With schools’ book selection policies already in place, librarians tell board that a county-wide approach is too broad

people sitting in auditorium seats facing a table with others
Rockingham County school librarians face the school board at a work session in Spotswood High School as they discuss a proposed county-wide policy regarding book selection and curation. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

Rockingham County school librarians told the school board Tuesday that established policies they crafted already give parents control over content their children can access, while also being flexible to serve the needs of diverse populations of students.

The librarians addressed the board during a work session in response to the board’s decision to temporarily ban 57 books until the board could adopt a new district-wide policy about book selection and curation. Schools also received emails from the central office directing them not to add any additional books to their collections until further notice. 

Tuesday’s board work session at Spotswood High School was held as Pen America – an organization protecting free expression in the U.S. – joined with several authors in protest of the book ban in Rockingham County Schools. In a letter sent to the board on Tuesday, the authors said, “We write as creators of some of the very books that have been subjects of this directive and others across the country as well as creators that understand the power of the word. These bans represent a grave threat to the freedom to read, much to the detriment of students in your district.”

While discussing their love of their jobs and the students they teach, the librarians also agreed that many books contain inappropriate content for certain age groups and welcomed the dialogue about reconsideration policies. But many of the librarians pushed back against effects of a one-size-fits-all district-wide policy. 

Several board members reiterated during Tuesday’s work session that they wanted the policy to contain specific language regarding sexually explicit content, although many during the meeting questioned what constituted sexually explicit content, and Board Chair Matt Cross had trouble defining where the line was. 

The meeting was split into two sections – the first half allowed secondary school librarians to answer questions, and the second half gave elementary school librarians the same opportunity. 

Board members question the book-buying process

School librarians already have policies in place for how they cultivate, purchase, and weed out books on their shelves. Many of them brought their own policies with them and handed paper copies to the board. Those policies also outline how librarians handle content, which places parents at the center of decision-making. 

The librarians said when parents do not want their children reading certain material, they will put a note in the system that those children are not allowed to check out those books. Some said that they had been contacted by parents with book concerns, and they took the time to speak with those parents and take necessary actions. 

Tim Mumbower, a librarian at Turner Ashby High School, told the board that the policies that have already been established were crafted to give voice to parents and to protect students. He said each student has different needs and life experiences that deserves to be represented in the books that they read. 

“We would never seek to harm a kid, that is never our goal,” Mumbower said. “We would never presume to parent, that is not our goal. Our job is to educate, and we do that well.” 

There is also a system-wide email alert system in place where parents can sign up to get notifications of what books their children are checking out. A total of three parents have enrolled in that system. 

Moreover, the librarians said that for each school, each grade and each child, the needs vary wildly, therefore, each school should have a specific approach when considering what should be on bookshelves. 

Board member Sara Horst, the chair of the committee set up to establish a new policy, asked most of the questions of the librarians. 

Horst said board members are looking at policies set by other Virginia counties but noted that she liked much of the policy adopted by Hanover County. She said the board was open to an amalgam policy crafted with the input of librarians. 

Hanover County’s policy, which was adopted last June, requires all school library books to receive the principal’s approval, and teachers must submit lists of all books and magazines they have in their classrooms. 

Board member Jackie Lohr, the only dissenting vote against the temporary removal of the books, said the board should look to librarians’ already-crafted policies as the starting point for the system-wide approach. 

Librarians asked that the board consider any book challenges following the current policy, a tiered approach that begins in the school with a committee reviewing the book, and then a committee formed at the central office if a resolution is not found. 

Librarians also asked that the board not limit them to purchasing only from a list that might be crafted by the central office or to limit them to make purchases only once or twice a year. 

Cultivating book collections with little resources

Board members also asked the librarians how much money they were allocated each year for book buying, how they reached decisions regarding which books to purchase each year and how often they purchased books during the year. 

Money for book purchasing is allocated to each school by how many students are enrolled – generally rounding out to around $7 per student, which Horst acknowledged was low. The American Association of School Libraries recommends spending between $12 and $15 per student. 

Because of that, many librarians resort to fundraising to make ends meet. Many smiled and chuckled while talking of the great deals they could find at the Green Valley Book Fair but noted that those costs are offset by the materials to cover those books so they can last through multiple reads. Others said that while they do make money from the Scholastic Book Fairs as a fundraiser, they will often use those funds to help students who could not afford books to purchase them. 

The librarians told the board that they talk with other teachers at different schools to see what students are enjoying and get recommendations from students and parents. Before they buy books, they check to make sure the grade levels are appropriate for the ages of the students at school and read the summaries of the books on library portals specifically set up to educate library professionals about the content in the books. 

Some told the board about using their own money to purchase books for their libraries and that they revel in the joy the students show when they’re the first to check out a new popular book. Some schools have had an influx of Ukrainian refugees, so librarians rushed to find books in Ukrainian. Another school started a school garden, and the librarian began filling the shelves with gardening books. 

Continued frustration with policy rollout

During the meeting, librarians repeatedly mentioned feeling “blindsided” by the board’s decision to remove books from their schools.

At one point, board member Hollie Cave read aloud explicit content to librarians from one of the books that was temporarily banned, said that they want a specific policy to deal with sexually explicit material, and asked librarians to come to the table and agree that it should not be in schools. 

Cave said that while librarians do “really well” addressing books at their level, the board is responsible for 11,000 students. 

“We are looking at the same problem, just from a different perspective,” Cave said. 

In response, Kim Tate, the division’s supervisor of English and libraries, said she did not want blanket policies taking away from the value of relationships of Rockingham County Public Schools. 

“I think we need to be very careful in the words we use and choose,” Tate said. “When we characterize things as pornography, that is a very inflammatory word… ‘Go Ask Alice’ was on the list. That was in the classroom library that I walked into in 1984. It is a cautionary tale if you read the whole book. When you take things out of context and take them out of the representation of the characters, you change the meaning of the work as a whole, which we always consider.” 

Librarians said they had books on order when they received the email that they could no longer put any new books on the shelves. They said that students are disappointed that those books are currently sitting in boxes because they are not allowed to put them out for students. 

At one point, librarians sparred with the board over the actual contents of the books in question, noting books like “Drama” and “The Invisible Boy” did not contain any sexually explicit content. 

They also asked if board members had read any of the banned books in their entirety, saying quotes taken out of context should not be judged without an understanding of the entire body of work. Cross responded by asking librarians if they had read all the books in their own libraries. 

Cross asked librarians for a line where sexually explicit content should be banned, but “did not hear an answer.”  He said the board’s goal was not to remove books with LBGTQ+ themes, but rather those with explicit content. 

Dana Roderick, a librarian at Cub Run, thanked the board for listening to their concerns and then quoted a line from the main character of “The Invisible Boy,” one of the books that was removed.

“’He sits there wondering what is worse, being laughed at, or being invisible,’” Roderick quoted, then said: “Throughout this process, our profession has been both laughed at through the culture wars in coarse, derogatory terms, unfitting for anyone in this room, and made to feel invisible through the lack of inclusion within the conversation.”

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