Banned Books Week Q&A

This resource offers issues, strategies, and resources for preparing your professional community (teacher librarians and public librarians) to celebrate Banned Books Week.


Q: Why Banned Books Week?

Banned Books Week Questions and Answers Q&A

A: Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Highlighting the value of free and open access to information, Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek, to publish, to read, and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship. The books featured during Banned Books Week have all been targeted for removal or restrictions in libraries and schools. While books have been and continue to be banned, part of the Banned Books Week celebration is the fact that, in a majority of cases, the books have remained available. This happens only thanks to the efforts of librarians, teachers, students, and community members who stand up and speak out for the freedom to read.


Q: Why should I talk with my fellow librarians about the freedom to read? Isn’t that preaching to the choir?

A: It’s not preaching to the choir at all.  In fact, it’s more like choir practice.  

Every librarian is equipped with different training, education, and experience, and by talking with our colleagues about intellectual freedom, we create space in which to keep abreast with changes in our community, learn from each other, and revisit complex and ever-changing issues. Understanding each librarian’s experience with First Amendment and intellectual freedom issues strengthens our collective understanding and ability to promote the freedom to read.


Q: How can I promote the freedom to read when people get distracted by the sensational “Banned Books Week” phrase?

A: The issue: The name “Banned Books Week” is certainly a great attention-getter, and the name has been a mainstay in American libraries for over 30 years. However, we can also engage in the conversation by putting the focus on other phrases like “freedom to read” and “intellectual freedom.”
→ Strategies
  • Talk with your colleagues and administrators about which phrases meet your community’s needs, and feature those most prominently.

  • Define “banned books,” “challenged books,” intellectual freedom,” and “freedom to read” as part of your displays, materials, and lessons.

  • On your website, social media, and library displays, include an explanatory tag like “In conjunction with the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, Anytown School Library declares this week Freedom to Read Week! This week, let’s talk about how we can all benefit from the American shared freedom to choose and read books for our own interests.”

  • Talk with English or social studies teachers about creating a mini-lesson to introduce these terms in the context of their learning.

→ Resources:


Q: How can I start a conversation about the freedom to read with the teacher librarian professional learning community (PLC) in my district or area? It’s not something we’ve ever talked about, and I’m not sure we all understand the policies and principles in the same way.

A: The issue: Sometimes we shy away from controversy in favor of the "sweet serenity of books," or, alternately, we get bogged down in technical issues in our library management systems. But discussing intellectual freedom principles with our colleagues is essential if we want to build a strong foundation for a community understanding of the freedom to read.
→ Strategies:
  • Start small. Sometimes the conversation can be hard to start. Here’s a list of some possible discussion starters to get the ball rolling.
    • “Can I take a look at your district’s reconsideration policy? I think ours is missing language about repeated challenges and I want to see how other policies are worded.”
    • “What displays do you have scheduled for September?”
    • “I can’t find our copy of Harriet the Spy and I was hoping to include it in our Banned Books Week display. I hope I can reorder a paperback copy.”
    • “Let’s go for a walk during lunch next week. Any day except Thursday, I’m meeting with our principal to share new ideas for Banned Books Week.”
    • “I’m putting the finishing touches on my presentation of intellectual freedom to the school board members, can I practice it on you?”
    • “Did you hear what happened in Collier County? They challenged Beloved in the school library.”
    • “Are you on the AASL listserv? OIF is sending out emails with current book challenges from all over the country. I can’t believe we’re still dealing with challenges. And so many are in schools! Want me to forward it to you?”
    • “I want to purchase the new 9th edition of the Intellectual Freedom Manual but I don’t know if my school will have the funds. I wonder if the district would purchase it as a shared resource for all the schools?”
    → Resources:


    Q: I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I don’t think I would really know how to handle a book challenge if one happened in my school. Where do I start?

    A: The issue: Librarians are great researchers and great questioners, right? Let’s push aside our embarrassment and get to work. Because after all, the best leaders are those who identify their gaps and work to fill them.
    → Strategies:
    • Start collaborating! See the question below for ideas on how to collaborate.
    • Start with reading (and rereading) your school board policies that relate to selection and reconsideration of materials.  We recommend reading both the instructional materials policies and the library materials policies because they are very related, and in today’s classroom and curriculum, the library becomes a major source of text for instructional materials as well as for independent student reading.  Also be on the lookout for policies like “Teaching Controversial Issues.”
    • Talk with your colleagues (both librarians and other staff members) about the school and community’s collective memory related to intellectual freedom, banned or challenged books, and teaching controversial issues.  Understanding the history can help you figure out where to begin.
    → Resources:


    Q: I’m the only librarian in my district. How do I find other teacher librarians to collaborate with about intellectual freedom issues in my school?

    A: The issue: Educating a community is difficult to take on individually, so finding teacher librarians to collaborate with is an essential strategy.
    → Strategies:
    • Contact your regional, state, or area librarian and set up a time to brainstorm together
    • Contact your public librarian and collaborate at the community level.
    • Email a librarian in a neighboring district and invite them share materials and talk about how intellectual freedom is currently understood (or misunderstood) in your community.
    • Purchase the Intellectual Freedom Manual and do a book study linked to your professional goals for the year.
    → Resources:


    Q: Many librarians in my district prefer to avoid adding controversial titles to their schools’ collections or displaying controversial titles. I’m concerned about the negative effects of self-censorship, but I don’t know how to start the conversation without offending anyone. What should I do?

    A: The issue: There’s a fine line between informed selection and self-censorship, and talking about it with colleague can get everyone’s defenses riled up.  
    → Strategies:
    • Put a brief shared reading on the agenda of your next PLC meeting, like an excerpt from “Not Censorship But Selection” by Lester Asheim.  
    • With a colleague, bring up an example that you’re struggling with yourself, and ask your colleague to help you think through whether or not to buy a book.  Bring multiple reviews of a book on a topic that may be controversial, and discuss the merits in the reviews as well as the possible red flags.  Refer to the selection criteria from your school’s board policies as you’re discussing whether or not to purchase it.
    → Resources:


    Q: How can I open the conversation about intellectual freedom with the associates, paraprofessional, and parent volunteers who work in the library? They’re really my closest colleagues!

    A: The issue: One role of teacher librarians is that of program administrator, and with that comes managing library staff. In an environment with little or no dedicated training time, it is still essential to build common learning experiences for all library staff, both paid and unpaid.
    → Strategies:
    • Ask your principal for time with your associates during an early dismissal or late start PD time.  Take time to go over the policies, placing special emphasis on intellectual freedom.
    • Early in the year, host a breakfast or after school gathering (with food!) to talk about the freedom to read.  
    • Engage your staff with a brief excerpt from the Library Bill of Rights, and pose some information discussion questions. Set a positive tone, encourage and discuss questions.
    • As a group, watch videos or webinars about the freedom to read as professional development.
    • Create scenarios to discuss with your staff members.
    • Encourage your staff members and congratulate them on the important work they do in supporting our students’ right to read!
    → Resources:


    Q: How can I promote the freedom to read beyond this one week in September?

    A: The issue: This is the crux of the issue, right? We can never be successful in promoting and protecting the freedom to read if it happens only one week in the year. Our freedom to read means little without a culture of conversation that allows us to discuss our freedoms openly, work through issues that books raise for our readers, and wrestle with the challenging balance between freedom and responsibility. Creating that culture is a year-round job.
    → Strategies:
    • Develop a plan to address the freedom to read throughout the year.
    • Share blogs and articles with your colleagues.
    • Schedule conversations with all your stakeholder groups:  librarians, administrators, parents, teachers, and students.
    • Use the topic of intellectual freedom as part of other projects. Create Freedom to Read videos to talk about technology editing. Design posters for the First Amendment in Art classes. Produce a mock debate about a controversial book.
    • Make “freedom to read” and “intellectual freedom” phrases that you use throughout the year in conversation with your patrons as they are selecting and discussing books.
    • Share with the students, too!
    → Resources:


    Created 2015. Kristin Pekoll and Kate Lechtenberg