By Chuck Steinbower, Librarian
One of the best ways to promote Intellectual Freedom in one’s library is to do things that curtail attacks. Rather than responding to censorship attacks, which one has to do occasionally, a major way to combat censorship and promote intellectual freedom is to be proactive rather than reactive.
One needs to reach out to one’s institution and go beyond the walls of the library and get involved in the life of the institution. There are various ways that this can be done. By getting involved in the life of the Teacher’s Union, you can establish relationships that will lead to exposure for you and for the library. I have been involved in our Union’s Planning Committee which organizes a yearly Professional Development Day for our teachers. We invite various vendors and speakers and have a wonderful time. This gets your name out there and helps people know that you care and are involved. I am also involved with the Institution’s United Way Combined Charities program which helps promote teamwork for a good cause and helps in networking opportunities. Our Institution also has a Site Steering Committee which conducts a variety of fundraisers such as cookouts, candy bar sales and the like to raise money for recognition banquets awarding plaques for years of service and a December Holiday Banquet.
It goes without saying that the district needs to write and administer a working library and selection policy as well as a reconsideration of materials policy. When a challenge does come about, the librarian should not argue but refer to the selection policy and reconsideration of materials policy. Referring to a policy very often defuses a situation and a person who wants a material removed very often will not take the time to fill out a form. As a librarian, try to defuse the drama, do not take things personally and just refer to the policies. That will endear you to more people and won’t make you come off as some kind of intellectual prig.
One of the experiences that I have encountered in my tenure as a librarian concerns the electronic resources of INFOhio. INFOhio is a basic staple in school districts across the state. I received complaints from staff who were concerned about the youth’s access to the electronic resources, Newsbank Newspapers in particular. Staff members were concerned about the youth’s ability to access the arrest records of other youth and were afraid that the youth could access the internet and staff personal information. I tried to alleviate their concerns by personally talking with the concerned staff and set up an in-service for interested staff on INFOhio.
My former principal stated that he did not want the youth using INFOhio unless they had a purpose, assignment or reason for using it. I established procedures in which a student stated his or her purpose for being on INFOhio. I could thus let them use the computer to become more information literate.
This system worked from 2006 through 2008, but suddenly, and without the advice of the librarians who service youth through INFOhio, the district shut down the electronic resources completely. They were concerned that one of the youth was able to obtain email access through the electronic resources. I am working to restore INFOhio resources while disabling the email capabilities of them and have enabled the teaching staff to have access but youth still cannot.
In the last year, I applied for an LSTA Minigrant which would enable Alan Lawrence Sitomer to visit our facility. I would also have purchased Sitomer’s books, Homeboyz and The Secret Life of Sonia Rodriguez, for each student and worked with English teachers in collaborative lessons using the books. At the last minute, my Curriculum Director objected to Homeboyz because she thought that it glorified gangs and violence. Although I objected to her reasoning because of her cursory review of the book, I suggested that they substitute Sitomer’s book Hoopster, which was accepted as an alternative. This example and the previous example are ways that librarians can look for alternatives while staying true to their principles in the midst of censorship.
Censorship and Intellectual freedom are touchy subjects. Librarians need to stand up for their youth’s right to read. By reaching out in ways described earlier and getting involved in the life of one’s institution and outside of the walls of the library, librarians can promote a team player approach that will show others that they care about their work environment in general, not just the library. Doing this and offering good programming ideas can promote an image of the library as a programming center rather than a mere dispenser of materials. Programming ideas could be obtained by going to various conferences, both library related and education related. In the last year, I was awarded the privilege of attending the Horace Mann Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Teachers fellowship which showed how to make Lincoln relevant in the classroom. I also was awarded the privilege of attending a Picturing America Conference sponsored by ALA, NEH and WNET PBS TV in New York City. This enabled me to discover ways to promote the fine art posters received through a grant to ALA and NEH . I have used the information gleaned from these conferences to reach out to and collaborate with my teachers and enhance their curriculum.
L to R: Choose to Read Ohio author Jaime Adoff and Chuck Steinbower. Adoff visited the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility in April 2009.
Being a librarian in a Correctional Institution, I do not have as much parental access as a public school librarian, but the techniques described in this article could be applied toward outreach and networking with parents as well as one’s co-workers.
In conclusion, Intellectual Freedom is an attitude. It is a slippery slope we go down when we tolerate censorship. We need to establish effective and collaborative working relationships with our peers, teachers, co-workers and the community as well as youth and their parents as much as possible. This helps prevent or at least reduce attacks on materials but does not totally eliminate them. If an attack does occur, just refer to the policy and then let the process work itself out. One may feel angry and actually superior to the “accuser” but do not let that show. As a Christian, I believe in Intellectual Freedom because I think that if we tolerate censorship, it will not be long before we encounter the type of persecution that Christians, as well as Jews and others encountered in Nazi Germany. We need to be vigilant, but we need to be, as the Bible says, “wise as serpents, but gentle as doves,” when dealing with challenges to intellectual freedom.
Chuck Steinbower received the 2010 Ohio Educational Library Media Association (OELMA) Intellectual Freedom Award.