In library school, I took a lot of children’s classes. A class about evaluating children’s literature. A class about planning programs. Even a class devoted entirely to storytelling. But there are some things I never learned in school. I never learned how to make safety plans to escort a performer out of a library event turned threatening. I never learned how to respond to online accusations about the supposed predatory nature of LGBTQIA+ books. As book challenges sky-rocket and board meetings become hostile, what does it look like for new library staff to be well-prepared for the profession?
Storytime 101: Songs, Stories, and Safety Plans?
In an article for The Conversation, Professor of Library Science Nicole A. Cooke argues that today’s library students need to be prepared for the political environment they are graduating into. She writes, “I believe that our students now need to consider getting professional liability insurance in case they are sued for buying a contested book. And when we teach story-time planning, we can pair that with strategies to devise a safety plan in case they are threatened or receive a bomb threat because of their work.”
In 2022, the San Lorenzo Library hosted a Drag Queen Story Hour that was disrupted by the Proud Boys. They are not the only library to have faced this kind of virulent disruption. Protest and threats have become frequent enough that organizations like the American Booksellers Association have developed safety plan strategies to help groups that are hosting similar events. Their recommendations include:
- Identify local groups that will advocate for your organization and the event. Reach out to them ahead of time to request their public support.
- Prepare an alternative route for staff and performers to enter and exit, using a back door and escorts if necessary.
- Share public demonstrations of support, from thank you cards to pride flags. Remember that small gestures can make a great difference to staff morale.
Collection Development: Reviews, Challenges, and Death Threats?
In a school board meeting, high school librarian Martha Hickson was accused of grooming students. Why? Because the library’s collection included LGBTQIA+ materials. School librarian Amanda Jones received a death threat after speaking at a public library’s meeting about book bans. Libraries across the country have lost staff members who have quit because the vitriol became too much. Both school and public libraries alike have found themselves the targets of angry social media messages.
I learned about responding to challenges in library school, but certainly not challenges that escalated to death threats or lawsuits. Every library system I’ve worked for has had a system for responding to requests for reconsideration. I’ve also always had a collection development policy that emphasizes the use of professional reviews and ethics. Cooke suggest that library programs could go further, writing, “I believe that our students now need to consider getting professional liability insurance in case they are sued for buying a contested book.”
In an article for School Library Journal, Martha Hickson recommends a few strategies for responding to the increase in challenges:
- Make sure challenge forms require that the book has been read in entirety by the one making a complaint. Require them to cite professional reviews (see this example from Fairfax County Public Schools).
- Reduce nuisance complaints by adding timelines to your policies, stating how long each step of the process is permitted to take and how often books can be re-reviewed (for example, once every three years).
- Pay attention to the demoralization of staff, and support them through their fears to avoid “silent censorship.”
The Future of Professional Support
If you need support when receiving a challenge, ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom has resources to help you, and you can contact them directly. Urban Libraries Unite has a planning and safety support guide for Drag Story Hour programs, with a printable version with an alternate title on the cover if readers need protection. If possible, connect with your counterparts at the school or public library, and share information and support. Support from our colleagues can make all the difference.
Today’s blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey is a Children’s Librarian for Santa Clara County Library. They have served on ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee and the Library Service to Underserved Children and Their Caregivers committee. Images in this post belong to the author unless otherwise credited.
This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies III. Programming Skills and VII. Professionalism and Professional Development