By Sam P.K. Collins
National Library Week took place earlier this month amid efforts by parents and state legislatures across the country to ban books from school libraries. In the District, public school librarians continue to organize for their permanent inclusion in the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) budget while learning more about how to circumvent similar situations.
However, some librarians, like K.C. Boyd, say parents and community members have been supportive of efforts to foster students’ self-expression and facilitate their exposure to texts of various perspectives.
Boyd described the situation at her Ward 6 school as vastly different from what her colleagues in South Carolina and Louisiana have experienced.
“When you get into the business of telling a child they can’t read a particular book, you’re focusing on the negative and blocking them from accessing books that affirm their culture, race and identity,” said Boyd, who was recently chosen School Librarian of the Year.
“It hurts Black, brown and LBGTQ kids, more than their counterparts,” Boyd said. “School librarians have to be more on the political side and conscious about what’s going on in society. I explained to my staff that book banning is a serious issue and censorship. School librarians across the country have been threatened by job loss and harassed by various advocacy groups.”
An Evolving National Issue
As of April 12, Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, Oklahoma, Kansas and Indiana count among the states with the most banned books. Texas has banned more than 700 books, while Pennsylvania has done so for 400 and Florida for nearly 300.
Within the last three years, as far back as DCPS central office records go, the DCPS Materials Evaluation Committee has not removed any books from public school libraries.
During a recent hearing held by the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, public witnesses described the books that have been targeted as books of choice not often included on school curricula. Parents and organizations with certain political leanings have focused on books addressing racism and the system of white supremacy. Other reasons center on the author or protagonist’s race and gender identity.
In situations where community members challenge the inclusion of a book in a school library, the American Library Association [ALA]’s reconsideration process mandates the creation of a review committee that addresses complaints with the goal of defending intellectual freedom and freedom of information, more so than the material in question.
In an online statement, the ALA said reconsideration committee members are asked to set aside their personal beliefs, read the book that brought on the complaint and review the library’s mission statement and reconsideration policies, among other documents. During the reconsideration process, books are not removed from the stacks.
Dr. Kevin Washburn, DCPS’ director of library programs, said school librarians select book titles and resources that align with the DCPS curriculum, have undergone at least one strong professional review and meet the standards of what has been recommended by students, teachers and parents.
The library programs’ selection and reconsideration procedures, Washburn said, align with standards outlined by ALA.
Washburn said he supports a philosophy centered on bringing joy to learning, challenging misinformation and equipping students with the skills needed to validate sources, ask critical questions and engage in the learning process.
Access to a wide variety of books, he asserted, ensures the fulfillment of that goal.
“School libraries must be the gateway to the universe of knowledge free of political agendas, limitations to free speech, or other barriers,” Washburn said. “DCPS believes that school libraries and librarians are an essential component for all schools. Supporting an informed and engaged community on the assets and attributes of our school libraries enables everyone to be part of our district mission and vision.”
A Book Giveaway and Call to Action
Last weekend, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) hosted a book giveaway at the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation in Southeast that attracted students, families and educators from Ward 7 and 8.
During what was called the “Reading Opens the World Book Palooza & Community Fair,” families had the opportunity to take five books home while educators and organizations had access to 30 books. In total, AFT had 40,000 books on hand during the afternoon of April 9.
While reflecting on the event, Washington Teachers’ Union President Jacqueline Pogue Lyons not only thanked school librarians for the part they play in boosting literacy among young people but explained the significance of the Reading Opens the World campaign in the current political atmosphere.
“As a teacher of 28 years, I’ve always tipped my hat to our librarians who not only foster a love of reading in our kids but can guide them to the best sources of knowledge and adventure. But we cannot leave all the heavy lifting to our librarians,” Lyons said.
“Not while we see a disturbing number of schools banning books from classrooms. The Reading Opens the World campaign can fill in that gap, ensuring our kids, our stories and our history are not left out of the discussion,” Lyons added.