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Chosen and challenged: How books become a library

How Schools Work

Editor’s note: ‘How Schools Work’ is a column explaining the day-to-day workings of public schools. Our writer is Carol Lautenbach, a veteran educator and School News Network contributor.

All districts — What do you think of when you hear the words “mirrors,” “windows,” and “sliding doors?” Maybe, like me, your local home improvement store comes to mind. If you are a librarian, though, these words have little to do with the building in which their collections are housed. Instead, the words are metaphors for a book collection that has “windows” to help readers see outside their immediate experience; “mirrors” to let readers see a reflection of their own experiences; and “sliding doors” to allow readers to step into worlds outside of themselves and their experiences.

As a young reader, I loved books that took me through a sliding door into lands of adventure, like the snowy kingdom of Narnia in C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” and Marguerite Henry’s “Misty of Chincoteague,” the story of a wild horse whose ancestors on a Virginia island were survivors of a shipwreck many generations before. School library books like those created wonder and empathy in me as I learned about unfamiliar and magical places, and about bravery and resilience. 

Today’s readers, too, need all three kinds of experiences, and school libraries can be a place where this need is met in significant ways. Because books are powerful, the kinds of books students have access to has become contentious in some communities; some books have come under scrutiny through challenges and have been removed or relocated to other libraries in a school system. According to the American Library Association, a “book challenge” is a “formal, written complaint filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.” The ALA reports that challenges are at their highest rate in public and school libraries since the organization began compiling data 20 years ago.

‘I will never get tired of seeing a child unlock the key to reading.’

— Susan MacCaffrey, Godfrey-Lee ECC Media Center library specials teacher

I reached out to Harry Coffill and Susan McCaffrey in Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, both of whom have a master’s degree in library science. McCaffrey calls the duo “a perfectly matched team, ‘librarianating’ to provide the very best for all of our students.”  The duo helped me learn more about the process of choosing — and also challenging — books in their collection. Here’s what we talked about:

“Librarianating”

Books don’t become a library without lots of thoughtful work. And somewhat mundane work, too. McCaffrey says “librarianating” includes tedious and necessary tasks like filing and reshelving, and she is grateful to the whole library team for their work. In addition to those everyday jobs, the work of school librarians and staff to select, discard and create engaging environments for readers is complex, centered on equity, and aims to be responsive to those they serve. 

“I will never get tired of seeing a child unlock the key to reading … and I often think, ‘Why would anyone want to do any other job?’” MacCaffrey said. 

That excitement about reading extends to older readers, too, as Coffill observed: “I love when a kid comes to my desk to recap an entire book for me.” 

So what does it take for books to come and go from a library’s collection?

What do the building blocks of choosing materials — windows, mirrors and sliding doors — have to do with your collection?

McCaffrey said that not only do they want to offer the best in literature, they also want to ensure that the collections “reflect our students’ interests, backgrounds and dreams.” In a diverse and language-rich environment like Godfrey-Lee, “We also try to get the most popular books in both English and Spanish, and we have books in Swahili, Pashto, Mam and Kinyarwanda.” 

Godfrey-Lee ECC second-graders from Kendra Jongsma’s class dive into reading (courtesy)

Simply finding books in multiple languages is challenging and an ongoing focus, she said. Interestingly, one popular book, “Twilight,” is available in both English and Spanish, but it’s currently only popular in the latter, Coffill noted. 

But building a diverse collection doesn’t stop with languages. Students of all ages can request books they’d like to see on the shelves. At the high-school level, students are polled for their choices once a year, resulting in more than 100 requests annually. 

A similar number of requests, many times for the next book in a series, come from elementary readers, McCaffrey said. Teachers and administrators, too, ask for books to be added, especially ones that align with ideas and topics students are studying. And parents’ suggestions are welcome, too.

A policy regarding collection development helps guide library staff as they consider new acquisitions. It addresses how the book supports the curriculum, whether it conveys any biases and how current the book is. One of Coffill’s biggest joys in his already joyful job is being able to purchase bigger ticket items like the coffee table book that presents the history of the popular “Hamilton” Broadway show. While the price tag is prohibitive for an individual, “absorbing it into library costs for multiple patrons is a great library ability.” 

What about routine removal of books? How does that work?

You might think that the age of a book is the primary reason for removing it from the collection, especially because the acronym for the ALA process used to remove books is MUSTIE, an acronym that stands for “Misleading (contains incorrect and/or stereotypical information), Ugly (stained, ripped, outdated, in disrepair), Superseded (newer version available), Trivial (no purpose and/or poorly written), Irrelevant (not needed or used by patrons), and Elsewhere (readily available in another format or place). 

However, old favorites like Ezra Jack Keats’s “The Snowy Day” and Donald Freeman’s “Corduroy” are still part of that district’s early childhood collection, McCaffrey said. “Both were actually ahead of their time,” she added, a likely reason they remain beloved choices. 

A desire for equity contributes to a lot of curation decisions. For example, a collection of books about dance was replaced by a more current version. Why? Coffill explained that no people of color were represented in the original set, despite featuring hip-hop and tap, dance genres associated with Black culture. And male dancers were non-existent in the ballet series. So the new set achieves a goal of portraying the true diversity of the art form.

Harry Coffill celebrates ‘Shelfie Day’ on Jan. 24 with enthusiastic readers in the Lee High School library (courtesy)

If someone thinks a book doesn’t belong in the collection, what happens?

When parents or someone affiliated with the district (a requirement in the process) brings a concern forward, Coffill said, the process begins with a question: “Do you want to look at this material for YOUR student or reconsider it for ALL of our students?” He encourages and welcomes parents to be active in their child’s reading choices, and he reports that most parents are happy to have the student choose or ask their teacher to assign a different book. He praises the district administration for their support in the process. 

‘I especially love when a kid finds their niche — or is excited to find a book that fills a need, whether it’s representation or simply excitement at discovering something adventurous in a story.’

— Harry Coffill, Godfrey-Lee Library-Media Specialist

If someone affiliated with the district in some way wants a book to be reconsidered for use beyond their own child’s, a process is in place to do so. First, a committee is formed that includes administrators, media and teaching staff, a school board member, parents and, at the secondary level, students. The committee then reviews the submitted concerns and checks to be sure that the entirety of the book has been examined by the person submitting the request, which specific areas in the book are of concern and if the person making the request knows of resources for the committee to consider, to provide more information and viewpoints on the book itself. The ALA provides support to schools that receive such requests for reconsideration of books in a library’s collection.

Did my childhood favorites make the cut?

After talking with these two professionals about both the choices and the challenges that go into creating a library collection, I wondered if my childhood sliding-door books had been found to be, well, MUSTIE. It was easy to do by accessing the Godfrey-Lee collection online.  I thought about what Coffill said about his own students as I searched for my two favorite childhood books: “I especially love when a kid finds their niche — or is excited to find a book that fills a need, whether it’s representation or simply excitement at discovering something adventurous in a story.” I am relieved and pleased to report that three copies of my beloved “Misty” and seven of the timeless “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” are available for today’s adventure lovers to check out.

What Can Families Do?

  • Ask: If your child brings home a book you have a concern or question about, talk to your child about the book and listen to their perspective. Do reach out to your child’s teacher or school library staff if you continue to have concerns. Parents are encouraged to be part of their child’s reading life! 
  • Do: Check out the school library’s donation policy and consider contributing books in your child’s name to commemorate a special occasion or birthday. 
  • Read: Read a book you have concerns about in its entirety. Doing so shows your child that you have invested time and thought in the decisions you have come to about the value of the book in their growth and development. 

What Do You Want to Know about Schools? School News Network values and desires your input. What do you wonder about how schools work? What questions do you have about the world of education? I’ll review your ideas and hope to address many of them in  future columns. Please email me at carollautenbach@snnkent.org.

Read more from SNN about Media Centers: 
Books represent students in state’s most diverse district
Curator, gardener, defender of the freedom to read
Showing them how to search, ask, grow

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Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach is a reporter and columnist for School News Network. She has been a writer since second grade when her semi-autobiographical story, "The Magic Pencil," earned her a shiny Kennedy half-dollar in a metro-Detroit contest. For three wonderful decades, Carol served Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in a variety of teaching and administrative roles. In her current work as a consultant and at SNN, she continues to be part of telling the story of the great promise of public education. Carol has also written for The Alan Review, The Rapidian and Midwest Living, and is co-author of the book, “Making Schools Work: Bringing the Science of Learning to Joyful Classroom Practice.” She loves to not cook, and she keeps her bag packed for art, outdoor and writing adventures.

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