Banned Books Week: When the censorship comes from inside the building
When our fearless leader Karen asked me to write a post on the experiences I’ve had as a school
librarian with book challenges, I was flummoxed. I’ve never had an item challenged. It’s not that I’ve never had a parent concerned about a title in the collection – I’ve had several that I can remember. It’s just that these concerned parents merely wanted to be heard, to have their concerns acknowledged. Honestly, most of my parents are either so hands-off that they aren’t concerned with what their child is reading, or they are so hands-on that their children are well aware of what they are and aren’t allowed to read. I have been very fortunate.
What I have had to deal with, though, was even more insidious. It became apparent several years ago that certain titles from the library’s collection were disappearing. I figured this out mostly because students wanted the titles and while the catalog claimed they were in, they were never on the shelf. This was at a time in the past when I had a full time assistant who ran the circulation desk and supervised shelving, so items seldom went missing. Right now I run the library on my own and the students check in and out their own materials – things go missing constantly – but that’s a story for another day.
A sampling of the titles that were going missing included Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, Meg Cabot’s Ready or Not, and 101 Questions About Sex and Sexuality. I was understandably frustrated by this situation, as were the students. We combed the shelves for these titles, but they were nowhere to be found.
At this point I was torn. It was equally conceivable that we had a self-appointed censor or that we had students who were just too embarrassed to check out these titles. I decided that the best remedy for this situation would be to purchase 2 replacements for each item that had gone missing from the collection. Then, if any of these items went missing, I would purchase 2 replacements for them. So each time a book went missing, two would pop up in it’s place. My thought was that if students were too embarrassed to check these items out and were smuggling them out of the library, they must be important, somehow, and we needed more. And, if we happened to have a self-appointed censor, they would quickly see that they were fighting a losing battle.
I’m happy to say that this strategy was entirely successful, even if it did have some unintended consequences. About a year later, while shifting the reference collection, I found the missing books. Each one had been carefully hidden on the shelf behind the least used reference books. So now we have 4 copies of 101 Questions About Sex and Sexuality, 5 copies of Ready or Not, but only 2 copies of The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things (it circulates enough that we’ve had several fall apart.) And now each year I have to have a special talk with each of the 6th grade classes when they find 101 Questions About Sex and Sexuality. This talk generally explores the topics of:
- who chooses the items that are purchased for the library?
- how are the items selected?
- which books are for sharing and which are just for you?
- and the differences between 8th graders and 6th graders interests.
One genuinely surprising outcome of all of this is that students feel comfortable coming to the library for information on ‘sensitive’ topics. While I’m sure some of the students are still reluctant to approach me, I frequently get requests for information about human growth and development topics, including my favorite question ever, “How does the baby fit inside?”
I did eventually find out which one of my staff members had appointed herself as school library censor. She retired and someone finally told on her. I’m still not sure what she was trying to accomplish.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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