To Censor or Not to Censor at the School Library

Qianli Hu
State University of New York
Downstate Medical Center at Brooklyn

ABSTRACT: While opposing censorship in general, the author advocates that books at the school library need to be selective and that parents’ roles in book selection should not be ignored.

A recent article in New York Teacher by Clarisse Butler “Defending the Right to Read: Librarians, [and] Teachers Navigate the Chilly Waters of Censorship”[1] reported Barbara Searle’s successful story of defending Rudolfo Anaya's book Bless Me, Ultima by enlisting the support from the New York State United Teachers, the National Council of Teachers of English, and members of a Youth Against Racism Group, and by following the district protocol. Butler’s article also cited how Fran Aveta successfully kept the Junie B. Jones series in her elementary school library and revealed what the role the union could play in fighting against censorship.

However, every coin has two sides. Censorship should not be a taboo in librarianship. We should guard against the government’s efforts to encroach on citizens’ freedom to read. On the other hand, school students do need guidance as to what is appropriate to read and parents’ roles in teaching and book selection should not be ignored.

I. Rationale for Censorship

Why do school students need guidance on what books to read? Before jumping to any conclusion, let us recall some chilling incidents in recent years involving school children.

Perhaps we still remember the Washington-area sniper shootings case. In that case, the 18 year-old Lee Malvo confessed that “the indoctrination, involving military training, physical workouts, reading and violent video games, began in earnest” in 2001.[2] Clearly, reading inappropriate materials and violent video games contributed to his ultimate crime.

Perhaps we still remember the 16 year-old gang member Joe Jones assaulting a female middle-school teacher in 2000. He confessed that “When I was young … I was looking at what the bad people did, not the good people. I was checking out the bad things, and that helped mess up my mind.”[3] Can we afford to let this type of children read whatever they want to read?

According to Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2003, “Data on homicides and suicides at school show there were 32 school-associated violent deaths in the United States between July 1, 1999 and June 30, 2000, including 24 homicides, 16 of which involved school-age children.”[4]

No doubt, media violence and inappropriate books in the school library bear some responsibility in those crimes.

II. Models in Other Professions

If American Online can provide filter software to block inappropriate websites, if public TV programs can use a delay mechanism to block dirty languages or unsuitable images, if movies and videos can be rated to allow parents to decide which titles are suitable for their children, why can we teachers or librarians use similar methods to protect our children?

There are many ways to achieve the goal. In “Defending the Right to Read,” when a parent complained about some profanity and negativity of a book, Searle offered the student an alternative title.[5] This is a good method to solve the problem. A book review committee, established in accordance with the district guidelines, that includes teachers, administrators, a central media librarian and a parent, is another good solution.[6]

III. What to Censor

What kinds of books should be guided? What kinds of books do parents dislike? Why do some parents object to our teaching certain books or placing them on the bookshelf?

A literature review revealed that “Parents initiate book complaints with the best of intentions: They want to protect their children from material they consider inappropriate or at odds with their personal values.”[7] Most parents object to those young adult books that contain lots of sex, offensive language and so-called adult themes. Parents think some books are “unsuitable for minors because of its vulgarity or its descriptions of sexual behavior.”[8]

Here are some examples:

Lois Duncan’s Daughters of Eve describes a young teenage girl killing her father and a teacher encouraging a student to have an abortion.[9]

In Morgan Llywelyn’s Druids, a 400-page historical novel about ancient Celtic life, there are “about a dozen pages of graphic sexual depiction, including an oral sex scene and two descriptions of the main character's desire to rape women.”[10]

Forever by Judy Blume describes a teenage girl’s first sexual experience.[11]

Gregory Stock's The Book of Questions contains many provocative ethical questions. For example: “Would you kill an innocent person if it would increase the chances of saving your own life?”[12]

For many students, the reading of the above-cited books needs to be guided or permitted. In other words, such books are not suitable for our children to read by themselves.

IV. Viable Alternatives

In The Mother-Daughter Book Club, Shireen Dodson iterated that nine-year-olds “are not ready to read about incest.” In her club, if a mother objected to the content of a book the group wanted to read, the group would honor her wishes and pick up something else. Still, one of the mothers used to black out passages in books she did not want her daughter to read.[13] Making a label or placing on a restricted list that requires parental consent is a viable alternative.

In “Who Decides Which Book Is ‘Bad’?,” Marc Fisher reported that the Fairfax County School Board decided after a vote (7 to 4) that Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth will be restricted in circulation to students in 10th through 12th grades only.[14] Voting is good for decision-making, but it cannot resolve the fundamental problem. We need solutions.

V. Policies and Solutions

College libraries serve young adults and are therefore more lenient on freedom to read. Nonetheless, many college libraries do have closed shelves or stacks where materials like Playboy are kept. School libraries may adopt a similar policy.

What kind of books can a school library buy or collect? First of all, every school has its guidelines, and those should be abided by. If the guidelines are out of date, revision is warranted. Sometimes, we teachers or librarians may consider a book rich in content and language, but some students may be interested in negative parts of the book. We should know that not all books are suitable to all school students.

VI. Parental Involvement

Teachers and librarians should work closely with parents. Parents are often the first teachers of their children. Many parents may have no time to concern what their children learn in school. Those who make suggestions or complaints on our teaching or book selection should be encouraged, and their suggestions be carefully considered. Teachers, librarians and parents are like gardeners. We should guide our children, and let our children grow healthily.

Teachers have right to teach, students have right to learn, and parents should have their right to express their concerns.

When parents complain about certain books in the library or used in a class, we should listen and consider their concerns. Students need to know the real world. For some topics, we may let them know when they are more matured and have a better judgment. Students are naïve, and we should encourage them to learn more positive materials. Some books are good for adults, but they may not be suitable for our children.

VII. Conclusion

Not all books in the school library should be subject to censorship. Not all students need guidance for all books. Not all concerns and complaints from parents merit the removal of books in the school library. Teachers and librarians should work together with parents to resolve any concerns and to ensure a proper education for students.

Bibliographical References

[1] Butler, Clarisse. (2004, January 14). “Defending the Right to Read: Librarians, Teachers Navigate the Chilly Waters of Censorship.” New York Teacher, p.12-14. [Available online at:]

[2] Liptak, Adam. (2003, November 23). “Defense Portrays Different Sides of Sniper Suspect.” New York Times, Section 1, Column 1, National Desk, p.29.

[3]. Krikorian, Michael. (2004, January 4). “A Life in the Balance: If the City, the County, His Family, His Counselors, His Teachers, the Police, Even Bullets Can’t Rescue a Kid Like Joe Jones, Who Can? Is He, at 16, Already Doomed to a Cell or a Casket?” Los Angeles Times Magazine, Lat Magazine Desk, Part I, p.12.

[4] Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2003. [Available online at:].

[5] Butler, p.13.

[6] ibid.

[7] Blinkhorn, Lois. (1996, October 5). “Book Is Far From Closed on Censorship: Titles in Dispute May Come as Surprise.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, News, p.1.

[8] Campbell, Colin. (1981, December 20). “Book Banning in America.” New York Times, Section 7, p.1, Column 3, Book Review Desk.

[9] Cho, David. (2001, February 14). “Fairfax School Board Limits Access to Book.” The Washington Post, Metro, p B01.

[10] ibid.

[11] Blinkhorn, p.1.

[12] ibid.

[13] Rubenstein, Carin. (2004, January 4). “Children Join the Clubs.” New York Times, Section 14WC, Column 1, Westchester Weekly Desk, p.1.

[14] Fisher, Marc. (2001, June 28). “Who Decides Which Book Is ‘Bad’?” The Washington Post, Metro, p.B01.

Copyright © 2004 Qianli Hu