Challenging Self-Censorship: A 21st-century vision for an ethical future

Anne M. Mosher
University of Denver
Denver, Colorado, USA

Library Student Journal,
October 2010


Dealing with materials challenges is the most stressful aspect of school librarians' job responsibilities. Such stress can and does sometimes lead to self-censorship in school libraries, which is a sensitive and important issue; but as many such acts of self-censorship are never reported, the subject continues to be a seldom-talked-of ethical infraction. This article draws on the existing literature, and personal commentaries, to offer steps school librarians can and should take in order to effectively deal with a material challenge and keep such challenges from leading to self-censorship. The vital responsibility of school librarians to protect students' rights to intellectual freedom and access to information requires more than simply an official plan of action for dealing with challenges. It also requires self-education, education and support of the school community and the community at large, and the utilization of interactive and preventative measures to build understanding in every school district. Preparation will not prevent book challenges, but potentially it can reduce numbers of challenges and their negative effects. Keywords: self-censorship; school libraries; challenges; ethics; policies


What do The Perks of Being a Wallflower, ttyl, and The Kite Runner have in common, besides their popularity among young adult (YA) readers? These three critically acclaimed titles were on the American Library Association's (ALA) list of Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2008. Therefore, they might be perceived by some school librarians as not worth the trouble to acquire. According to research reported in this paper, from such authors as Coley (2002), Luckenbill and Luckenbill (2007), Whelan (2009), and others, some school librarians self-censor book choices for their libraries to avoid the risk of challenges. This denies a core responsibility of their profession, one that is featured prominently in ALA's Code of Ethics: standing up for students' rights to intellectual freedom and information access. As self-censorship in school libraries becomes a more public issue, it is hoped that more librarians will internalize the fact that "fear of a challenge is not one of the selection principles" (Dickenson, 2007, Part II, p. 24). While self-censoring affects other types of library/media materials (such as Internet filters), the examples in this paper will focus on students' access to popular and critically acclaimed books. This review will demonstrate that in order to deal effectively and consistently with challenges to controversial books, and to prevent such challenges from leading to self-censorship, school librarians can best protect students' intellectual freedom and information access by adopting the following three measures: (1) proactively educating themselves; (2) ensuring that their school district implements (and uses consistently) an official plan of action for dealing with challenges; and (3) using their people skills and interpersonal communication skills to proactively and interactively educate their school community.

A basic principle taught to LIS students in general ethics classes, and reinforced in other core classes, is librarians' responsibility to protect each library user's constitutional right to intellectual freedom. The author of this paper fully supports that ethical principle. For the purposes of the subsequent discussion, the following is used as the definition of book challenges: oral and/or written complaints about the content of a particular work from students, parents, or other school or community members. Likewise, the definition of self-censorship is: a librarian's personal value judgment and/or decision not to adopt a particular critically acclaimed book simply because of some controversial aspect(s) of its content.

School librarians must pursue education that will help prepare them to stand up confidently for students' rights; such education is key to understanding the potential ethical dilemmas school librarians will face, as well as the stress and complexity that can accompany the pleasure of materials selection. School librarians must internalize their ethical responsibilities, both in relation to constitutional law and where their students are concerned, and then use their knowledge to protect students' rights and educate their community. Before looking more specifically at the three measures that can arm librarians to resist self-censorship, this paper will discuss why some school librarians self-censor, and how some others have successfully handled book challenges.

Facing the Issue of Challenges

Coley's (2002) article on self-censorship in Texas public schools lists twelve "reasons" librarians typically give for self-censoring. Of these twelve, Coley found one reason to be "most significant": perception of community values (¶4-5). The underlying cause of this "significant" reason is fear—fear of facing challenges is the primary reason for self-censoring.

Librarians fear confrontation, risk to their jobs, or loss of respect. Whelan (2009) reports on a survey of 655 librarians, conducted by the School Library Journal. Results showed that 70 percent of respondents were "terrified of how parents will respond" to a controversial book; 29 percent feared "backlash from administrators . . . [and/or] the community;" and 25 percent feared negative student reactions (p. 27). Of those surveyed, almost half had already faced at least one book challenge, and their fear of another challenge influenced their selections. Reasons for censoring included "objectionable language," "violence," "racism," "homosexual themes," "religion," and "sexual content," the last being the number one reason for self-censorship (p. 28). The research revealed in Whelan's article confirms what Coley's research implies: fear underlies most self-censoring of book selections.

Hopkins (2003) notes that almost all materials challenges occur in schools, so many school librarians will face challenges. Hopkins explains that the stress related to such challenges is powerful, including negative psychological and physical effects. This offers more insight into why some librarians choose self-censoring (pp. 32-33). Hopkins recommends alleviating stress by seeking support during challenges, using the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC), a youth library at the University of Wisconsin, as an example of an outside-the-school-district resource. Her article synthesizes the importance of pursuing help from district staff and from state organizations such as CCBC. Such emotional and informational support results in "a higher retention rate of challenged materials" (p. 33). Hopkins implies that fear of challenges may be blown out of proportion, as many librarians deal successfully with multiple book complaints (p. 34). Her "national study . . . found that half of school library media specialists sought no assistance within the school or district . . . and 88 percent sought no assistance outside the district" (p. 32). The implications of Hopkins' report both reflect and extend those of Coley and Whelan. One might expect that facing a challenge would feel isolating. Therefore, it would seem that school librarians would benefit from the reassurance that they are not alone when defending materials. Fear and stress are natural responses to book challenges; seeking support should also become a natural response.

The percentages cited in Hopkins' study, which demonstrate that few challenged librarians seek support, are more staggering in the context of another statistic: only 20 to 25 percent of challenges are actually reported (2001 study by the International Reading Association, referenced by Coley, 2002, ¶5). This number has remained consistent in the ensuing six years; ALA statistics for 2007 "estimate that [only] one out of five cases are reported" (Whelan, 2009, p. 28). Such low reporting affects reliability of statistical studies of challenged books.

Numerous articles advise school librarians to seek support not just from district personnel and state organizations, but also from national organizations. For example, Adams' (2007) report on a school librarian who transcended a formal challenge recommends working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as well as with ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) (p. 18). Having such powerful resources available underscores the fact that choosing popular, critically acclaimed books, even if controversial, is crucial to protecting students' rights to information access. Yet some school librarians shirk their ethical obligation to students. Perhaps self-doubt, exacerbated by pressure from school administration, explains some librarians' reluctance to solicit help during a book challenge. This is a more palatable conclusion than assuming they have given up.

In synthesizing information from articles by Coley, Hopkins, Whelan, and others, it seems that school librarians who self-censor focus on a vision of the future that equates choosing a controversial book with facing frightening challenges that threaten their livelihood and emotional well-being. This negative focus not only provides false rationalization for unethical choices, but also ignores possibilities for positively reshaping that future vision. School librarians could work toward minimizing negative psychological impact by taking advantage of supportive resources before a challenge occurs.

Sara K. Johns (2007), the 2007-08 president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), offers advice for proactively preparing for future challenges. She recommends getting involved with one's state school library association and attending conferences—because professional organizations provide ongoing information and support. If materials are challenged, Johns encourages librarians to immediately contact ALA's OIF and the AASL (p. 6). Her article implies that meeting challenges courageously not only protects students' rights, but also enhances one's own sense of professionalism. Fear can be transformed into empowerment and self-respect if a school librarian fulfills this job responsibility ethically.

Not all librarians self-censor. On the other side of this ethical dilemma are "the profession's heroes, those who survived challenges . . ., defending their decisions on the solid ground of our First Amendment rights" (Johns, 2007, p. 6). A major component of a librarian's decision not to self-censor is illegality. Lukenbill and Lukenbill (2007) describe librarians' legal and ethical responsibilities by saying that "[A]ll American librarians, including school librarians, will be required in the future to become more assertive in their professional responsibilities to protect the free speech rights of their users" (¶5). Their article features a U.S. Supreme Court case, Board of Education, Island Trees, New York v. Pico (1982), which demonstrates that students have "the right to receive ideas and the right to learn" (¶12, ¶15), even if school boards object (¶14). While the court supported a school board's right to "remov[e]" books "for sound educational reasons and for legitimate purposes of limiting students' exposure to vulgarity," it also indicated that schools boards could only do so in cases that could "stand up under court review" (¶16).

The close vote on this Supreme Court case, "a 5-4 decision" (Lukenbill & Lukenbill, 2007, ¶14), shows that while students have "First Amendment rights ensuring access to information in school libraries" (¶15), protecting those rights remains controversial. That controversy, according to Lukenbill and Lukenbill, frightens many school librarians. The authors' study of 148 Texas school librarians revealed that 84 percent would "remove items from their collections if ordered to do so by their boards"; only 16 percent would "dispute the order and present evidence of legal problems that might arise from the removal" (¶55). Texas records the second highest number of annual challenges in the nation—including self-censoring. It is deeply troubling to think that LIS professionals are bowing to pressures that undermine the Constitution.

Coley (2002) reminds readers that there are ethical reasons besides constitutional law for not self-censoring books. He argues that youth are both attracted to and need "realistic YA literature" that allows them "to vicariously experience many of the more negative aspects of their culture," teaching them to deal with difficult issues (¶29). School librarians must think not only about their students' legal rights, but also about their wants and needs. Books that offer insight into this complex, 21st-century world can contribute significantly to a young adult's potential for growth.

Perhaps the methodology employed in Coley's (2002) study will, in future, help counter self-censorship. He applied an objective method for discovering self-censorship practices, based on the adoption of 20 recent, popular, critically acclaimed, and controversial YA books (mostly realistic fiction). Coley searched for the 20 titles in the OPACs of 100 randomly selected Texas schools. To each OPAC, he applied his "50 percent ownership requirement," a research method he implemented to determine how many of the 100 Texas schools owned at least 50 percent of the 20 chosen titles (¶5-7). His results: "82 percent of the high school librarians . . . engaged in . . . self-censorship, based on the 50 percent ownership requirement" (¶20). Conceivably, this type of research could, by publicly exposing self-censorship, help to counter unlawful and unethical pressure from administrators and parents.

School librarians do not stand alone when they honor their responsibility to protect students' rights to intellectual freedom. In fact, besides being supported by the previously mentioned local, state and national organizations, they are also supported by one of the world's most powerful legal instruments: the United States Constitution. As Johns (2007) notes: "the principles behind the First Amendment are upheld over and over in our courts" (p. 5). Supporting students' rights to intellectual freedom and information access is both a matter of law and of students' needs.

Challenging Self-Censorship through Education

Since self-censoring is ethically indefensible, school librarians need to take measures to prepare themselves to be strong advocates for their students. The first measure librarians can adopt to prepare for future selection and challenges to controversial books is proactive pursuit of both formal and self-education. Knowledge arms school librarians with the expertise needed to support both students and constitutional law.

Lukenbill and Lukenbill (2007) support the necessity of professional and self-education to more effectively deal with potential book challenges. They explain that four factors help librarians resist censorship: "higher levels of education and librarian certification"; more money to develop collections; a more liberal community; and knowledge of "court rulings pertaining to library censorship" (¶63). About their explanation, one could say that a school librarian has control over two of these four factors; while s/he cannot control the amount of funding or political atmosphere in a community, s/he can choose where s/he attains formal education and can choose to stay professionally current through reading, conferences, organizations, and so on.

ALA-accredited master's programs offer excellent formal education in practical, theoretical, and philosophical aspects of school librarians' responsibilities. Nevertheless, LIS educational theorists want the bar set even higher. For example, two articles argue that present curricula (i.e., as of 2007) do not do enough to ensure that future school librarians will proactively protect their students' rights: Dickenson (2007, Part I) notes that LIS/MLIS students need more training in "selection principles and criteria" to prepare them to "act as informed counsel for [school] districts" (p. 27). Vranes (2007) offers specific suggestions for a university-level, two-term course on "free access to information" (pp. 141-142). She also argues for a revised vision of LIS/MLIS curricula that would place more emphasis on librarians' ethical responsibility to support students' First Amendment rights, including incorporating "principles of intellectual freedom into all available courses" (p. 141). Both of these articles urge curriculum improvements to better prepare librarians to offer and defend challenged materials, emphasizing librarians' ethical obligation to users. Since this obligation is integral to a librarian's job, it makes sense that one must build on a solid foundation of knowledge.

Besides formal education for licensure, several articles emphasize ongoing education during one's career. For example, Adams' (2007) report about Cassandra Barnett highlights the importance of proactively pursuing post-graduate self-education. Barnett emerged from her Fayetteville, Arkansas book challenge experience—as she said, "the hardest thing" she had ever experienced—with new knowledge of (and positive support from) ALA's OIF, the ACLU, and other organizations (pp. 18-19). She ultimately found the challenge educational and empowering (p. 20). Barnett's positive response provides evidence that doing the right thing can be emotionally and professionally rewarding, and that every new experience offers opportunities for self-education. Furthermore, Barnett's professional stance reflects the importance of the teaching aspect of a book challenge process. Since effective school librarians help students establish lifelong learning habits, modeling such learning habits consistently, as Barnett did, serves both students and the profession.

Not all professional development for school librarians has to do with keeping abreast of laws, challenges, etc. One enjoyable aspect of proactive self-education is keeping up with books hailed as "notable" (and oftentimes challenged). School librarians have an obligation not only to provide access to books, but also to read what students read. The ALA's annual lists of challenged books are useful starting points, as they prepare librarians to respond to questions about—and challenges of—books in their collections. If a book is challenged, however, formal studies and self-education are not enough: several authors cited in this paper, such as Martin and Johns, note that school librarians also need clear, current policies in place to ensure effective handling.

Challenging Self-Censorship by Implementing Formal Policies and Procedures

The second measure school librarians should adopt to protect against self-censorship is to ensure that their school district implements an official plan of action for dealing with challenges. Effective review policies deal with challenges respectfully, and sometimes prevent queries from turning into challenges. Dickenson, Martin, and Johns—three of the authors cited in this paper—all note that such policies protect both district and librarian during challenges. If a school has no policy, all three authors believe that the librarian should create one through interactive consultation with school/district administration. Such collaboration provides information to those who would be affected by a potential challenge, and promotes collegiality. There is another potential advantage to creating a policy and plan of action to deal with book challenges: writing, or simply revising and updating, such a document requires that librarians stay current on challenges in their field.

Martin (2007) offers specific advice to school librarians who are faced with the need to write or revise—and implement—a policy and plan of action: "When writing selection and instructional materials review policies, keep the language succinct and the process focused" (p. 55). Policies are public documents clarifying who may "initiate a formal review," what a challenger must do before making a written request for a review (i.e., read the entire book), the steps involved in a challenge (informational meetings with "complainants," etc.), and length of time allowed for district personnel to "reevaluate" challenged materials (pp. 55-56). Once approved, this document becomes "part of the school board policy" (p. 55). Martin emphasizes that selection policies are important for protecting the school librarian's right to choose materials—and for protecting the district should challenges occur. They also "minimiz[e] the arbitrary nature of the review process . . . [and] demonstrat[e] the procedure is the same for all materials and all concerns" (p. 56). Writing/revising policies, as the first step in a school librarian's new job, would also seem to the current author to provide insight into his/her new district. Even if the district's current policies and procedures are already sound, requiring little revision, the practice of using material and review policies consistently should be easier for new librarians because of the familiarity they gain through the revision or updating process.

Martin (2007) also offers advice on handling a parent complaint about a book. She suggests that the school librarian "explain the review process, . . . keep accurate records" of the meeting, and then "update the [district] community" (p. 56). While Dickenson, Martin, and Johns all mention that most parental concerns do not persist beyond the initial meeting, Martin stresses that professionalism demands recording "all requests for reconsideration, even if . . . settled informally" (p. 56). It seems that such record-keeping would both protect the school community and contribute to statistical research on challenged books. It seems reasonable that meetings with parents would help school librarians develop a vision for the future that includes more social/educational outreach.

Interestingly, Johns' (2007) emphasis on using a school library selection policy reflects something that Professor Jody K. Howard, University of Denver LIS adjunct professor and 2009 Colorado Association of Libraries president, also stresses: most of the time, all a parent really wants is to be listened to. Sympathizing with a parent's concerns and then earnestly explaining why the book is available in the library often elicits positive reactions (Howard, personal communication, April 15, 2009). Johns (2007) suggests that when faced with a parental complaint, a librarian should listen attentively and then respond with the phrase "'How wonderful that you know what your child is reading!'" (p. 6). Johns notes that she only had to present the paperwork for a challenge (the first step in the formal process) to a parent once, and the form was never turned in (p. 6).

Challenging Self-Censorship by Using Personal and Communication Skills Proactively

The foregoing explanation about selection and review policies shows they are crucial to school librarians' choices of books for students, to creating collaborative relationships with district staff, and to dealing effectively and consistently with challenges. Still, this author argues that school librarians must adopt a third measure to prevent challenges from leading to self-censorship: they must use their people skills and interpersonal communications skills proactively to educate their whole school community. Educating others may begin with staff development meetings, which provide opportunities to build positive relationships and keep district staff informed. Working with other district librarians and being available to teachers is also important, offering librarians more opportunities to educate, interact, and increase visibility.

It is clear to the current author, when reflecting on the articles cited for this paper, as well as on information from two interviews at Monarch High School in Longmont, Colorado, that this proactive outreach and education aspect of a school librarian's job requires more than education and sound policies. It also requires people skills. Some school librarians have natural interpersonal qualities that can, in fact, make them more effective than other librarians. While many are good employees who manage their jobs well, a few go beyond professional requirements to become role models, bringing their gifts to their work in ways that creatively and positively affect the whole atmosphere of their school and wider community. Through research, as well as through observation and interviews at Monarch High School, the author of this paper has learned that for such school librarians, proactive measures to educate one's school community are intrinsic to protecting students' rights. Such gifted librarians show through their commitment that students' growth comes first, and that commitment affects every aspect of their work.

In sharing her own experiences as a school librarian, Johns (2007) reveals, perhaps unconsciously, that excellent interpersonal skills can distinguish the extraordinary from the good. Her communication with a concerned parent reveals tact and innate respect for parents' roles in their children's education. Her empathetic responsiveness to people, coupled with her professionalism, demonstrate that she is more than a manager: she is a leader. (She also served as 2007-08 AASL president, further evidence of her leadership abilities.) Her proactive response to the possibility of challenges led her to research—and then share—what she had learned, in order to benefit others.

Adams' (2007) article reveals more than just Cassandra Barnett's successful response to three challenged books. The groundswell of support she generated in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where numerous book challenges continue, indicates that her people skills are high-order. Her school district's faculty, as well as many parents, provided outspoken support, and students organized a petition drive and spoke to the school board and at town meetings (p. 19). Barnett is clearly a leader who follows her own advice to others: "Continuously educate members of your school community" and "Do everything you can to promote your program before a challenge even rears its ugly head" (p. 20). She is proof that a school librarian can have a powerful impact by proactively educating a community about First Ammendment rights.

The articles cited for this paper by Johns and Adams recommend that school librarians interact continually with their school/community. The examples in these two articles help make clear what such a recommendation means. Monarch High School in Longmont, Colorado, offers another example. In an interview, high school principal Jerry Anderson (personal communication, April 29, 2009), a veteran of collaborative meetings with her school's librarian, noted that Monarch's licensed teacher-librarian, Beatrice Gerrish, "gets kids into the library and encourages their activities there," which requires "flexibility and personable skills." Anderson feels that Gerrish exemplifies those qualities.

Proactive information-sharing, when offered ahead of time, will arm school administrators who may face parent challenges of library materials. In an interview, Beatrice Gerrish, MED, MLIS, then in her third year as teacher-librarian at Monarch High School, explained that she makes it a priority to keep her principal informed. For example, when she conceived her long-range vision three years ago to build a large collection of graphic novels to appeal to "resistant readers," she and her principal knew that some graphics included "controversial elements." Gerrish's records indicate her vision reaped results: "Check-out rates increased 40 percent in the last three years, and circulation has doubled." Gerrish sees her primary mission as making the library "a central part of each student's academic, extracurricular, and personal experience at Monarch." To that end, Gerrish works actively to educate her school community: she serves on staff committees, sponsors student clubs, volunteers for school events, and sets up functions for kids outside school time. She also works directly with half of the eighty teachers, and considers herself "an advocate for kids." She does "a lot of PR for the library," advocates for minority and at-risk kids by hosting a weekly (evening) board-game party in the library, and makes school library day, April 15, "a big celebration." She also includes parents in her Banned Book Week activities. While Gerrish claims that her zero-challenges record relects that Boulder County "is overwhelmingly liberal" (personal communication, April 29, 2009), her proactive outreach may account for this record as well.


The author of this paper was able to observe the significant positive effect of interpersonal skills at Monarch High School. Beatrice Gerrish is an example of the powerful role school librarians play in protecting students' First Amendment rights before a challenge happens. Her success reinforces the lessons in Johns' and Adams' articles. Research for this paper indicates that 21st-century school librarians—even those without the people skills to become outstanding leaders such as Johns, Barnett, and Gerrish—have career responsibilities ranging from fascinating to fun to stressful. Besides day-to-day library tasks, they must ensure that students have opportunities to learn about all aspects of their diverse culture, including opposing ideas, in the interest of nurturing their full potential. Facilitating access, and exciting students' interest, means ordering books that attract them. Popular, critically acclaimed titles for youth are often controversial—yet they often offer just what youth need to make sense of the world.

Since controversial book selections can invite challenges, school librarians must arm themselves to deal with those challenges ethically. To combat the fear of challenges without succumbing to self-censorship, librarians must prepare themselves and their school communities. Preparation for such book challenges can begin well in advance—when future librarians choose their graduate program. On the job, librarians prepare through continuing education, by creating and using selection and review policies, and by committing themselves to proactive interaction with their school communities in order to build understanding. Book challenges will always happen, but a prepared librarian well-versed in the ethics of self-censorship can reduce the number of challenges and their negative effects on the school community.


Adams, H. R. (2007). What I learned: an interview with Cassandra Barnett. Knowledge Quest, 36(2), 16-20.

American Library Association. (2008). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from

Coley, K. P. (2002). Moving toward a method to test for self-censorship by school library media specialists. School Library Media Research, 5.

Dickenson, G. (2007). The challenges of challenges: Understanding and being prepared: Part I. School Library Media Activities Monthly, 23(5), 26-28.

Dickenson, G. (2007). The challenges of challenges: What to do?: Part II. School Library Media Activities Monthly, 23(6), 21-24.

Hopkins, D. M. (2003). The value of support during a library media challenge. Knowledge Quest, 31(4), 32-36.

Johns, S. K. (2007). Who's protecting whom? AASL and intellectual freedom. Knowledge Quest, 36(2), 4-6.

Lukenbill, W. B., & Lukenbill, J. F. (2007). Censorship: What do school library specialists really know? A consideration of students' rights, the law and implications for a new education paradigm. School Library Media Research, 10, 1-31.

Martin, A. M. (2007). Preparing for a challenge. Knowledge Quest, 36(2), 54-56.

Vranes, A. (2007). The role of university education in enabling free access to information. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 48(2), 139-153.

Whelan, D. L. (2009). A dirty little secret: Self-censorship: Self-censorship is rampant and lethal. School Library Journal, 55(2), 26-30. Retrieved from

Author's Bio

Anne M. Mosher is a student in the Master of Library and Information Science program at the University of Denver's Morgridge College of Education. She expects to graduate in the spring of 2010 with a concentration in School Libraries.

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  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Facing the Issue of Challenges
  4. Challenging Self-Censorship through Education
  5. Challenging Self-Censorship by Implementing Formal Policies and Procedures
  6. Challenging Self-Censorship by Using Personal and Communication Skills Proactively
  7. Conclusion
  8. References
  9. Author's Bio

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