Clashes over school library books are taking place in communities across Oklahoma, mirroring national trends. These battles aren’t new, but what has changed are the ways they are being driven by a new state law limiting certain conversations about race and gender in classrooms and also spread by social media. 

We wanted to know: how do all those books appear on school library shelves? Here are answers to some questions.  

Who’s responsible for selecting school library materials? 

In most schools, that’s a certified librarian or media specialist. The job requires a master’s degree and extensive training on how to select appropriate student materials. However, hundreds of school districts have waivers from the state to operate with a librarian that’s not fully certified due to a shortage of qualified librarians.

How do librarians decide what books to choose? 

To select books, school librarians rely on information found in book reviews, trade journals, bestseller lists, vendor selections, and award winners. The Library Bill of Rights states that libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. 

School librarians are also looking for popular appeal — what do students want to read? And they consider varying reading levels, as well as connections to local and state curriculums and national standards. 

Vicki Ruzicka, manager of library services for Tulsa Public Schools, said her districts have collections of more than 10,000 books at every school site.

“The demands of reading every single book is impossible. But we’ve got some really great resources that help us make selections without the ability to do that,” she said. 

Does the state have requirements for school library materials? 

The state Education Department requires all Oklahoma schools to have a library and a balanced collection of books and other materials for the students in that school — including variety and diversity to accommodate individual differences among students. 

The department also requires a certain number of books and a minimum amount of funding spent on library materials, depending on the size of the school. Decisions on whether to include certain titles are made locally.

What happens when a parent objects to a book? 

Every Oklahoma school district has a policy detailing how they’ll resolve a book challenge. Typically that involves convening a committee of librarians, principals, teachers, and sometimes a parent or student, to read the book and make a recommendation. 

They could decide the book should remain in the library, be removed, or something in between — maybe it contains some mature content, so it’s moved out of a middle school library and into a high school library, for instance. 

“It would be impossible to have a collection of books that there wouldn’t be something somebody didn’t like, because in trying to appeal to a very wide audience, somebody’s gonna not like something in there. But hopefully, there’s something for everyone,” Ruzicka said.

Are there actually more book challenges now, or are we just hearing about them more?  

American Library Association President Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada said her organization’s been tracking book bans for about 20 years, and it found a record 1,597 individual book challenges or removals in 2021. 

We’re likely hearing about it more, too, due to the rapid spread of information on social media. And it’s also a political strategy being used by some candidates, touted as a parent’s rights issue. A fight over schools’ teaching of “Beloved” by Toni Morrison was a key issue in the Virginia governor’s race, where Republican Glenn Youngkin’s message of giving parents more power over curriculum resonated in his successful run.

“People do have a right to guide their children’s reading and education, but they don’t have a right to do that for other people,” Pelayo-Lozada said. “And so, when we ask for books to be removed and we ask for books to be banned, you know, we’re doing a disservice to our community as a whole.” 

Reporter Ari Fife contributed to this story.

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.

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