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A teacher-librarian pulls back the curtain on school libraries

Kathleen Davis, a teacher-librarian at Kennydale Elementary School, presents reading awards to fourth-graders on the last day of school, Tuesday, June 22, 2010, in Renton, Wash. The library will be open as usual next year, but at other schools across the country, administrators have started to view school libraries as luxuries that can be cut from school budgets. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Ted S. Warren
AP File
Book challenges in Iowa and elsewhere have been grabbing news headlines and sparking outrage on social media in recent months, but we don't hear a great deal from the trained professionals who are responsible for selecting the books that populate our school libraries.

Book challenges in Iowa and elsewhere have been grabbing news headlines and sparking outrage on social media in recent months, but we don't hear a great deal from the trained professionals who are responsible for selecting the books that populate our school libraries.

Chelsea Sims is a teacher-librarian at Southeast Junior High in Iowa City, and she recently decided it was time to pull the curtain back on what school librarians do and the laws, rules and values they follow. She wrote an article called “Iowa School Librarian: how the book review process already works” for the Iowa Starting Line website. She joined host Charity Nebbe on Talk of Iowa to discuss the article, the process for schools and current book challenges around the country.

Books mentioned in this episode:

The Diary of Anne Frank

Ghetto Diary by Janusz Korczak

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Maus by Art Spiegleman

Night by Elie Wiesel

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered by Ruth Klüger

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi

Nebbe: “Let's start with the basics. What do you feel the purpose is of a school library?”

Sims: “The school library is so many things. I think a lot of people have kind of a limited view of what a school library does, you know, just checking books in and out, but it's really so much more than that. A lot of people will talk about the school library being the heart of the school, and I really think that's a true statement. In addition to providing access to literature and teaching students how to be critical thinkers, how to do research, one of our main focuses is supporting intellectual freedom for our students.

“So intellectual freedom is that idea that every single person, no matter what age they are, has the right to have access to diverse ideas and perspectives, and that includes our young people. And the Supreme Court has ruled over and over again that the First Amendment doesn't stop applying at the schoolhouse door. And so the freedom to read and freedom to learn are very much enshrined in the Constitution and very much a focus of school libraries.”

“I have more experience with elementary school libraries than I do with secondary school libraries, and both my memories of being a kid in a school library and then also getting to observe school libraries when my kids were in elementary school, I saw a lot of the teacher-librarians just really connecting with children, learning about them and trying to help them find books that fed their interests. So, I mean, that seems like in elementary school, that's so much of what librarians do. They try to help kids get excited about reading.

“Absolutely. It's the same in junior high and high school. Maybe even more so, with how many students tend to lose interest in reading as they get older. Maybe they have less time or whatever the reason may be. We spend a lot of time trying to match the right book to the right kid at the right time. And that takes a lot of experience. It takes a lot of expertise. It takes a lot of trial and error. But librarians are passionate about that element of our jobs. We want to make sure that the students have what they need when they need it.

"Our programs have been built around that, around students, more so than I think a lot of people realize."

“And I think our programs have been built around that, around students, more so than I think a lot of people realize. They're the reason that we're here. I think that students deserve a strong school library program. I think school libraries are essential to schools, but I think they're also an essential element of a democracy, right? If we want our students to be critical thinkers, and we want them to be able to make informed decisions, we want them to be good people, empathetic people who have an understanding of the world and the relationships that they're in, then we need them to have access to all sides of the story, right?

“And for some students, the school library is the only access to books that they have. Maybe they live in a rural area where a public library is, you know, a mile away or more than a mile away. Maybe they're in a home that doesn't have their own personal library. But every single student does have access to public education, and therefore they have access to a school library. And that's a responsibility that school librarians take very seriously. Every school district has policies and procedures in place to make sure that we are selecting the materials that students need and the materials that students want and then the fun part is getting to get those books to the right kid.”

“The books that you select for school libraries, just to rephrase what you just said, you are choosing books specifically with your community in mind. You are bringing books into the library that are appropriate for different age groups and reading levels and experience levels, right?”

“Absolutely. So I can't reiterate this enough that, teacher-librarians are specially trained for this. We go through graduate level coursework, we have master's degrees and we have entire courses that we take on how to select materials for children, for young adults. And we have policies to support us in that. There's a list of criteria that we use when we're choosing our books because we have limited budgets. We can't include every single book that maybe we would like to. So we do have to be choosy, and we have to balance things like literary value with popular interest, or with how it's going to match the curriculum. And we also have to be cognizant of the very wide range of reading abilities and maturity levels and interests, even when we're in a narrow age range. I only teach seventh and eighth graders, but my collection has to respond to everything that a 12 to 14 year old could need or want. And we have to be able to support those decisions that we make using reviews and recommendations from authoritative sources in our field. We have to make sure that we have what our students want to read and that they have an opportunity to get what they deserve from their school library when they maybe can't get it anywhere else.”

“There have been a lot of issues raised recently saying that parents need to have more accessibility to what's going on in schools, and the school library is a place, at least in this day and age, of internet and computers. But if parents want to know what's in the library, it's pretty easy to find out, right?

"That's a perfect opportunity to connect with your kid about what's happening in the world and what they're reading"

“Very. Yeah. That's something that we push hard is, look how easy it is to access our library materials. Like that's a main feature of what we do. Every school district that I know of has their catalog online, easily searchable. If you Google the name of your school and the word ‘library,’ you're likely to find a link to their catalog. I don't know of any school districts that don't have that, and we are very vocal about communicating that we want input, you know, recommend books to us to add to the library. Talk to your students about what they're reading. Make those connections with them. That's a perfect opportunity to not only connect with your kid about what's happening in the world and what they're reading, and have that really exciting conversation about literature that I think is really common in elementary school, with your older students as well. There's so much to be gained, both relationship-wise and intellectually, when you can talk about the contents of whatever you're reading and how that aligns with your own beliefs and your morals and your understanding of the world.”

“Well, and I often suggest that people read young adult literature because I'm a big fan of it, but we're living in a golden age of young adult literature. It feels like right now there's a lot of good stuff out there that wasn't there when we were kids. So I think there's a lot of good reading to do along with your kids as well. Now, obviously, some parents have encountered materials that their child has brought home from a school library that they do not approve of. And when a parent is upset about something that they've found in a book from the school and they say,’ Hey, this book shouldn't be in the school library,’ when they make a challenge, you have a process in place to deal with that. What do you do?”

“Every school district is required to have certain board policies in place, and there are specific policies in the 605 series, If you're interested for both selecting materials, inspection of materials, and then for what we would call reconsideration of materials. So if someone was concerned about a material, the process would start with a conversation with the student's teacher or the librarian or even the principal. And we would hear the concerns, and see kind of what action the concerned party would like to take. Oftentimes, challenges or concerns are kind of resolved at that stage. Maybe that child will read a different book in class than what the other students are reading. Or, you know, the parent will talk to their kid and say, you know, we'd rather you not bring home books like that from the library. So as often as we can, we try to resolve it in like an individual way that doesn't impact the whole school.

"It doesn't come down to one individual's point of view or perspective being given more weight than anyone else's."

“In the rare cases where that is not satisfactory to the to the parent, we do have a formal process which involves filling out some documentation about the concerns. And then that concern is taken to a committee that's either standing or appointed by the superintendent. That committee will then review the work or review the concerns, compare it to the school district's mission and curriculum goals and consider all the different aspects of the material. And then they can decide if they are going to retain or remove the material.”

 “So there are a number of people involved in that review process. It's not necessarily just you and your relationship to the book and your relationship, possibly to the student. It's beyond that. It's a bigger process.”

“Yeah, and that's an essential element too, of the process, is that it doesn't come down to one individual's point of view or perspective being given more weight than anyone else's. So in some cases, you'll see a school board or a principal will pull the material out of the book or out of the library, and then you'll find out that they didn't follow the proper procedures. So that actually ends up violating policy. So because the policy ensures that the committee is going to be made up of educators, community members, students, it's really about due process. It's about fairness. And it's a process that has worked for decades.”

 "There are coordinated campaigns right now around the country, and it's very clear, it's been documented, that there are coordinated campaigns to challenge books around the country. And the books that we've seen challenged in other school districts in Iowa are books that are showing up on these lists that are being challenged all over the country right now. And one of the things that we see people doing is pulling selections from these books and reading just a part, or showing in the case of a graphic novel, just a picture. When material gets pulled out of context like that, that certainly colored the conversation. As a librarian, how do you respond to that?”

“Well, I firmly believe that it needs to be considered as a whole. I think the most common example of pulling things out of context to make a judgment would be the Bible. People can pull out all sorts of things out of context from that. That might make it seem like it's an inappropriate book to have in a library collection. A work is more than just a couple of lines or one illustration. The authors spend as much time and put as much care into their work as they do because it's important that the whole work be considered as it is and what it's intended for.”

“We have been talking this hour about literature of the Holocaust, and there's been a recent high profile case not in Iowa, where the graphic novel or graphic memoir 'Mause' has been challenged and removed from a school in Tennessee. There are a lot of books about difficult subjects that wind up on these lists of challenged books or books that do get removed from schools, and the Holocaust is one of the subjects that comes up. Social justice issues, shootings, you know, police shootings of young Black people. That's 'The Hate U Give' is getting banned in a lot of communities, and that's the core of that story. There are, I guess I'm trying to say that so many of the books that people are trying to remove from libraries may tell stories that are the kinds of things that the students that might read them are experiencing. But they might also tell these stories that are very far from the personal experience of the student. Why do you think it's important for young people to read books that don't tell the stories that they're already familiar with, that they're already living?”

"Students deserve to see themselves in books, but they definitely deserve to be able to explore the world through other people's perspectives."

“Well we set up our selections for our library to be inclusive on purpose for that exact reason. Students deserve to see themselves in books, but they definitely deserve to be able to explore the world through other people's perspectives. Like you said, that being able to experience something that is very much unlike your own is one of the only ways that you can really learn to empathize with people who are very different than you. It's very easy even now with the extreme access we have to the internet to be isolated in bubbles and echo chambers. And so literature is really a powerful way to break out of that and to learn more about yourself and more about the world. Laurie Halse Anderson, the author of "Speak", has famously written in opposition to book challenges, especially for young adults. Her own novel, "Speak," is another frequently challenged book, and she talks about how important it is for our young people to be able to experience these uncomfortable or harrowing things without actually experiencing them. It is so much safer to be behind the pages of a book that you can close and move away from than to have to experience it yourself.

“And we don't know what experiences students have. We don't know what experiences their family members have had and when we say that certain things shouldn't be discussed because they're uncomfortable, you can be very much invalidating someone's own life story right there in the room. It's just, it's so vital that our students have access to stories about all types of people and experiences so that we can learn from them and hopefully never experience them ourselves.”

“One of the responses that I've seen, a few times, to the book challenges that are going on right now is really just saying, how is it that anybody thinks that kids reading too much is the problem of the moment? And I have a 16 year old who is a reader, and I have a 14 year old who is a non-reader. So do you have any advice for parents who want their kids to read about how to break free from all of those electronic devices that they love so much and get kids excited about reading?”

“E-books and audiobooks are a perfectly valid way to be using your device. All students are readers. They just might not be in their high reading mode at that moment. Like during the pandemic, I went through a real reading slump, and I'm somebody who reads constantly. So I think, you know, avoiding the language of ‘that person’s not a reader.’ And maybe they're just, you know, they're not their best reading selves right now, and encouraging them to explore all the different types of reading that's out there."

Sims made her remarks on Talk of Iowa. You can read Sims' article inIowa Starting Line here.

Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Matthew was a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa