresponding places on the chart, I outlined how each book met each criterion (if it did). I explained a little about how the selection process works in practice (we don’t create a chart like this for each book before we purchase, for instance), and I walked them through my reasoning for how these materials fit our criteria. The committee asked questions such as how often the books checked out and if we had other, similar books.
When the committee voted, they focused on the task of determining if the challenged materials met the selection criteria. For The Wizard’s Apprentice and The Holy Bible, they voted unanimously to deny the complaint and retain the material. In the case of Two Boys Kissing, however, they chose “to retain the material with recommendation that the librarian research, and present for purchase, more books on the same topic.”
According to our policy, the complainant may appeal this decision to the School Board in writing within 30 days, so this may not yet be the final outcome. However, I believe that now that we have a policy to follow, with clear criteria and a clear charge for the committee, our School Board will allow the committee decision to stand.
You see, censorship is emotional. Book selection is not.