If you’re responsible for collection development, should you a buy a popular book with problematic content?
Library social media spaces have recently been alight with important, sometimes heated discussions about diversity in youth literature. One of the most recent examples pertinent to librarians who serve children is Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier, a book that is well-reviewed by professional sources and well-loved by the many fans of the author’s previous works, but has raised valid concerns about its handling of Mexican and Native American culture and history. In light of these discussions, how does one balance a commitment to intellectual freedom with the need to maintain a collection that authentically and responsibly represents the library’s community?
It is crucial for collection development librarians to be involved in and learn from discussions of responsible diversity, but the danger with using controversy as a selection tool is the possibility of gatekeeping, just as a parent with valid content concerns could similarly edge into overreach. Selectors would do well to keep the Library Bill of Rights in mind; the Diversity in Collection Development interpretation statement explicitly warns that “failure to select resources merely because they may be potentially controversial is censorship, as is withdrawing resources for the same reason.” In larger collections designed for broad public interest and access, flaws in a book’s content may not be enough to disqualify it from professional consideration.
That being said, no boilerplate language should take precedence over a librarian’s personal and professional judgment. In libraries where the collection is subject to budgetary constraints, curricular requirements, and/or the specific needs and desires of their community, a selector has more than enough justification to rely first and foremost on their own instincts and institutional knowledge when deciding what goes into the collection. Megan Schliesman at Reading While White authored an excellent post on this very topic, reminding readers that intellectual freedom is not mutually exclusive to responsible, inclusive, and progressive collection development. A strong, well-constructed collection development policy defends against accusations of censorship as well as it does against accusations of offering inappropriate content to kids.
But what about those times when a selector’s options are more open? In those cases, it helps to remember that more access is better than less, and that purchasing decisions don’t necessarily dictate which items in a collection get displayed, highlighted, and promoted by front-line librarians and staff. The discussions we are having about representation in children’s literature are vitally important, and they shouldn’t take place in a vacuum; the text itself is a much more valuable foundation for understanding than a prejudgment of the text’s appropriateness. Meanwhile, the Freedom to Read Statement gives some comfort (and inspiration for further development and growth) to those who are uncomfortable offering a potentially alienating title in their collection: “the answer to a ‘bad’ book is a good one, the answer to a ‘bad’ idea is a good one.”
Justin Azevedo is Youth Materials Selector at the Sacramento Public Library and a member of the ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee.