A school librarian’s perspective on the battle for books

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Jennifer Eckert was still in elementary school when she decided to become a teacher. An Army brat whose family eventually settled in San Antonio, Eckert made his sister sit in his fake classroom and listen to her as she gushed about lessons. After a few years of teaching third grade, however, Eckert realized there was another role she might enjoy even more: school librarian. She received her master’s degree from the University of Texas and spent 10 years as an elementary school librarian in San Antonio before becoming a library specialist supporting librarians and circulation throughout her district. “The librarian is the best job in school because you can interact with all the students and teachers and you can sell books all day,” she says. Eckert says she was surprised when public school libraries became a political flashpoint last fall. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with evaluating books to determine if their content is appropriate, but, she says, a framework already exists to ensure that every title goes through the same review process. “We also want to make sure that we read and consider the entire book and that we don’t take stuff that doesn’t make sense out of context of the whole book,” she says.

Public school libraries have been in the news since last fall, when state Rep. Matt Krause said he was opening an investigation into books containing some discussion of race or gender. Was it a surprise?

It has been surprising how quickly this has escalated and how politicized it has become. Because there’s always been people who say, “I’m not sure about this book”, and libraries always have some sort of process in place to reconsider a book and see if that’s what best for their children.

It was surprising how quickly it was blown (by some people) that schools provide pornography, which is not what any professional educator does. And it’s been surprising how quick and willing some people are to circumvent the process we already have in place.

What does this review process look like?

Most school districts have selection policies in place to guide librarians on how to select books and a process is in place if a review is requested. Typically, a form is completed and a committee is in place to review the book.

There’s a point in every librarian’s professional life when they come across a title that’s perhaps more appropriate for middle school or high school than elementary school and you have to pull it out and send it to another school.

I’ve been in the library for 10 years and there’s only been two or three times that a parent said they didn’t think a book should be in the library. I took these comments very seriously.

We take them all very seriously. Revisiting titles is perfectly fine, but you want to make sure you’re applying the same review process to every book and not just pulling something off the shelf.

Are the books removed regularly? What happens in the constitution of a collection?

Librarians perform a process called weeding every year. We don’t have the physical space to hold 50 years of building a library collection, so you buy books every year and you eliminate a certain number of books every year.

With non-fiction, you weed out anything outdated – like when Pluto wasn’t a planet anymore, we had to put out books that talked about it as a planet. You also look at what is unverified and if it is no longer interesting or relevant, you remove it.

There are tools that give you guidance on what percentage each section of the library should occupy, but it also depends on your school’s needs.

Over the past five years, the relationship between fiction and non-fiction has shifted more towards fiction, as a lot of factual information is available online. And at Texas Public Schools, we have access to many great databases, so you don’t need as much reference material. It is no longer financially sound to get an updated set of world encyclopedias every year when the online database is updated daily.

You’re also trying to get a sense of what your kids want and need and what books represent your community, but also what books offer a look at other different people that they might not see on a regular basis.

Locally, some school districts have pulled books from the shelf after a review. What impact has the state’s call for more scrutiny of collections had?

We needed to ensure that our librarians reviewed our selection policy and review process. We also reviewed it at central office to make sure it was complete and compared our policies to those of other districts. In some ways, that’s a very good thing. These types of processes should be reviewed from time to time to ensure that they meet the needs of the community.

We have also worked to ensure that directors are aware that these processes are in place. Because parents usually go directly to them rather than the librarian if they have a complaint.

We want parental involvement. We want families to decide which books are right for them, so parents need to communicate with their children.

How do you teach children to find reliable sources when researching online?

Since I became a librarian in 2007, it has become increasingly important to talk about sources and reliability. Children are naturally capable of using technology. When I started we had to teach them how to use a mouse and things like that and they know all that now. But they are still very naive when it comes to discerning what kind of information is appropriate and factual online.

Even with third graders, you talk about the fact that there are real things on the Internet and things that are not true. I tried to instill a sense of questioning so they wouldn’t automatically trust everything they encountered.

This is definitely a challenge that all librarians continue to face because misinformation and disinformation are only getting more sophisticated.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Information folder

Education:
Clark High School, Texas State University (B.A. and M.Ed.), University of Texas at Austin (M.A. in Library and Information Science)

Leader:
Past President of the Texas Library Association, District 10

Favorite children’s book:
Ping’s story

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