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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Soft Censorship and White Supremacy

On 15, Oct 2018 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

The JourneyThis is a bit of a long post and requires some context. Bear with me.

Last year the other librarian I worked with purchased the book The Journey by Francesca Sanna. The story follows a family from their home country, where a war has broken out and the father has died, to a new country. Along the way they encounter unfriendly border guards, a wall, a smuggler, and an ocean they must cross. It’s certainly a nod to Syrian refugees and North African refugees fleeing to Europe, but it’s also reminiscent of immigrants from Central America and Cuba. It’s not a warm fuzzy story, but it also isn’t without hope. It’s the kind of book that can open up conversations. Prior to this I had purchased a copy and read it to my daughter and we talked about a lot of things that are going on in the world right now.

While the book was being processed with another immigration story by a parent volunteer she raised concerns about both books being too scary for children and something she would never have shared with her own children. I came into the conversation late in the day and am unclear if she didn’t want us processing the books at all or if they needed to be put into a higher reading level section.

When I spoke to the parent I explained that I could respect that she would not want to choose to read the book to her children, but that I did want to (and had read) it to my child. My point being, there are families and teachers in our community that do want these types of books. She also kept fussing over the possibility that a parent who wouldn’t want it read to their child might still find it in their child’s backpack. So I explained that it was not appropriate to remove it from the shelf or hide it for those parents. It is a book that is written for children and is totally appropriate if you want to share those ideas with a child. Her own personal preference to shield her children from ugly truths about our world is her right, but it does not give me the right, as a librarian, to force other parents to make that choice by hiding or removing the book. Moreover our collection development policy allows us to purchase materials that support our curriculum, support our community and support literacy. This book hits all those points. The other librarian thanked me for talking to the parent volunteer.

I went ahead and processed the book and put it in the picture book section (a blue label). But I came in the following Friday morning to discover that the other librarian had changed it to a red label (early chapter book section). This made me extremely upset and uncomfortable and here is why:

  1. The color coding labels denote reading level not content. This book has a relatively low reading level and is clearly a picture book. The library does have a few red and yellow picture books, but they also have very high reading levels and are clearly written for older audiences (third grade and up).
  2. The (higher level) red and yellow picture books do not check out. They are up high on a shelf where the kids can’t reach them. They are tucked away. But mostly, by the time the kids can read chapter books, the teachers and parents do not want them to check out picture books and the kids have internalized that idea and almost never choose to read them.
  3. The picture book (blue) section has books that tackle slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, other immigration stories, gay families, residential schools and many other difficult, uncomfortable, and potentially controversial topics.
  4. The youngest patrons who check out books (Kindergarten and first grade) do not browse the shelves. The librarian pulls books and puts them out on the tables for them to select from. To keep this book out of those children’s hands is very easy: simply do not offer it as an option.
  5. Professional reviews of the book have placed this on many children’s literature award lists and note that the age range for the book can be as young as 3 up to about third grade.
  6. Finally, the other librarian consulted another non-librarian teacher about her opinion and made a decision based on that. She did not consult the upper school librarian. I also caught her consulting with an administrator who is the head of the diversity committee (and a not particularly woke white man). When I accidentally came upon them discussing the book they quickly hid it away, stopped talking, and he quietly slipped out of the library without saying a word to me.

With all those factors considered, they intentionally put a book that might make some families uncomfortable into a section where they know it probably won’t check out or be seen. This is called soft censorship. It’s not an outright ban of the book, but for all intents and purposes it renders the book unavailable. The library/school can still point at it say, “But it’s on our shelves! We’re not stopping kids from checking it out.” Yet, in reality, the patrons of the library, the target audience of that book, will never have meaningful or real access to it.

But here’s the thing with that kind of behavior and why I think I’m so uncomfortable with this whole situation. It’s white supremacy at work. Plain and simple. Those families that might be uncomfortable are going to primarily be white and immigration is almost never about white immigrants*, certainly not in this political climate we’re in. These books, and The Journey in particular, that make white families uncomfortable are about black and brown people. Hiding The Journey where children and families, for all intents and purposes, will not have access to it erases that difficult experience in favor of white children’s comfort. It places white children above black and brown children. Also this is how systems of oppression (i.e. white supremacy) work and are perpetuated, quietly and seemingly innocuously. As a librarian and a person fighting to stop white supremacy, I disagree with that soft censorship with every fiber of my being. It is wrong.

I went and spoke with the teacher the other librarian consulted and heard her piece. It was half the point I made to our parent volunteer. Not all families would talk about this topic with their child. I then explained the censorship issue with the book and she immediately told me that she agreed with the library/librarian standpoint, that it belongs in an accessible place on our shelves. I also consulted with the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. They were incredibly helpful and supportive and affirmed that I was right to call this soft censorship. They wrote a letter to the head of the Lower School supporting keeping the book in the picture book section (you can see this in my Instagram photo of the book).

Picture books can be read by children whose reading is fairly well developed, but in reality they are books that are meant to be shared between a fluent reader (often an adult) and a child. This is the kind of situation where an adult can read this book and help the child understand what is happening. If a family doesn’t want to have that conversation, they do not have to read the book (although I highly recommend they unpack that impulse and ensure it isn’t actually upholding white supremacy). Nothing in the library is required reading. But there are families who do want to have these conversations and need resources and the library is there for them. There are also classroom teachers who are having these conversations with their classes and the library is there for them too.

I quit that job last year for a number of reasons. One of the primary reasons was because of how my daughter was treated when we applied to the school compounded by the headmaster’s incredibly misogynistic response to my speaking publicly about the incident and how it made me feel. He took particular umbrage at the language I used. You can read more about that here and here if you are so inclined. But during the long conversation I had with him in which he tone policed me and said some truly appalling things, he also told me if I was upset about this I wasn’t entitled to make the call about this book. Not only did he show his complete ignorance about what my job title and position was, he also showed an ignorance that is common outside the library community about the function of the library as a line of defense against censorship and social justice. (Although his stance toward white supremacy is unsurprising considering his level of bigotry in the conversation.)

This is why it’s vitally important that people outside the library community know about soft censorship and how it works and one of the primary reasons I’m putting this out there. I also quit that job because I do not want to work in a place that is comfortable soft censoring materials. In this day and age that is particularly dangerous. We know that children internalize bias incredibly early and we as educators and parents need to be very intentional in addressing the inequalities in this world. We need kids who know what is going on in the world and learn compassion and empathy so we can strive toward a world with equity and freedom for all. We also need parents that are willing to break down systems of oppression. If we wait until white parents think they’re ready to handle the material, it’s too late. Way too late.

*This not entirely true. There are plenty of kids books about Irish or Italian immigrants in the 1800s. Yet, while they are now considered white they were not at the time, which means those children’s books are not accurately representing that immigration experience, but that’s for another day.

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In Reading Round Up

By Elizabeth Wroten

Reading Round Up: Late September

On 25, Sep 2013 | In Reading Round Up | By Elizabeth Wroten

Since I have been plowing through all these novels lately I haven’t made much of an effort to read anything online. Now that I’m reading a bit less, though, I have come across a few articles I thought I would share here (both for others and to help me remember to refer back to them!).

First up is a blog post from Meredith Farkas about how important it is to understand where errors are coming from. I could not agree more with this and think it’s applicable to all levels of education and across all subjects. When I first started out after college I began tutoring and I had one student that was really struggling with math. She was trying to do pre-algebra and it just wasn’t clicking for her. She was bright and I was baffled. It took me awhile but I finally realized, based on some mistakes she made, that she didn’t have any basic math skills (like fourth and fifth grade math) or any understanding of how numbers worked. As soon as I discovered that, we went back and covered the basics. I even stopped working on her pre-algebra with her to get her up to speed, except to limp through her homework. After a few weeks and before we had even finished her crash course in basics she was already better understanding the harder mathematical concepts. That was a turning point for me. I realized how important it was not to just see that students make errors, but what those errors can tell you about gaps in their learning and understanding.

Last Friday I was listening to Science Friday and they had on some guests talking about science fairs. Personally I wish we did a lot more with science in our schools, but for those self-motivated enough these science fairs sounded amazing. One comment that was made that really stuck with me, though, was that working on science projects is a good way for kids to learn about failure. I think our current system of testing kids like crazy really doesn’t value failure and what it can teach us. It makes kids see failure as something to be afraid of and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Apparently David Truss also had failure on the brain, because I came across this post from his blog two days later. It’s short but has some great thoughts.

And I guess I’ll get on the Banned Books band wagon. I came across this post from Teen Librarian Toolbox about changing the discussion of banned books. It reminded me of one of my classes in library school. I can’t remember which one, but the professor gave us some tips for dealing with upset patrons that might object to a material in the library. The very first thing she told us to ask (after apologizing that they were offended) was, what was it you were looking for when you found this and can I help you locate what you were looking for? That always sounded to me like changing the subject to avoid conflict, but in light of this post from TLT I realized it can be more about redirecting the conversation and not validating their complaint. Not sure how I would actually handle this situation IRL, espeically if a patron was irate, but it’s definitely something to chew on.

Okay that’s it for the time being. I may have more in the next few weeks, but in the mean time enjoy the reviews. I have ton of them to write still!

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In Reading Round Up

By Elizabeth Wroten

Reading Round Up

On 17, Dec 2012 | In Reading Round Up | By Elizabeth Wroten

Here is a collection of links (with comments, because it wouldn’t be complete with out my blatherings) of various things that I have been reading online over the past few days. They are all things I have found interesting and pertinent.

Oops, I did it again: Forbes article on the war over eBooks. I know I’m fed up with hearing about eBooks, but they are important. I know I don’t have experience as a purchaser of eBooks for libraries, but I can certainly see and understand how problematic it is. I do tend to agree that we need a new model for purchasing them and I also agree that the status quo (and the stalemate) are not doing anyone any good.

I would also like to add that, I wish book publishers would also stop thinking about eBooks as physical books. Let’s not have a legacy culture in eBooks, with pricing or with format. The technology we have now and will have can open up the book experience.  (Upcoming post about how I think children’s eBooks are busting out of the mould).

Yes, just yes: Oh how I want to have a drink with these ladies. I also want to start up a Sacramento chapter of their book club. Any takers? This blog is now added to my reader.

Timely: I thought this was a timely article given the post I wrote a few days ago to the Octagon. I’m not sure Facebook in schools can really be considered intellectual freedom, but if you begin encroaching on one thing it’s easier to get to the next. I would rather err on the side of caution. Personally. I also know there are a lot of reasons for not.

Brain Pickings: Okay, I subscribe to this weekly email. They review books and talk about stuff. Existential, brainy, think-y stuff. Sometimes I skim it, sometimes I read it top to bottom. It is always thought provoking and I love it. Found this particular article reviewing a book about how to talk about books you’ve never read. I think, as the skill is described, it is a skill all librarians need to have and need to continually fine tune. There (sadly) isn’t enough time to read everything, but we need to sell it and we need to be able to place it in a framework (as the book/article suggests). Take some time with this little piece. I think it will resonate with librarians.


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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Open Letter to the Octagon

On 13, Dec 2012 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

The high school students of the school where I worked recently decried the Internet filtering policies, claiming they are censorship. I’m glad they are not ignorant of the issue, but the article made some pretty frivolous points. Disclosure: the tech department of the school consists of one person who is also my husband. Read the article here. Below is my response to them.

Dear Students of the Sacramento Country Day School High School,

I know you don’t know me much beyond being the quiet girl in the library or Tom’s wife, but I want you to know I am someone who thinks a lot about censorship. I’m a librarian.

Admittedly that sounds trite, but it isn’t. In fact librarians are often the only ones who stick up for those being denied access and for those being censored. Our professional organization, the American Library Association, has an entire division devoted to dealing with censorship. They often face down committees, administrators, patrons, parents, and even their peers. It’s not fun; it’s not glamorous; we don’t win adoration or fans, but it needs to be done.

I applaud you for being concerned enough to confront the filtering problem. The best thing you can do to fight censorship is to stay informed and keep others informed in turn. I personally believe that filtering the Internet on campus is not ideal. However, as someone adamantly against all forms of censorship, I take issue with your argument.

The sites you are really upset about, especially those mentioned in your article, are filtered for the simple fact that they don’t currently support the mission of the school. You don’t have access to Facebook on school computers for the same reason you can’t watch TV during class- it’s distracting and detracts from the educational atmosphere. The sites are not blocked because Tom or Mr. Repsher or Mr. Wells or anyone else on campus find them personally offensive or morally reprehensible.

Being enraged that you have to wait to go home to log onto Facebook to post the latest gossip or read the SparkNote about The Scarlett Letter in an attempt to fool Dr. Bell into believing you did last night’s homework, does not make the internet filtering censorship. School owned machines and school operated networks may be filtered, but you have other avenues for accessing the content.

Most of you have smart phones, which I am sure you have used to access Facebook and YouTube while on campus. I watched you do it while sitting at my desk in the library. Most of you have Internet access at home which you also use to access filtered content after school hours. I have seen your comments through our mutual friends on Facebook. You all have access to the public library.

But, the most important and easiest access you have is through Tom. If you have a legitimate reason for needing a site to be unblocked, permanently or temporarily, you can request that the block be removed. He is very open to discussion and reasonable requests. I know because I went to him with requests to unblock various sites while working in the library.

I believe the best solution is for you to open a respectful and honest discussion with the administration in which you make a case for taking down the filter. Demonstrating that you can responsibly use these sites will also help- that means no more sneaking Facebook during class time or watching cat videos when you should be watching math lectures. Also, splashing black bars across the school paper and baiting the administration with sensitive terms like censorship only makes them defensive and reactionary. This needs to be a dialog not a power struggle.

I highly suggest looking into how China restricts and monitors its Internet. Or how the Arab regimes and dictatorships shut down access to the Internet in an effort to contain the Arab Spring. Or Iran’s fraught relationship with social and print media. Or how libraries sometimes choose not to purchase controversial and sensitive materials for fear of conflict. Censorship affects everyone no matter how far from or close to home it is. You, the next generation, need to ensure equitable and open access for everyone. Basing your argument for a freer Internet experience on campus in the culture of fighting censorship will only make your point stronger.

You are all extremely bright and capable students. I hope you will continue to stay engaged with and vigilant for censorship in all its forms.

“We change people through conversation, not censorship.” Jay-Z

–Tibby Wroten



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