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How do Utah’s K-12 school librarians choose books? We asked one

The administrative building of the Davis School District in Farmington, Utah, Aug. 20, 2022.
Jim Hill
The administrative building of the Davis School District in Farmington, Utah, Aug. 20, 2022.

The latest furor over books in school libraries — specifically Davis School District’s now-overturned decision to remove the Bible — reached a crescendo once Utah lawmakers got involved.

In one interim committee meeting, legislators told district leaders it was embarrassing. Just a few days later, when the interim education committee met, Sen. John Johnson, R-North Ogden, accused the district of possibly being an “accessory to the distribution of pornography to minors” because of certain books it has on its shelves. Other lawmakers also focused their comments on school libraries and pornography.

“If someone on the street gave a child pornographic material, they could be arrested. We should not be having pornographic material distributed to our children on school grounds. I think we can all agree on that,” said Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, at the June 14 meeting.

The education committee had asked several school districts, including Davis, to present how they were following the state’s2022“sensitive materials” law and how transparent that process is. Lawmakers were upset, because as they saw it, certain books stayed on library shelves, while the Bible was removed because of “vulgarity and violence.”

The entire episode started because a parent wanted to make a point about the state’s rush to remove books, calling it a “bad faith process” in their challenge of the Bible.

But how do any of these books end up on shelves in the first place?

Utah K-12 librarians say they are professionals who thoughtfully select their collections. They are even more careful, they say, after an increase in book challenges.

Each district has its own policies and procedures surrounding library book selection.

Gretchen Zaitzeff, president of the Utah Educational Library Media Association, said in the Canyons School District where she works, district policy outlines 16 points that should be considered. New books have to meet at least five on the list.

The 16 points include expectations that the text “contributes to a balanced perspective,” has “overall purpose and educational significance,” “timeliness” and “support of multilingual students.”

“There is what I would consider best practice [for choosing books], which I feel like we outlined in our policy in Canyons,” Zaitzeff said.

Catherine Bates, who was a librarian at Brighton High School for the past decade and decided to leave after the 2022-2023 school year, said she used to run reports in the catalog system to show where the school’s library had deficiencies, including how up to date her collection was.

In choosing books, Bates highly valued requests from students and teachers because she wanted to buy books that students would actually read.

“I tell all my ninth graders at the beginning of school at the library orientation that I will buy any books that they want to read — within reason,” Bates said.“One of my goals is that every student of mine, despite their age or background, has a ‘mirror’ in one of the books in my library. And I think that’s important because as a high schooler, you go through a lot of stuff. There’s a lot of emotions you're dealing with.”

Sometimes, Bates found it hard to find information about how age appropriate a book might be. She would first look at recommended age groups from the publisher. From there, she would read multiple reviews from professional sources. She’d also looked at Goodreads, a website where users log and review the books they read, to see if they point out anything that was missing in the professional reviews.

Bates said she would spend about 20 to 40 minutes per book to determine whether it had sexual content. If she still had questions, she would read the entire book before putting it on her shelf. Bates might also consult with other librarians in the district.

Just like policies differ between districts across the state, so does the level of professional training librarians have. Utah does not require schools to have their library run by a certified teacher librarian, meaning they have a master’s degree in the subject or have done other work to receive a library media endorsement from the Utah State Board of Education.

The Utah Parent-Teacher Association published a resolution that supported funding for more professional school librarians and said in 2021 there were only “220 qualified teacher librarians to direct school library programs of services in Utah’s 987 public K-12 schools.”

Zaitzeff said school libraries have historically not been a priority in the state.

“Consequently, they have often been understaffed and underfunded. Every Utah student would benefit from having a licensed library educator manage their school library and its collection,” Zaitzeff said.

Some teachers and librarians feel disrespected by state lawmakers’ conversations about what’s in libraries and the laws the state has passed.

“I'm a professional with a master's degree and don't know what else I can do to prove to you that I'm qualified to choose literature for your children that is not considered pornographic,” Salt Lake City School District educator Rilee Pickle told the interim education committee. “I do not want to harm your children, and my librarian colleagues are the same. We do not want to hurt your kids. You will be losing teachers and librarians if you keep disrespecting us this way, you will have no one to teach them.”

Some school districts have responded to book challenges by making changes to their selection processes.

Davis School District told lawmakers they now involve parents more actively in choosing new books. District leaders hope this will lessen the number of future book challenges. In selecting new books, a school librarian has to seek approval from a school committee that includes at least three parents, according to the district’s policies which were last updated in August 2022.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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