Survey Shows Stark Increase in Librarian Self-Censorship

It isn’t just upset community members who contribute to book censorship. A recent Controversial Books Survey done by School Library Journal found that school librarians themselves are more likely now than they were eight years ago to add content warning labels, create restriction sections, or flat out not buy particular challenged books for their collections.

In a recap of survey results, Linda Jacobson discusses self-censorship on the library front as a means to avoid controversy within an increasingly reactive society.

In 2008, SLJ conducted a landmark survey that uncovered critical data about trends occurring at the school and library level with regard to book censorship. Looking at all levels of education, from elementary school to high school, the survey examined how content labels were being applied to controversial books, how many librarians had constructed restricted sections for flagged titles, and even the frequency with which a librarian would simply pass on purchasing a particular title due to its content.

Although the findings were troubling, eight years later, things look a lot grimmer. Whereas in 2008 the use of content labels across elementary to high schools was an average of 11%, that number has jumped to 24% today — elementary and middle school libraries were impacted the most, with a 15% and 17% increase in flagging respectively.

A similar pattern has been uncovered for restricted sections, with 10% of elementary, 12% of middle school, and 6% of high school librarians saying that they have built restricted sections for mature or potentially controversial titles.

Most alarming, though, were the findings on book buying habits. More than 90% of elementary and middle school librarians commented that they decided not to buy books that could cause offense. High school librarians reported 75%.

“I used to not buy books where there was sex, but then I thought, ‘if it [involves] a ghost that’s 240 years old, I guess it’s OK,’” notes Sara Stevenson, librarian at O. Henry Middle School in Austin, TX, adding:

Then I had to change it to, ‘OK, as long as it’s just implied.’ Then I had to change it to, ‘OK, as long as it’s not too graphic.’ Then I had to let some more graphic ones through because the kids wanted them and they had great reviews. Now there are more and more books with gay sex, so where do you draw the line?

What is causing this alarming trend? Out of all of the 574 librarians surveyed, more that 40% noted that they had faced book challenges at their schools.

Organizations like CBLDF are kept busy defending books from challenges. From joining coalitions to defend popular books like TTYL and TTFN, as we did recently in Nassau County, Florida, to writing a letter to Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe urging him to veto a house bill that would change the way that books are assigned and read in the state, free speech advocates, teachers, and librarians across the country are dealing with challenge situations that often make them resort to self-censroship to avoid controversy. “We can be our own worst enemies,” continues Stevenson, who has dealt with challenges her whole career. “I fear I will be less brave now that I’ve had to go through the ordeal of a formal challenge.”

One way to combat this fear is to establish clear and precise challenge policies within schools that allow teachers and librarians to have a structured method of dealing with an attempt to remove a book. Moreover as Pat Scales, the former chair of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee notes, conversation with concerned parents is also key. “Good conversation with a parent, or any challenger, usually ends with reason, and without further actions,” she says.

The worst thing that can be done, though, is to deny children the right to materials because a few deem them to be too inappropriate. Contrary to adult beliefs, if children find a book too difficult, they will let you know that they are not ready for the material. Moreover, as Scales points out, if you allow them the flexibility to make choices about their reading material, you benefit on two fronts: you allow them access to texts that can help inform the broader world that they are living in, but also encourage them to explore their literary boundaries in a non-hostile manner. “When we free them to read, we also free them to reject,” and at the end of the day it is their right to uninhibited education that should be protected.

To read more about the 2016 Controversial Books Survey, click here. Also, if you are a teacher and librarian interested in learning how you can incorporate challenged books into your collections, check out CBLDF’s Librarian & Educator tools. As always, if you are facing a book challenge — any book, not just comics — give us a call at 1-800-99-CBLDF or email!

We need your help to keep fighting for the right to read! Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work by visiting the Rewards Zonemaking a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF!

Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!