TO SHELVE OR NOT TO SHELVE
A little over a month ago, the Wall Street Journal published a column by Jennifer Calfas: “Librarians See Record Book-Ban Efforts.”
The kicker: “Attempts to ban books in U.S. libraries nearly doubled in 2022 from a year earlier, according to a new report from the American Library Association.”
1,269 efforts to censor books and resources in 2022 compared to 729 in 2021.
Most of these concerted efforts targeted works that focus on people of color or LGBTQ individuals. Per the Journal, leaders of the efforts – groups like Moms for Liberty – insist that they are pushing for the removal of materials that “are inappropriate for children and students” and threaten the beliefs and morals that they hold.
“I have not heard of any parents coming forward to try to get books banned in Mono County,” said Mono County Superintendent of Schools Stacey Adler. “The process of evaluating – that’s really an individual school board decision,” said Adler. Each board has its own process for determining curriculum and text selection.
Bishop Unified School District Superintendent Katie Kolker said that within the last couple years, “there have been a group of folks in our community that have concerns or questions about certain texts being used.”
She thinks it’s healthy to have “open conversations” and that “if there are concerns,” it’s important that people are able to “air those and have a good, informed discussion about [them].”
Kolker said, “We all might not agree on where we land in terms of one text or another.” But, again, she thinks conversations are important to make “sure voices are heard and perspectives are understood.”
No interested party has appeared before the BUSD Board to request an agenda item about book-banning – yet.
There was one book questioned earlier in the year, but it was an optional read for students, and parents were informed ahead of time whether their student had chosen to read that certain book.
“And, so, that parent or that student, for that matter, may choose a different text, and that’s perfectly acceptable,” said Kolker. “So, I think the thing here is that there’s options, and that if anything is controversial or really pushes the envelope, and a family feels like this may kind of come up against their home values, there are other options available. We aren’t trying to impress any sort of one size fits all for students.”
Kolker also spoke to the process of curriculum adoption. It’s long and formal and heavily involved. “Which is different [from] supplemental curriculum,” said Kolker.
“Teachers and schools do have a lot of liberties when it comes to supplemental curriculum … and a lot of that’s beautiful.”
Kolker thinks it is nice to give teachers the freedom to trust their professionalism to bring things in that are just outside the textbook. “I think we can all agree we don’t want all teachers just teaching from a textbook all day long,” she said. “So, there’s a balance to that – making sure administration is involved and informed, and making sure that the materials that are used are still in alignment with the standards and what we’re tasked to do in school and not on anyone’s, you know, personal agenda.”
Mono County and Inyo County Public Libraries have not observed an uptick in book banning efforts, either.
But, Christopher Platt, Director of Mono County’s libraries since 2018, is familiar with these coordinated efforts by specific groups – characterized, per Platt, by the American Library Association as being small, politically oriented groups that have a very definite agenda.
“Very often,” said Platt, “they’ll come in with a list of books to a library… and say, ‘We want these removed from the shelves.’”
“These” books are, again, often stories that center people of color or LGBTQ issues.
“Luckily, in Mono County,” said Platt, “we haven’t had that. We have very active library users in this county, and they read a wide variety of things.” Which makes the Mono County collections diverse to begin with, said Platt, “And, I think they appreciate what the library’s role is in a community – to provide access to information for anyone, even if they don’t personally agree with the content or find it interesting.”
Platt acknowledges that his role as director is to serve the public. Whatever the public might want to read. The collection development policy can be found on the Mono County libraries’ policy webpage. Platt encourages those interested to check it out.
“It explains both the principles and the criteria for what goes into the collection, and then also a process for any individuals who want to request a reconsideration for an item in the collection,” Platt said.
There’s also funding – $5,000 a year – that patrons can use to request books that aren’t a part of the collection. The book gets shipped to the patron for first use, and then they return it to the library when they’re finished.
There’s about a dozen selection criteria for materials, Platt explained. A text’s suitability, aesthetic style, audience reading level, timeliness, the subject’s reputation, and the significance of the author. Cost, accuracy, demand.
When it comes to reconsidering a text in the collection, patrons can fill out an online form.
“We do absolutely take those seriously,” said Platt.
The forms come to Platt, and he responds. He’s only had one formal request for reconsideration since his arrival in the county pre-pandemic. He and the patron followed the process, things worked out, and the material stayed on the shelf.
Nancy Masters, the Director of Inyo County’s libraries, told the Sheet that she has not seen an effort to ban books within the library system. “We’re fortunate to be in California, where there’s strong support for the freedom to read,” said Masters.
“We also very strongly believe,” Masters continued, “that as adults and as parents of children, that selecting materials we want to read – or that the parent wants the child to read – is clearly an individual decision. So, we’re very strong supporters of free speech in our libraries, and that’s for all viewpoints and sectors of societies.”
Master’s started working for the county’s library system in 1988. She’s been the director since 2008.
“The book, to me,” she said, explaining her librarian philosophy, “is not a transitory object – a consumer object that just flows through and ends up in a landfill or being pulled for transitory information. There are books that allow you to converse with people who have long been dead. And that’s how we are aware of those people and their ideas. And those ideas can become the basis for new activity and people of the future.”
She sees libraries as linking the past with the future. Libraries as the repository of human knowledge.
She makes sure that the library serves the array of readers found in Inyo County – readers that continue to surprise Masters and her staff with their interests and need to access materials for either education or other purposes.
“I feel that if someone walks into any of our branches,” said Masters, “they should be able to educate themselves… books can take you anywhere – like, you can read about something around the globe, and you can have a greater understanding of that place and those people.”
Masters made it clear that her role as library director is to fill the shelves with material that serves the community at all levels.
The library system is not some oligarchical enterprise in which collections are created at whimsy. Rather, there are meticulous steps and processes – as Platt explained – aimed to serve each and every reader of the county, whether they need to study for the LSAT, learn how to do an oil change, or enjoy a story about wizards, or ogres, or strawberries that can talk.