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Blog September 19, 2023

How to Weed a School Library

There was quite a bit of pearl-clutching recently when it was announced that the Peel District School Board (PDSB) had begun to weed its libraries by removing all books published before 2008. Like a good garden, libraries do need the occasional weeding. The question is, of course, what’s a weed? As a gardener, I have always understood weeds to be plants that are growing somewhere you do not want them to be. But when it comes to books, what should stay and what should go?

There has been some confusion about the actual policy under which PDSB chose to remove certain books from its shelves. Both Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, and the PRDSB Chair denied that there was any direction from the Ministry of Education to do as the Peel Board had done. The school board education director, Rashmi Swarup implied that the fault lay with board staff and, while the board denied any responsibility for what happened, it would review its staff training. 

It might be helpful to look at the policy of Canadian School Libraries that suggests another way of removing books that do not comply with equity, diversity and inclusion, or are “MUSTIE:”

Misleading – information may be factually inaccurate or obsolete.

Unpleasant – refers to the physical condition of the book, may require replacement.

Superseded – book been overtaken by a new edition or a more current resource. 

Trivial – of no discernible literary or scientific merit; poorly written or presented.            

Irrelevant – doesn't meet the needs and interests of the library's community.                

Elsewhere – the book or the material in it may be better obtained from other sources. 

While I do not find myself too fussed about dog-eared and torn books being removed or replaced by fresh editions, nor by newer editions being shelved where the old versions used to be, I am concerned that someone is making some very subjective decisions about the other categories. 

Another framework for such weeding goes by the acronym FRESH:

Fosters love of reading.

Reflects your diverse population.

Equitable global view is reflected in the collection.

Supports the schools’ curricula.

High quality text contains up to date information.

The poster says, “If no, it’s got to go.”

But does it? 

Imagine you want to teach your students how to identify conspiracy theories or simply false information. While there is plenty of junk on the internet to fill that bill, people often think that if a book has been published and isn’t labelled as fiction, it must contain truth. What better way to challenge such ideas than getting your students to compare spurious materials with reliable ones. Even books that tell lies have value. A trip to the local public library may well be out of reach for some students and certainly for whole classes. 

What if your school is in a community where there is little diversity – can you not carry books by or about people from other places or points of view? Perhaps you do NOT want to reflect certain communities, even where the majority of your students may be members. Winnie the Pooh was challenged because a religious community said that talking animals contravened their faith. Harry Potter may not have been removed by the current school board in Peel, but it has been in other places where magic and sorcery are seen to contravene community standards, or where the author’s views on trans folks have caused her to be “cancelled.”

No library can contain every possible text and school libraries even fewer than public libraries. Fortunately, not many have gone the way of the Windsor-Essex Catholic School Board, which in 2011 removed virtually all of the books in high school libraries. They thought that if schools had computers, they no longer needed books. The students protested and many teachers were seen diving into the dumpsters behind schools, retrieving all the books their classrooms could hold.

Making decisions about what should or should not be on library shelves is important, difficult, and should not be left to the whims of a single person. It takes time to properly curate a collection. The views and preferences of the students and classroom teachers, as well as those of the teacher-librarians need to be taken into consideration. While some parents might make suggestions, I am concerned that those who want whole categories of books removed should not have the power to make such important decisions. For example, in some schools graphic novels were not considered acceptable reading material for kids.  For reluctant readers, there may be no better way to discover the joy of books. 

Like all written history, libraries have a point of view. Collections are created through the lens of the decision makers. If you choose to remove from your personal library books that are no longer of interest to you, that do not reflect the way in which you see yourself, are not a good fit with the way you raise your children, go right ahead and remove the offending texts. Once you are finished, you can donate those books to a place that will make them available to someone else whose views are different from yours. And now? You can go scrounge through the materials that someone else has discarded and complete your own collection.

However, please remember that others may not live by your lights. There is a reason that library science is a science. The acquiring of information is so important that entire departments in universities are devoted to its study. It takes more than a personal interest or the views of individual teacher-librarians and administrators to create a working school library. While there have been cutbacks in many areas that pertain to education, we as a literate society that recognizes the significance of freedom of expression need to ensure that this work is done with proper consultation, knowledge and thought. 

Lest we forget, as the saying goes, libraries are about freedom of expression which means not only the right to share your views but the right to seek and receive the ideas and views of others. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protect this crucial right for everyone, and “everyone” is about as inclusive as it gets.