The Information Policy Blog

The (unofficial) blog of the BCLA Information Policy Committee

Censorship Issues in School Libraries

Censorship Issues in School Libraries
by Shannon Mills

Censorship can occur “anytime a book or other library material is removed from its intended audience”[1]. Libraries often face challenges from patrons who desire to have material they find offensive removed from the collection. 139 challenges to materials were reported in Canadian libraries in 2009 [2], and 348 challenges to materials were reported in US libraries in 2010[3].

Furthermore, an estimated 85 percent of challenges are unreported and receive no media attention[4]. The CLA Statement on Intellectual Freedom claims it “is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable”[5]. According to Article III of ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, “libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment”[6].

This article discusses how to spot a censor, some of the unique challenges associated with a school library setting, the issue of self censorship, and censorship through internet access. Best practices are introduced for school librarians or staff to reference when facing a challenge. Finally, some notable banned books are listed and additional resources for further education are suggested. This wiki is intended for school librarians, but would be helpful for anyone working in a school library, including paraprofessionals and teachers. For a more detailed discussion of censorship in public libraries see Censoring Sexuality: GLBTQ Resources in Public Libraries.


• 1 The Censor
• 2 School Library Setting
o 2.1 Unique Challenges
o 2.2 Importance of Diversity
• 3 Self-Censorship by School Librarians
o 3.1 Labeling and Reshelving
o 3.2 Alternative Formats
• 4 Internet Access
o 4.1 Filtering
o 4.2 Restricting Access to Online Tools
• 5 Best Practices
o 5.1 Education, Communication, and Preparation
o 5.2 Dealing With a Challenge
• 6 Notable Challenged Books
• 7 Additional Resources
• 8 References

The Censor

According to Freedom to Read’s guide When the Censor Comes, a censor usually:
• Denies being in favour of censorship
• Has rarely read the work in whole or often even in part
• Quotes excerpts out of context
• Demonizes the author and his/her other works[7]

Arizona Representative Jack Harper made news when he publically objected to several book titles he mistakenly assumed the school district was buying; however, he also noted in the online discussion board that he had not read any of the titles[8]. Material challenge forms usually ask the challenger to specify whether or not they have read the book, and what specific passages they find objectionable. Detailed and rigourous challenge forms can often deter the person with the complaint or cause them to educate themselves more fully with the material in the hopes they will recognize value and literary merit. Challenges can come from concerned parents, guardians, students, teachers, administration, or special interest groups.

School Library Setting

The ALA asserts that the Library Bill of Rights applies equally to all libraries, including school library media programs[9]. Students have the right to access resources that “create an atmosphere of free inquiry”[9], that are diverse in their expressions of political, social, and religious views, and that foster creative thought and healthy debate. In an alarming trend, teaching assistants accounted for 1/3 of all material challenges in Canadian libraries in 2009[2]. Part of the reason for this increase in challenges among teaching staff is likely the de-professionalization of the school librarian position and the lack of knowledge about censorship and intellectual freedom in school settings. Canadian school libraries are being managed by fewer professionals with minimal training in intellectual freedom issues and selection tools[10]. In 2005, schools in Canada were staffed on average with a quarter-time teacher librarian[11]. Regardless of the level of their professional training, school library staff can educate themselves and their colleagues on the importance of students’ freedom of choice. There is a huge array of resources from various professional organizations to help teacher librarians and school library media specialists do so.

Unique Challenges

All libraries have the mandate to support intellectual freedom; however, school libraries have unique functions that can present challenges for school librarians. Unlike the public library, the school is required to act in loco parentis in regards to the health and safety of the child[12]. Often, parents assume this responsibility to protect the child extends to the selection of reading material, but this is not the case. Occasionally, if a parent does not want their child checking out certain materials, the librarian must comply; however, no one parent has the right to decide what materials other children should be denied access to. If a school has a mandate to collect materials for pleasure reading, censors are often concerned that these materials are not of a high literary quality or do not support curricular goals. School librarians often walk a tightrope act, balancing the expectations of parents, teachers, administration, and the school board[13]. Most importantly, school library staff are there to serve the interests of their students.

Importance of Diversity

Children and young adults are often looking for images of themselves reflected in the literature they read[14]. Reading about a protagonist they can identify with can positively affect children emotionally and developmentally. Vicarious reading experiences can also give students the exposure and insight into life experiences and worldviews they may not otherwise encounter. Reading about different lifestyles can foster empathy and critical thinking skills in students. This tolerance and ability to respect difference does not happen inherently in children; it needs to be promoted and encouraged[13]. Exposing children to a wide range of lifestyles and sometimes controversial expressions through literature is often accompanied by calls for censorship.

“Education implies the right of students to explore ideas and issues without interference from anyone, parent, or teacher, or administrator. Indoctrination implies the right to force onto students certain values determined by what purports to be the dominant culture. When the rights to inquire and question and even doubt are denied young people, education inevitably degenerates into indoctrination” – Ken Donelson[13]

Self-Censorship by School Librarians

Librarians can often be tempted to censor by selection. Books can be rejected based on budget, lack of demand, literary quality, limited shelf space, content, relevance to the community, and poor reviews. It is difficult to know when these criteria are used as legitimate selection tools or as an “excuse for self-censorship”[15]. Ultimately, fear of a challenge should not be used as a selection principle[16]. Although self-censorship is difficult to measure, Ken Coley and Nicholas Bellows have undertaken studies of school districts in Texas and Florida respectively that have demonstrated a significant lack of holdings of controversial, yet award winning and critically acclaimed, young adult book titles in school libraries[15][17]. In a School Library Journal survey, 70% of teacher librarians admitted to avoiding purchasing controversial titles because of fear of parent, administrative, community, and student backlash[1]. This fear is legitimate. In many cases, school librarians have lost administrative support, if not their job, over defending intellectual freedoms. Teacher librarians should not be doing the censor’s work, however, by removing a book from its intended audience before an actual complaint is even made[1].

Labeling and Reshelving

Labeling books with reading level or genre is a common practice librarians use to enhance ease of access that may, in fact, restrict students’ use of these materials. Labeling math books or fantasy books to define their content may cause kids to ignore certain books whose subject they deem uncool[18]. Librarians may consider the moving or re-shelving strategy an acceptable alternative to removing books from the collection[14]. Putting materials in a location where they are not as likely to be used is censoring. According to the ALA, when grade level and reading level restrictions are enforced, materials are shelved in restricted areas, and books are labeled, major barriers are erected between the students and the library material[9].

Alternative Formats

Librarians may also self-censor unintentionally when they ignore alternative formats that they are unfamiliar with. Materials such as zines or blogs may be appealing to kids and young adults, and should not be excluded simply because of the librarian’s lack of knowledge about the medium[19]. Incorporating more online resources, art, games, DVDs, audiobooks, photography, poetry, short stories, and plays into school collections can help nurture multiple learning styles and intelligences[20].

Internet Access

“Most people would not shut down an entire playground on the basis that children may get hurt” – Dianne DeLas Casas[21]


Another form of censorship that is incredibly relevant and prevalent today is the use of internet filters to limit websites, search engines, and collaborative tools students have access to at schools. In 2001, US Congress enacted CIPA, the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which made federal communications technology funding dependent on the adoption of an internet policy to guard against images that are obscene, pornographic, or harmful to children[22]. Unfortunately, many schools have created policies with extensive policies that block beyond what CIPA requires[23], including legitimate educational websites. In 2007, school librarian Karyn Storts-Brinks filed a lawsuit against her school district for using a filtering system that blocked access to the Human Rights Campaign website and the Gay and Lesbian Straight Education Network site, as well as any other sites that addressed gender and sexual orientation issues in a “positive and informative way”[24]. Many students are able to access the unfiltered internet either at home or through their phones. For these students, the searching experiences they have at school can be inauthentic and frustrating. For students whose only access to the internet is at school, internet filtering policies can restrict access to important sites, and prevent them from becoming savvy internet searchers.

Restricting Access to Online Tools

Many schools also limit access to social media, blogs, YouTube and other collaborative learning tools. Students are often not allowed to access their Facebook accounts because it can be disruptive and distracting. Policy is often guided by a fear that the internet is a haven for cyber bullies or child predators. What teacher librarians and educators are missing when they take this defensive stance towards social media is the chance to leverage tools that students are familiar with and enjoy using as “informal learning networks”[25]. ‘Through the use of web 2.0 tools, students have the chance to connect with other students on topics they are passionate about, become content and media producers of blog articles, YouTube videos, and podcasts, and become fluent in using information technologies they will most likely need to use in order to succeed academically, personally, and professionally. Students are not passive consumers of knowledge; students are more and more involved in collaborative problem solving and the creation of original content through connecting with a community of ideas and resources[23].

Best Practices

“When the education community sticks together while offering alternative material for those who are offended there’s little room for a complaint” – Chris Crutcher[26]

Education, Communication, and Preparation

• Write or update a selection policy that outlines your selection criteria, clarifies the review policy, outlines a digital access policy, includes a request for the reconsideration of materials form for concerned parents, administration, students, or staff to fill out, and is approved by the school board
• Communicate your library’s mandate and selection policy with school staff and administration
• Create allies with parents and make them aware of library events
• Create an Instructional Materials Review Committee with interested parties: parents, teachers, administrator, librarian, and school board member[27]
• Invite students and teachers to evaluate the collection to offset your own personal biases[18]
• Be prepared to defend a specific title when you know it is controversial
• Leverage student voices: have students suggest purchases and participate in intellectual freedom focused activities during Freedom to Read or Banned Books Week

Dealing With a Challenge

• Ensure you have read the challenged work in its entirety
• Bring materials to meetings with concerned parties: the challenged book, positive practitioner reviews, testimonials from kids about the merits of the book, your school or district selection policy
• Don’t be defensive or aggressive in tone
• Thank the parent or concerned party for their interest in the school library and their child’s education
• Try not to engage in a discussion over merits of the contested content of the work; emphasize instead the library’s mission to support intellectual freedom
• Keep records of all requests for reconsideration[27]
• Make the review process and chain of command for complaints clear should the parent wish to take further action

Notable Challenged Books

Many award winning and popular books have been challenged throughout the 20th and 21st century. 43 of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century have been banned or challenged in the US[28]. Below is a list of the ALA’s top 10 most frequently challenged books of 2010:

1. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
3. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
4. Crank, by Ellen Hopkins
5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
6. Lush, by Natasha Friend
7. What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones
8. Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich
9. Revolutionary Voices, edited by Amy Sonnie
10. Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

Additional Resources

• ALA’s Interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights
• ALA’s Books Challenged or Banned in 2010-2011 and other years (downloadable PDFs)
• ALA’s Notable First Amendment Court Cases
• ALA’s Libraries and the Internet Toolkit
• ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Manual 8th ed.
• ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom
• ALA’s Most Frequently Challenged Authors of the 21st Century
• Banned Books 2011 from London Libraries
• Banned Books Week
• Banned Books Week Mapping Censorship
• Banned Books Week Virtual Read Out
• BCLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee]
• Books on Censorship for Children and Teens
• Freedom to Read
• KidSPEAK! Where Kids Speak Up For Free Speech
• National Council of Teacher’s of English Guideline on Students’ Right to Read and Statements on Censorship
• Open Net Initiative


1. ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 Lau Whelan, Debra. (2009). A Dirty little secret: Self-censorship. School Library Journal. Retrieved from
2. ↑ 2.0 2.1 Schrader, Alvin M. (2010). Challenges to Canadian library resources and policies in 2009: Report of the annual survey of the advisory committee on intellectual freedom. Canadian Library Association. Retrieved from
3. ↑ American Library Association. (2012). Number of challenges by year, reason, initiator & institution (1990 – 2010). Retrieved from
4. ↑ Doyle, Robert P. (2012). Books challenged or banned in 2010-2011. Retrieved from ALA website:
5. ↑ Canadian Library Association. (1985). Canadian Library Association/Association canadienne des bibliothèques position statement on intellectual freedom. Retrieved from
6. ↑ American Library Association. (1996). Library bill of rights. Retrieved from
7. ↑ Bernstein, Sandra. (1996). When the censor comes: How to spot a would-be censor. Retrieved from Freedom to Read website:
8. ↑ Wang, Amy B. Form of school book censoring. USA Today. Retrieved from
9. ↑ 9.0 9.1 9.2 American Library Association. (2008). Access to resources and services in the school library media program: An interpretation of the library bill of rights. Retrieved from
10. ↑ Klausen, Claudia. (2007). Cuts to teacher-librarians: Effects on intellectual freedom and democracy. Teacher Librarian Today, 14(1), 9-15. Retrieved from
11. ↑ Edwards, Gail and Judith Saltman. (2010). Picturing Canada: a history of Canadian children’s illustrated books and publishing. Toronto: University of Toronto Publishing.
12. ↑ Shirley, Linda J. (n.d.) Intellectual freedom in school libraries. Retrieved from
13. ↑ 13.0 13.1 13.2 Boyd, F. B., & Bailey, N. M. (2009). Censorship in three metaphors. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(8), 653-661.
14. ↑ 14.0 14.1 Curry, A. (2001). Where is Judy Blume? Controversial fiction for older children and young adults. Journal of Youth Services In Libraries, 14(3), 28-37.
15. ↑ 15.0 15.1 Coley, Ken P. (2002). Moving toward a method to test for self-censorship by school library media specialists. Retrieved from the American Association of School Librarians’ website:
16. ↑ Dickinson, G. (2007). The Question…what should I do if my principal orders me to remove an unchallenged book? Knowledge Quest, 36(2), 70-71.
17. ↑ Bellows, Nicholas K. (2005). Measuring self-censorship in school library media centers. Retrieved from
18. ↑ 18.0 18.1 Abilock, D. (2007). Four questions to ask yourself. Knowledge Quest. pp. 7-11.
19. ↑ Johnson, P. (2005). Editorial. Library Resources & Technical Services, 49(1), 3-6.
20. ↑ Shantz-Keresztes, Linda. (2002). School library collections: From here to eternity. School Libraries in Canada, 21(4), 9-11.
21. ↑ de Las Casas, D. (2010). “Tag! You’re it!”Playing on the digital playground. Knowledge Quest, 39(1), 80-82.
22. ↑ Federal Communications Commission. Children’s internet protection act. Retrieved from
23. ↑ 23.0 23.1 Jansen, B. A. (2010). Internet filtering 2.0: Checking intellectual freedom and participative practices at the schoolhouse door. Knowledge Quest, 39(1), 46-53.
24. ↑ Storts-Brinks, K. (2010). Censorship online: One school librarian’s journey to provide access to LGBT resources. Knowledge Quest, 39(1), 22-28.
25. ↑ Watkins, S. Craig. (2012). What schools are really blocking when they block social media. Retrieved from
26. ↑ Halls, M. (2011). The Challenge of protecting free speech. Voice of Youth Advocates, 34(2), 130.
27. ↑ 27.0 27.1 Martin, A. M. (2007). Preparing for a challenge. Knowledge Quest, 36(2), 54-56.
28. ↑ American Library Association. (2012). Banned and/or challenged books from the Radcliffe publishing course top 100 novels of the 20th century. Retrieved from

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