Dictionaries on the Chopping Block | Scales on Censorship

A PTA president seeks to cull dictionaries featuring “offensive words”; a parent inquires about safe ways her LGBTQIA+ son can fight censorship; a school board expresses no confidence in librarians to make book selection decisions.

I received an MLIS and became a middle school librarian 20 years ago. Our school board recently expressed no confidence in librarians and teachers to make book selection decisions. I spoke before the school board about this, and my principal reprimanded me. I may resign at the end of the school year.
It’s often very lonely to stand up for what is right. I wish I could wave a magic wand and give you courage to remain in your position. We need good school librarians, and we need librarians to speak up for the profession of librarianship. Check your school district policy about employees addressing the board. My bet is that your principal doesn’t have the authority to reprimand you. That doesn’t mean he won’t make your day-to-day life miserable. Start documenting interaction with him. Write down exact conversations. When it feels like this interaction has reached the level of harassment, make an appointment to talk with the director of personnel.

How do other librarians in your district feel? Perhaps you can plan monthly meetings with those with the same concerns. Call upon members of your state library association for support. Consider reporting your experience to the state ACLU, or to an employment attorney.

I’m an elementary school librarian in a city where the public library board just restricted all LGBTQIA+ books for anyone under 18. My son is a high school sophomore and belongs to the LGBTQIA+ community, and my husband and I completely support him. He wants to challenge the public library, but my husband fears our family will be harassed.
Encourage your son to organize a group of high school students to address the issue. Offer your home as a safe place for them to gather. Lead the group to PFLAG to learn what the LGBTQIA+ community is doing in other cities and communities experiencing the same thing. Suggest that the students brainstorm ways to start an awareness campaign. Here are a few things they can do:

• Lodge a protest at the public library board meetings.

• Seek out a local attorney to address the group pro bono about their rights.

• Launch a letter-writing campaign to the library board and the library director.

• Call out the actions of the public library board on social media.

• Sponsor a public read-out of the books the library has restricted. The grounds of the public library would be the ideal place (this may require a permit in some cities).

There is always the possibility that your family will be harassed, but that is the risk you take when standing up for what is right. Turn to history and make note of the number of protests that resulted in change. Nothing happens if we do nothing. Kudos to your son.


The PTA president in my elementary school heard that dictionaries have been challenged in school districts in other states. She asked the principal if she could come in and look for offensive words in the dictionaries in our library.
Yes, dictionaries have been challenged, and removed, from school libraries in many states. The claim: there are words that pertain to “sexual conduct” and therefore violate state obscenity laws. Twenty years ago, I worked with a California case where a picture dictionary and encyclopedia were challenged for depicting male and female genitalia. Parents who bring these challenges fear their own kids—and answering questions they aren’t ready to.

The PTA president is out of line, and so is your principal if he allows her request. A parent demanding her way into the school seeking information based on another district’s experience is overstepping. This could set a very bad precedent. Tell the principal that the mother can check the library holdings online for a particular dictionary. If she wants to challenge it, she can follow the guidelines in the school district’s policy manual. Tell the administration how uncomfortable and vulnerable you feel. Perhaps a discussion about this issue should occur in a faculty meeting. Teachers may be afraid as well. If the principal respects his faculty, he will hear you out.


Pat Scales is the former chair of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. Send questions to pscales@bellsouth.net.

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