Having watched Mr. Rogers as a child and with my own children, I have come to appreciate the calm demeanor of Fred Rogers’ words as an adult. This quote, in particular, resonates with me when he talked about his mother and her words in a 2013 interview:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.1
Many will recognize and know the sentiment. It has helped me to navigate the landscape of political unrest, and the stressors and strains that are taking place in our school libraries across the country.
As an educator of school librarians, I recognize that this is an uncertain time for new librarians to enter the profession. However, as a recently practicing school librarian who has dealt with numerous challenges in the past two years, I maintain that school librarianship is still one of the most rewarding and wonderful professions around. And so, as I write this, I want to share how the sentiment of “find the helpers” helped me to withstand the barrage of challenges, the stress, and the changes to my profession, and how I am sharing the sentiment with my soon-to-be school librarians.
First, recognize that you are not alone in navigating the political landscape that brings challenges to school libraries across the country. What is happening now in Washington, Oregon, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and virtually every state in the nation is a concerted effort by very organized groups to disrupt the educational landscape and Intellectual Freedom in our libraries. How do we combat that? Maintain our collections? Ensure that we have inclusive titles on our shelves for every student who walks through our school library doors? We find the helpers. Helpers come in many shapes and forms; some helpers are people, others are resources. What do they have in common? Every one of these resources can help us to promote literacy, stem the tide of rising challenges to our profession, and teach critical skills to our students.
Begin with your policy and procedures for selection and collection management. Your district should have a very clear, explicitly detailed written policy and procedure concerning selection. The district should also have developed clear guidelines for what to do when a book is challenged or asked to be reconsidered. Look for a detailed section that shares selection criteria, the procedure and timeline for a book reconsideration to happen, who serves on the committee, and what members of the community can ask for a book to be reconsidered. Using the American Library Association Policy and Procedure Toolkit as a guideline can help to ensure that your district has not left any gaping loopholes for issues to walk right through.
Consider the policy and procedure to be a helper. These clear guidelines can help any school librarian navigate a challenging situation that arises concerning objections to materials in their library.
I have always suggested to school librarians that they keep a printed copy of their district policy and procedures in a handy folder. It truly is helpful when a complaint comes in - you have everything in black and white and can ensure that you follow the policy as it’s written. Have your collection criteria handy as well. Being able to say why you chose a particular title as it relates to the collection criteria allows you to feel confident in your defense of a title.
Seek out helpers who have experience with challenges to books. ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) has resources to assist. You can report a challenge, request help from a member of their team, and more. I have taken advantage of their expertise multiple times over the past two years. Here’s the best part: if you leave your contact information and request support when you report a challenge or request help, someone will reach out to you and arrange support. In the spring of 2023, when a group of parents in southern Maryland, was pushing a policy that would create insurmountable hurdles to purchasing books for our school collections, the ALA OIF team assisted by sharing talking points and even took the time to meet on zoom.
Attend some of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) webinars and Town Halls. Often, the topic being discussed is helpful toward navigating the challenges facing districts. Additionally, you most likely will hear an amazing idea or two at each that can be game-changing! On October 3, AASL cohosted a panel presentation with the Anti-Defamation League discussing book challenges and bannings. I was a part of the panel and a helper you can look for. You can watch the recording here.
EveryLibrary has also been invaluable to many school librarians and state associations in assisting with creating momentum in support of the library. In fact, EveryLibrary offers a free tool kit and a way to create a webpage to share in the community in support of the library.
Throughout my career as a school librarian, I have always relied on the advice and the knowledge that my professors have shared with me over the years. For example, Deb Kachel, an affiliate faculty at Antioch University in the School Library Endorsement Program, is a valuable resource for learning how to advocate for school libraries. She has been involved with the The School Librarian Investigation—Decline or Evolution (SLIDE) project (which is just ending) and research around school libraries, and she is a font of knowledge. Carolyn Vibbert, a practicing elementary school librarian in Virginia who also teaches legal issues in school libraries, is another great resource on all things intellectual freedom. Educators of school librarians have expertise in school libraries and I’m certain that if you ask, they would be one of your helpers.
Find the helpers in the form of teaching media and information literacy in your school library. When we are engaging our students in teaching, learning, and truly understanding how media and information works, we are helping to ensure that the next generation of high school graduates can read, watch, and review the news and information that is coming at them with a discerning eye. There are so many useful resources for teaching information and media literacy. Some of my favorites are from the News Literacy Project, a non-partisan non-profit, which has ready-to-use lessons for elementary, middle and high school students.
Another favorite resource for teaching media and information literacy is the Newseum. While they no longer have a brick and mortar building, they still maintain resources for school librarians to use.
With so much misinformation swirling around school library collections, the more we can teach our students to be critical thinkers and consumers of information, the better off we’ll be positioned with our future leaders, voters, and thinkers to understand the value of the school library and collections that represent all.
Finally, find the helpers in your fellow school librarians or fellow soon-to-be school librarians. When we can spend time chatting about issues happening in our districts, counties, state, region, those issues seem less insurmountable than when we shoulder the burden alone. Whether you attend the WLA conference in the spring, or spend some time texting with a fellow classmate or librarian - you’ll find that it helps you to feel that while the issue still exists, you are not alone.