School Library Media Centers and Intellectual Freedom

Dianne McAfee Hopkins

Dianne McAfee Hopkins is professor, School of Library and Information Studies, University of Wisconsin - Madison. She is also faculy coordinator, school library media program. She is the 2001 recipient of the American Association of School Librarians/SIRS Intellectual Freedom Award.


As the first library that many children and young adults are introduced to and use on a continuing basis, school library media programs play a vital role in promoting intellectual freedom. Intellectual freedom issues arise in many broad areas of school library administration and operation. School library media specialists should consider the intellectual freedom implications of their role as a resource specialist; how they provide intellectual and physical access for students; how their collection development policies address intellectual freedom; procedures for handling challenges to school library resources and services, including student access to the Internet; professional practice; and how they might appropriately promote intellectual freedom as an aspect of a free and democratic society.


As views on schools and schooling evolve, so does the role of the school library media specialist in preK-12 education. The notion of textbooks as the only major resource used in teaching has been replaced in many learning environments with a resource-based teaching approach. In resource-based teaching, a recognition of individual student learning styles, as well as student variation in background, ability, and interests, results in a multi-faceted, multiple resource approach to learning. 1 The school library media specialist promotes access to a wide variety of resources, including materials in the school’s library media center, as well as nearby schools, public libraries, academic libraries, and networks.

In the school, the library media specialist works closely with classroom teachers to make school library media center (LMC) resources an integral part of daily instruction. In so doing, intellectual freedom is promoted for students.

Today, resources available in school LMCs have expanded beyond books and basic audiovisual materials in many schools to include CD-ROM products and electronic information. The library media specialist’s role in the promotion of intellectual freedom, in this context, includes that of telecommunications resource specialist. This role takes on added importance in light of two recent studies: the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, a bipartisan research agency of the U.S. Congress, prepared the report, “Teachers and Technology: Making the Connection.” The report found limited teacher knowledge, preparation, and use of technology in the curriculum (as reported in April 12, 1995, issue of Education Week). In addition, the March 31, 1995, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education reported the findings of a new survey by the American Electronics Association’s National Information Infrastructure Task Force. The survey found that tomorrow’s college students are likely to have had limited experience with computer technology unless they have been working with school library media specialists, whose telecommunications technology access and expertise exceed that of teachers.

Thus, today, the presence of a professionally staffed, appropriately budgeted, and physically accessible school LMC takes on increased importance. All preK–12 students, regardless of age or grade level, have information needs that can be met through the library media center. All classroom teachers can benefit from collaborative planning and teamwork with the library media specialist.

Students’ right to access to information includes the right to develop skills necessary to locate and obtain materials and to examine critically and interpret the information that they find. Library media specialists should examine the nature of information skills instruction. They need to work with administrators and teachers to assure the integration of information skills into the instructional curriculum, and the full use of resources available at the school as well as electronically for maximizing student learning.

Policies and Procedures

Collection Development Policy

Public school districts are governed by school boards that are legally responsible for the materials available to students. They delegate selection of materials to certified library media specialists and administrators under whom the library media specialist works. A well thought out, written collection development policy, approved by the school board, establishes the climate in which, and the criteria by which, library media collections are developed. The policy may encompass all instructional materials used in the district. The collection development policy should be formulated through the efforts of many who provide leadership and active participation in the LMC program including school library media specialists, teachers, administrators, students, and community members. The policy should promote intellectual freedom through a recognition of the value of information in a variety of formats. Materials should reflect the cultural diversity and pluralistic nature of contemporary American society. The policy should include the American Library Association’s  Library Bill of Rights and other appropriate intellectual freedom statements from professional associations such as the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, International Reading Association, National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Council for the Social Studies.

The procedures for the evaluation and selection of materials are central to the development of the library media center collection. Procedures employed by library media specialists include: wide use of professional, reputable, selection resources in combination, where possible, with first-hand examination of materials; and consultation with school faculty to ascertain their instructional needs and involve them in the selection and review of materials. The strengths and weaknesses of the existing collection, access to other resources, and educational goals at the district and school level also are important considerations in the evaluation and selection of library media center collections.

Library media specialists should give careful attention to the section of the collection development policy dealing with the procedures for the reconsideration of materials. Such procedures must be clearly written and thoughtfully considered with a view toward promoting intellectual freedom on behalf of students and teachers. It is critical that the established procedures be followed systematically in dealing with each question, whether the question originates within the staff inside the district or within the local community. School library media center collections focus on a direct relationship to the school’s instructional curriculum. However, the collection should also be reflective of student needs and interests. These include recreational interests of students, and may include the fiction collection of the library media center, in particular. The collection development policy, therefore, should reflect a recognition of student’s personal, information, recreational reading, listening, and viewing needs and take into account their varying skills, interests, abilities, and backgrounds.

Once developed, the collection development policy should be used regularly as the basis for the evaluation and selection of materials. It should be reviewed and revised at least every three years. School policies and guidelines should also address the electronic resources available to teachers and students through the library media center.


Professional practice, in terms of rules and regulations that govern student access to school library media centers, should be scrutinized to ascertain the promotion of intellectual freedom. The over-riding question is whether rules encourage or inhibit intellectual freedom for students. Specific questions to be asked include: Where electronic resources are available, are all students given the opportunity to use them? Are certain groups of students unfairly favored in the use of electronic resources? Is student confidentiality respected? Are lists of students with overdue materials or other library infractions posted for all to see? Are students unfairly denied access to library resources because of rule infringement such as overdue materials? Is access to the library media center restricted to rigidly scheduled classes? Are rules governing access to the LMC by students in study halls appropriate? Are students permitted and encouraged to use the LMC before school, during lunch, after school, and at other times during the school day? Are students discouraged from using nonprint materials?

In addition to rules and regulations, professional practice in the selection and evaluation of materials requires examination from the standpoint of intellectual freedom. Library media specialists must assure that access to information is promoted, not only in the English language but, where appropriate, in the languages that accommodate students for whom English is a second language.

The criteria for selection of library media center materials, as set forth in the board-approved collection development policy, should be followed in the selection of materials. Decisions about selection or reevaluation should not be based on perceived notions about the controversial nature of materials.

In summary, access to information for children and young adults must include an examination of their opportunities for intellectual and on-site physical access. The presence of an LMC alone is not sufficient to guarantee intellectual freedom for students.


Materials challenged in school library media centers are primarily printed resources such as books and magazines. Because of the expanded use of library media materials in instruction through resource-based teaching, there is a greater possibility that these resources may be challenged, not only because of their availability in the LMC, but because of their use in instruction, e.g., optional or required reading, whole language instruction. Some individuals may seek to ascertain whether their personal, value-laden, objectives are met in trade books. Some ask, for example, that these materials always provide positive role models and\or show agreement with their individual family values. Challenges may be brought about any book, including award winners or those that have received notable distinctions.

Questions about school library media materials can be expected, based on individual as well as organized group concerns. Calls for censorship may come from any source, whether conservative or liberal. While many may view with alarm any question that arises, every question is not necessarily an effort to censor. Parents of students have the right to query public school officials regarding the materials that are made available for student use. Providing an understanding of the selection process and the principles upon which libraries exist may go far in answering questions that may be asked. Letting a questioner know that a concern is respectfully received is another way to respond constructively.

Most surveys of challenges to school library media materials find that parents are the initiator of challenges in a majority of challenges. However, internal challenges from school staff are also reported. A recent national study of middle, junior, and senior high school LMC challenges found that teachers and principals initiated challenges 20 percent of the time. 2 A more recent senior high school Wisconsin state-level study by Hopkins conducted during the 1994–95 school year found that teachers and principals initiated challenges 31.8 percent of the time. While much professional literature focuses on responding to challenges that are initiated by persons outside the school, attention is also appropriate for internal challenges within the school. While fewer in number than many other challenges, the most difficult challenge with which a library media specialist may deal is the challenge from the school principal. Challenges from school principals noted in the national study as reported by library media specialists were analyzed and revealed the following:. 3

  1. challenges from principals were overwhelmingly oral;
  2. the materials selection policy’s reconsideration section was not adhered to in a majority of cases;
  3. challenged material was most often removed or restricted, i.e., 75 percent of the time.

The analysis also revealed that when principals initiated challenges, school library media specialists were less likely to inform others of the challenge. Thus, they were unlikely to receive support that might have helped them communicate more fully about the questioned materials.

The difference in the school library media specialist’s response to challenges initiated by principals is even more striking when factors are identified that affect whether challenged materials are retained, restricted, or removed. Overall, there were six general factors that were found to influence whether challenges to LMC materials were retained, restricted, or removed:

  • the existence of a school board-approved district materials selection policy and the degree to which it was used when LMC materials were challenged;
  • the school environment, including the influence and power of the school principal and the support of classroom teachers;
  • the community environment, through support received outside the school district in which a challenge occurred;
  • the initiator of the challenge;
  • selected characteristics of the library media specialists including their responses to dogmatism and internal\external locus of control;
  • complaint background, including whether there was active support for retention or removal of materials, and whether the challenge was oral or written. The national study found that library media specialists who seek consistent implementation of the materials selection policy, seek support during the challenge process, and require that challenges to library materials are written have a higher rate of success in retaining challenged materials.

Reasons for challenges

The national study of challenges to middle, junior, and senior high schools and the more recent state-level Wisconsin study also examined reasons for challenges to materials. Areas that formed the basis for challenges were consistent with most previous K-12 studies. The primary continuing reason for complaints, as reported by library media specialists experiencing challenges, was a concern about sexuality. Other primary reasons were concerns about profanity, morality, and obscenity. Since challenges to materials may also reflect societal issues, the nation’s ambivalence about sexual intimacy and sexual orientation (particularly gay\lesbian) is reflected among the few publicized challenges of recent years (most challenges to school LMC materials are not known outside the school or district). Other expressed concerns over the years have included witchcraft, the occult, immaturity of possible student users, nudity, violence, and material said to be inconsistent with family values. In addition, the noteworthy objective of many school districts to reflect fully the nation’s diversity through multicultural literature and a broad depiction of the nation’s families, has been met with criticism by some who deem this an effort to denigrate their cultural or religious values. Henry Reichman (2001) discusses many of the reasons offered for challenging materials in schools.

In recent years, an expressed basis for challenges from conservative groups, especially religious right groups, has been the belief that public school students are being indoctrinated in the “religions” of secular humanism, New Age, and globalism. Secular humanism is a difficult term to define. It suggests a Christianless force operating in the public schools. Called a religion by some conservative groups, secular humanism is depicted as being responsible for the destruction of God-based family values.

In a similar way, the view of New Age as a religion is also difficult to define, although its focus includes the belief that there are efforts to control the world through a one-world religion and a one-world government. The focus of groups that claim that the “religions” of secular humanism, New Age, and globalism are being promoted in the public schools is broad and encompasses the total school environment, including the curriculum, textbooks, and library media center materials. While few challenges are reported by library media specialists as being initiated by conservative groups, during the challenge process, conservative groups may offer support to those who challenge materials based on fundamentalist reasons.

Electronic access to information, especially to the Internet, offers still another area for potential challenges. Unlike materials physically located in the LMC, the Internet, by its very nature, carries the potential that some of the information encountered may be controversial or possibly deemed unsuitable for students. Here, the communication of the school with its students and parents is important, in addition to the development of appropriate guidelines and policies.

Finally, library automation brings the potential of challenges of a different nature. How does the library media specialist respond to calls for print-outs of all holdings or holdings in selected subject areas that are deemed inappropriate for students? How does the library media specialist respond to calls for print-outs of material checked out by specific students? How does the library media specialist respond to calls for computerized restricted check-out for individual students or entire grades, such as all primary grade students? Serious consideration of the appropriate use of library automation in maintaining an atmosphere supportive of intellectual freedom is a necessity.

Promotion of Intellectual Freedom

Intellectual Freedom must be promoted within the school as well as in the community. Selection of library media center materials, while coordinated by the library media specialist, should actively involve teachers, administrators, and students. Discussions and in-service programs about the philosophy of libraries in general, purpose and objectives of the library media center, and the criteria used in selections should be ongoing, not only for new faculty, but for all faculty, as well as school staff, e.g., school secretaries, support staff. These programs should include building, as well as district, level staff. School board members also should actively participate. In addition, up-to-date information on a continuing basis will be valuable to the community.

School leaders including library media specialists must be aggressive in regularly communicating information about the district’s educational objectives, the purposes of school library media programs, and in introducing information about selected materials themselves. The communication can be accomplished through such means as school newsletters, community newspapers and other information media, and parent workshops or presentations on topics such as realism in children’s and young adult literature. Communication must be facilitated both inside and outside the district.

Intellectual freedom is also promoted by example. School board members, administrators, teachers, and library media specialists should demonstrate their support for intellectual freedom. Negative examples include: (1) immediate removal of materials when a complaint or challenge first occurs regardless of the policy; (2) full discussion of a complaint in a school board meeting when complaining individuals have not followed established procedures or when such discussion is not on the agenda; (3) precensorship, which is the decision not to select material for the collection because of its perceived potential for controversy; (4) elimination of potentially controversial materials in the collection under the guise of ongoing evaluation; (5) limiting access to a collection by imposing barriers such as restricted shelving or parental permission requirements because the material is thought to be potentially controversial. Whether the above acts are conducted openly or in secret, the climate for open access and availability of information directly affects the students who are served.


Intellectual freedom, when viewed in the broad context of access, has many focuses. It includes:

  • the selection of materials that will meet the instructional, recreational, and informational needs of students;
  • the school library media specialist’s leadership as a resource specialist who collaborates with the classroom teacher in fully integrating library media resources in instruction, whether print, audiovisual, or electronic;
  • the student’s intellectual access to materials through information skills instruction;
  • interpretation of the policies to those who might challenge the resources that are available.
Intellectual freedom in schools demands the commitment of library media specialists who:
  • actively support intellectual freedom committees, coalitions, and association at all levels (i.e., local, state, regional, national);
  • promote an understanding of the value of information to the young, which includes diverse viewpoints and relevance to today’s world;
  • communicate the importance of intellectual freedom in an ongoing manner to principals, teachers, and other school staff;
  • practice the selection of materials on the basis of sound educational criteria unbiased by personal, political, social, or religious views;
  • invite the active participation of teachers in the selection of materials;
  • promote the use of the collection development policy for the selection or reconsideration of materials;
  • seek support when a challenge to library media center materials occurs;
  • take every challenge, whether oral or written, seriously;
  • introduce all aspects of library resources to the community, including those dealing with the Internet;
  • empower students to gain further access to information beyond the walls of the school library media center through interlibrary loans and computer networks, thereby nurturing independent, lifelong learning;
  • promote student learning about the First Amendment and intellectual freedom and what it means to them. 4. Excellent resources are available from the First Amendment Congress, University of Denver, 2301 Gaylord St., Denver, CO., 80208.
Intellectual freedom requires that all who are responsible for the education of the young—school board members, administrators, teachers, and library media specialists—work together continually to assure that First Amendment rights and intellectual freedom are a reality for children and young adults.


  1. David V. Loertscher. Taxonomies of the School Library Media Program. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, 1988.
  2. Dianne McAfee Hopkins. Factors Influencing the Outcome of Challenges to Materials in Secondary School Libraries: Report of a National Study. Prepared under Grant #R039A9004-89, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Library Programs. Madison: University of Wisconsin - Madison, School of Library and Information Studies, 1991.
  3. Dianne McAfee Hopkins. “Challenges to Library Materials From Principals in U.S. Secondary Schools — A “‘Victory’ of Sorts,” School Libraries Worldwide (the journal of the International Association of School Librarianship), vol.1, no. 2 (July 1995).

Additional Resources (Updated)

For additional titles from ALA Editions, see

American Association of School Librarians and Association for Educational Communications and Technology. Information Power: Building Partnerships for Learning. Chicago: American Library Association, 1998.

Hopkins, Dianne McAfee. “A Conceptual Model of Factors Influencing the Outcome of Challenges to Library Materials in Secondary School Settings,” Library Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 1, (January, 1993) pp. 40–72.

__________________. “Put It In Writing: What You Should Know About Challenges to School Library Materials,” School Library Journal, vol. 39, no. 1, (January, 1993), pp. 26–30.

Jones, Barbara. Libraries, Access, and Intellectual Freedom: Developing Policies for Public and Academic Libraries. Chicago: American Library Association, 1999.

Kaplan, George R. “Shotgun Wedding: Notes on Public Education's Encounter with the New Christian Right,” Phi Delta Kappan (Kappan Special Report), Vol. 75, no. 9, May, 1994, pages K1–K12.

Kruse, Ginny Moore. “No Single Season: Multicultural Literature for Children,” Wilson Library Bulletin, February, 1992, pp. 30–33, 122.

McDonald, Frances M. “Information Access for Youth: Issues and Concerns,” Library Trends, vol. 37, no. 1 (Summer, 1988), pp. 28–42.

“On Line,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. XLI, no. 29, March 31, 1995, p. A19.

Peck, Robert S. Libraries, the First Amendment, and Cyberspace: What You Need to Know. Chicago: American Library Association, 1999.

Public Education Network and American Association of School Librarians. Information-Powered School: Building Partnerships for Learning. Edited by Sandra Hughes-Hassell and Anne Wheelock. Chicago: American Library Association, 2001.

Reichman, Henry. Censorship and Selection: Issues and Answers for Schools. 3d ed. Chicago: American Library Association and American Association of School Administrators, 2001.

Scales, Pat. “Remarks by Pat Scales,” Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, vol. XL, no. 6, November, 1991, pages 223 - 225.

Scales, Pat. Teaching Banned Books: 12 Guides for Young Readers. Chicago: American Library Association and American Association of School Administrators, 2001.

Scales, Pat. “Teaching the First Amendment,” Book Links, vol. 5, no. 1, September, 1995.

West, Peter. “O.T.A. Decries Lack of Focus on Teachers,” Education Week, vol. XIV, no. 29, April 12, 1995, pp. 1, 11.

Online Resources:

Note: The original chapter referred to gopher online resources, primarily on acceptable use Internet policies. Below are more current sites on Internet use policies, filters, and other related topics.

Guidelines and Considerations for Developing a Public Library Internet Use Policy

Especially for Children and Their Parents

Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)

ALA Libraries & the Internet Toolkit

Filters and Filtering

Privacy and Confidentiality

Selected Library Bill of Rights Interpretations

Also relevant:


Appreciation is expressed to the following individuals for sharing perspectives with me on intellectual freedom and youth: Ginny Moore Kruse, Director, Cooperative Children's Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin – Madison and Trustee, Freedom to Read Foundation, 1992-1996; Fran McDonald, Professor, Library Media Education Program, Mankato State University and Past President, Minnesota Coalition Against Censorship; and Pat R. Scales, Library Media Specialist, Greenville (South Carolina) Middle School and member, ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee, 1994–1996.