Weeding – a necessary chore

It’s summer, and I’ve been engaging in one of my favorite hobbies, gardening.  I’m sure I share this hobby with many of you, or so it would seem as I drive or walk around our community.  My second favorite summer hobby, besides working in my own garden, is admiring all the blooming trees and flowers, and prolific vegetable gardens that I see on my daily walks.

Any gardener knows that having a successful plot depends not only on planting the best seeds, but also on keeping up regular maintenance of growing plants by watering, fertilizing, thinning, and – of course – weeding.

Keeping up with successful library materials collections requires the same type of work. In this blog, we’ve already explored the library’s selection policy, which would be akin to selecting the proper plants for a garden.  Gardeners know that plants require certain conditions to grow optimally; in much the same way, library staff use our selection criteria to determine if an information resource will be likely to “grow”, or circulate well, in our community. This work requires attention to detail and a knowledge of the community’s information needs.

Just as important as purchasing new books, DVDs, audiobooks, magazines, and other information sources for our collection is maintaining materials from those collections.  Collection maintenance is a large part of many library staff members’ daily duties.

“Maintenance” usually refers to just that – checking the condition of books and other items, repairing or replacing as necessary, researching whether new series installments are released, and other duties required to keep a collection up-to-date and relevant to the community’s information needs. 

A major part of this maintenance work is deselecting the materials that are no longer the best choices for our collections; in fact, we call this work weeding, and it is very much like the work we gardeners do when we weed.  Just as a gardener would not want to inadvertently pull up a new plant, mistaking it for a week, library staff take good care to make thoughtful decisions about the books and other materials we remove from our collections.  And, just as in a garden, weeding is a job that helps us optimize our space and remove materials that may negatively affect the experience, or use, of the collection.

When beginning a weeding project, a librarian will usually set general parameters to help identify potential candidates for weeding.  One very common parameter will be the circulation data about the books in the collection; so, for example,  a librarian may set “last circulation date”, with a certain time limit, as a parameter.  Once one or more parameters are set, the staff person can run a report of all the books in the collection that fit those criteria.  This gives a list of books on the shelf that merit a closer look.

At that point, the librarian will remove every book on the list from the shelf, and then the real work of weeding begins, as each book is reviewed individually to determine its status for the collection. Making this determination requires following a weeding scheme, which is another, more detailed set of criteria that guide decisions.  One weeding scheme that is widely followed and taught in most library school programs, is the “MUSTIE” scheme.  Each letter in this anagram refers to a criteria that is considered in determining whether or not a book remains in the collection:

M:  Misleading.  One important role of library collections is to provide information that is accurate and up-to-date.  “Misleading” information is weeded from the collections.  A historical example of the application of this criteria happened in 2006, when Pluto was re-classified from a “planet” to a “dwarf planet.”  Books that listed Pluto as one of nine planets in the solar system were rendered misleading because the information was not reflective of the reclassification; those books were, therefore, removed from the collection.

U:  Ugly.  The application of this criteria happens every day as books are circulated and returned, but it is also relevant to larger weeding projects.  The “ugly” criteria refers to the overall physical condition of the book.   A book can be weeded because it is torn, has a broken spine or missing pages, or has been damaged in some way.  Usually, when books are weeded because of this condition alone, replacement copies are ordered.

S:  Superseded.  Many nonfiction resources are issued in regular installments, and older editions are removed to make space for updated versions.  Computer manuals are great examples of this, as software and operating systems change so quickly.  As new manuals are published, outdated manuals are removed.  Not only does this maximize the shelf space required to house the collection, it also helps patrons find information that is relevant and up-to-date without having to browse through obsolete resources.

T: Trivial. This criteria refers to works that have no lasting literary or scientific value; it applies mainly to works of popular fiction that pass out of popularity after a time.  Librarians review circulation statistics to make this determination; if a book has not circulated within a reasonable time period, it is considered trivial.  However, there are manuals of core collections in all genres which are consulted before making this determination; these core collections are comprised of works considered to be of lasting literary or scientific value, and that, for the most part, should be retained in library collections.

I:  Irrelevant.  A work is considered irrelevant if it does not meet the needs of the target population.  For example, an academic library serving a community college has little need for large collections of popular adult fiction, as most of its population uses the library for academic work. However, if that same community college offers degrees in education, a small collection of children’s literature would be relevant to students in those programs.

E:  Elsewhere.  A book that is readily available elsewhere will sometimes be discarded in order to make room for newer books.  This criteria is usually applied to books that do not meet the criteria listed above, but that have mediocre circulation statistics.  “Elsewhere” can mean anything from the material being available at another branch of the system or through interlibrary loan, to being available in an alternate format.

After all these criteria are selected, if an item is weeded from the collection, it usually goes into the Friends of the Library book sale, at least here at CCPLS.  There, the public can purchase the book for a reduced price, and the Friends’ earnings are invested back into the public library. Books that are too damaged, or too outdated/misleading, to be sold back to the public are discarded.

The advantage of doing all this work to weed a collection?  Pretty much the same as the advantage of doing the work to weed a garden: a cleaner, healthier collection that meets the needs of its patrons, with space for new growth to flower.

Collection Development in public libraries

As part of the Campbell County Public Library’s partnership with our school district, we often provide tours of the public library to classes of elementary students; our busiest tour season is the spring, so we are preparing for those now.

A common question of the students is how we (the Library staff) select the books that go on the shelves. 

The process of selecting books for the public library’s collections is actually a bit complicated, but it boils down to fulfilling our mission, which is to provide diverse cultural experiences for reading, learning and entertainment to all citizens of our community.   There are some strategies that guide us in our work:

The first is to identify our population’s information needs.  An information need is most simply defined as a need for a particular type of resource.   An information need is not necessarily best met by a book; rather, a patron may have a need to access technology, to use a space, or to participate in an activity.  Indeed, even those information needs that do point to intellectual content may have various best responses – a database, a magazine, or a movie may all provide the content sought.

Information needs are as unique as the patrons who have them. Because library ethics demand “equitable, high-level service to all patrons,” staff members make no distinction in terms of importance of information needs: a parent’s information need for preschool story books, a hobbyist’s need for a car repair manual, a professional’s need for government documents, or a scholar’s need for rare books about Wyoming history are met with the same level of professionalism and effort.

Some information needs ebb and flow with patron interest.  For example, in the Children’s department, there is currently a need for books about springtime; in the Young Adult department, patrons are seeking popular authors or graphic novels.  Some information needs boggle the minds of librarians; more than once, we’ve had to reorder books that were popular years ago and are suddenly undergoing a new wave of interest.  Books that otherwise don’t circulate can suddenly become popular due to a new movie being out, an author gaining national attention, or a new controversy arising over the title.  Information needs can arise from educational or business situations, or just from a desire for recreational reading. Again, it is the Library’s perspective that no one type of information need is more important, or relevant, than another.

Librarians do try to anticipate information needs as much as possible, in order to have adequate information on the shelf at the moment the patron needs it.  This means we track collection data, circulation statistics, and trends in publishing and library services; we also research popular authors and series, current events, pop culture… really anything that might translate to an information need or request from patrons.  Sometimes we don’t anticipate correctly, so some books do not circulate as well as others.  This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, that data is considered when making future selection decisions.

Once information needs are identified, library staff then follow our collection development policy.  This is a policy that most libraries have in place, used to set parameters for the collection – who the audience is, what information areas are identified for collection, what formats or media are collected.  The Campbell County Public Library’s collection development policy can be found on our website, at www.ccpls.org;  it’s been through multiple iterations over the years, but was most recently updated in 2018.  A public library’s collection development policy differs from that of, say, an academic library.  For example, as a public library, we do not collect textbooks, as the burden on space, budget and staff time would far outweigh our resources.  An academic library, however, may very well collect the textbooks most utilized by their population.

A collection development policy also includes statements of the guiding principles of collecting.  The CCPLS policy includes a statement common to public libraries: that the materials collected to not represent an endorsement of the content.  As discussed in previous blog posts, a public library has a constitutional obligation to collect materials that represent diverse viewpoints.

Our collection development policy states the criteria used to select materials, as well as the criteria for removing (or weeding) materials from the collection.  Selection criteria commonly used by libraries, and in use at CCPLS, include the following (with definitions as stated in Collection Management for Youth by Sandra Hughes-Hass):

  • Authority – This concept refers to the qualifications and abilities of the people who created the work.
  • Appropriateness – Addressing the suitability of the content for the intended audience.
  • Scope – Refers to the author’s purpose for the work and the overall breadth and depth of the coverage
  • Accuracy – Refers to the currency, correctness, and perspective of the information.
  • Treatment – Deals with the style of presentation and whether it is appropriate for the subject, genre, and user’s developmental level; also addresses multicultural elements and stereotyping where appropriate.
  • Arrangement and organization – Focuses on the sequence and development of ideas and how they facilitate comprehension of the materials, as well as how easily information can be found.
  • Reputation of the author, illustrator or producer – Refers to the contributions of the author, illustrator or publisher
  • Physical quality – Refers to elements such as clarity of images, illustrations, speech and music; consistence of navigation, icons, legibility of typeface of fonts; searchability.
  • Aesthetic quality – Addresses the aesthetic appeal of the work
  • Series – Refers to the quality of books and other materials that are part of a series.
  • Comparison with other works – Focuses on how the work compares to others by the same author or illustrator, or on the same topic.

Of course, not every one of these criteria apply to every resource selected, and some criteria may be more important than others when selecting resources for a particular audience or information need. Librarians develop expertise in the collections they manage; take advanced coursework in collection management; and use a variety of tools, including professional journals, to make collection decisions. As a corollary of material selection, de-selection (or weeding) helps to keep a collection accurate and up-to-date, and includes its own collection management decisions, which will be discussed in a later blog post.

Researching, anticipating, and meeting the information needs of our patrons is a foundational practice of libraries, and a core way we liberate our patrons by helping them educate themselves.

U.S. House Oversight Committee Discussion of Book Bans and Censorship

Author’s note:  On April 7, 2022, in the middle of National Library Week, the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and specifically the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, of the United States House of Representatives, held a hearing “to examine the ongoing efforts across the country to ban books from schools and public libraries.” (www.oversight.house.gov)  According to the American Library Association, a record number of challenges to remove books from school and public libraries was recorded in 2021 – 729 challenges to over 1600 books.  As many readers are aware, 57 challenges to 29 titles originated at the Campbell County Public Library.

The following is a transcript of the opening statement of Representative Jamie Raskin (D., MD), the chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.  Chairman Raskin’s statement further develops the legal foundation of public libraries’ position about intellectual freedom and censorship.  Representative Raskin published his statement as a press release; it can also be accessed on his website, here. (All marks of emphasis are Raskin’s.)


Opening Statement of Chairman Jamie Raskin Hearing on “Free Speech Under Attack: Book Bans and Academic Censorship,” April 7, 2022:

Good morning. Thank you to our witnesses for joining us today and thanks to all the Members who are participating in this important hearing.

 In 1943 in West Virginia v. Barnette, the Supreme Court struck down compulsory flag salutes as a violation of the First Amendment, stating that: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” In 1969, in Tinker v. Des Moines School District, which struck down Mary Beth Tinker’s suspension from middle school for refusing to remove her black armband protesting the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court affirmed that neither teachers nor students “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” in Tinker v. Des Moines School District.

In 1982, in Board of Education v. Pico, the Court rejected the effort by a town school board in New York State to strip objectionable books from public school libraries. The members had gone to a conference promoting censorship of offensive and vulgar books and came back with a target list, including Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Best Short Stories of Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes, Go Ask Alice (by an anonymous author), Black Boy by Richard Wright.  After widely brandishing a compilation of prurient, lurid, and profane passages, the Board overrode its own censorship committee, which had recommended purging only two books from the schools, and censored nine of them.

When the case got to the Supreme Court, the majority sided with students claiming that the removal of books from the school library effected a form of thought control totally antithetical to the First Amendment. Justice Brennan, who was nominated to the Court by President Eisenhower, announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion that was joined by Justice John Paul Stevens, who had been nominated by President Ford, Justice Harry Blackmun, who had been nominated to the Court by President Nixon, and Justice Thurgood Marshall, who had been nominated to the Court by President Johnson. So, this was a decision dominated by Supreme Court Justices nominated by GOP Presidents, a little food for thought.

In Pico, Justice Brennan found that the Constitution protects not just the right to speak but “the right to receive information and ideas.” The First Amendment plays the central role in “affording the public access to discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas.”

 Freedom of inquiry, the Court ruled, extends to school libraries, and the selective removal of books from libraries because someone considers the content offensive “directly and sharply” implicates students’ freedom of speech and thought. In school libraries, “the regime of voluntary inquiry holds sway.” The answer to books whose content or viewpoint you oppose—check out this powerful logic—is to not read them or to write a negative review or even, shades of Voltaire, to write your own book in answer.

 The First Amendment, I used to tell my constitutional law students, is like Abe Lincoln’s golden apple of liberty. Everybody just wants to take one bite out of it—someone hates left-wing speech and wants to censor it and someone hates right-wing speech and wants to censor it, someone wants to censor hate speech about gay people and someone wants to censor speech about the love lives of gay people. Someone wants to censor Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn because it uses the N-Word and someone else wants to censor Ibram Kendi’s Antiracist Baby because they think it means babies can be racists. Everybody wants to take a bite out of the apple, and if we allow all those bites, there will simply be no apple left. The way to save the apple for us all is to tolerate the speech you abhor as well as the speech you agree with. If we cancel or censor everything that people find “offensive,” nothing will be left. Everybody is offended by something, and that is why other people’s level of offense cannot be the metric for defining whether my rights are vaporized.

There’s a famous story about Lenny Bruce the risqué comedian from the middle of the last century, and someone said his show should be shut down because it offended him. And Lenny Bruce said, “my parents came to America to be offensive and not to be thrown in jail for it.”

Now, during National Library Week—a time to celebrate intellectual curiosity, scholarship, freedom of inquiry, and freedom of expression—basic intellectual freedoms are under attack again.

 In 2021, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom recorded the highest number of censorious challenges to library books in its 20 years of tracking this data—729 challenges encompassing nearly 1,600 books. And let me be clear what challenge means—it means targeting books to censor them.

So, what does 729 challenges mean? In Texas, just one of these attempts to censor books, implemented by a state legislator, has initiated the review of at least 850 books in every school district in Texas. There are over 1,000 school districts and 8,000 public schools in Texas.

 This challenge alone will require tens of thousands of teachers, librarians, and administrators to spend hundreds of thousands of hours reviewing these books to implement a regime of censorship. And this at a time when school resources are already stretched thin and states across the country are facing terrible teacher shortages.

The vast majority of books being targeted for censorship are not mandatory or part of the curriculum for students to read. They are books of choice—students can pull them off the shelves if they want to and check them out. Or they can ignore them entirely.

So what books are being targeted for censorship? We may hear from some colleagues that the only books being challenged are salacious, prurient, sexually vile, hateful, or driving our children toward deviant behaviors and lifestyles. This is not true. Some old favorite targets are back, like Catcher in the Rye, Native Son, and Huckleberry Finn. I would also be surprised if we did not hear excerpts from All Boys Aren’t Blue, a coming-ofage memoir about a gay Black child, or Gender Queer, a memoir about a non-binary, asexual person coming to terms with themselves. A frequent target these days is the Pulitzer Prize winning novel about slavery and trauma, Beloved, by Nobel laureate Toni Morison.

Obviously, it is a legitimate subject for parents, teachers, principals, and school boards to discuss which books are the best and most age-appropriate curricular choices for different age groups and grades. This is what educators do and the best ones include families, parents, and experts in the decision-making process.

That normal curricular and library selection process is completely different from whipping people into a moral panic over the use of this or that word or passage in a book and then demanding its removal from a library or banning from a school.

Fashions in censorship change. For a great deal of American history, books were censored because they were considered scandalously indecent, like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or politically subversive of the slavery system, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was seized, censored, and burned in many southern states as propaganda and miscegenationist filth. Many books are being targeted for censorship these days simply because they address racism or white supremacy as historical or sociological realities or address LGBTQ+ issues—because the protagonist or author is gay or a person of color, or for some other allegedly objectionable reason.

Now I actually wrote a book, We the Students, which is sponsored by the Supreme Court Historical Society and analyzes the constitutional freedoms of students, families, and teachers in public schools, that is actually one of several hundred books being aggressively targeted for removal from public schools in Texas. I am certain that it must be the first book ever sponsored by the Supreme Court’s own Historical Society which is now being slated for censorship. I only wish that the censors would read my discussion of Board of Education v. Pico at p.59 before they censor it.

Most books being targeted for censorship are books that introduce ideas about diversity and our common humanity, books that help teach children to recognize and respect the humanity in one another. The books on these poster boards have all been targeted for censorship or banned from schools. This is Your Time, by Ruby Bridges, a remarkable figure in the American civil rights movement who we have the honor of hearing from today, has been challenged and targeted for censorship. Why? Simply, because it is said that a book describing the story of how a little girl was one of the first children to integrate public schools in the midst of virulent racism may make white children feel uncomfortable. This of course radically understates the powers of empathy, compassion, and solidarity that all children have. It also suggests that the actual lived experiences of certain people should be suppressed if learning of them would make other people uncomfortable, a farfetched, unworkable, and unjust principle that cuts against the American embrace of free expression.

But I don’t want the books censored; I just want them moved!

If libraries, and particulary public libraries, have a duty to uphold patrons’ rights to intellectual freedom, it follows that libraries make every effort possible to avoid or curb censorship. To most people in our country, the act of censoring books is reprehensible, something that we Americans just don’t do. Most people, when confronted with accusations of censorship, respond emotionally; no one wants to be accused of censoring. Many recent efforts to remove books from shelves involve a request for the books to be moved, usually out of youth sections, into an adult area. While on the surface this request may seem perfectly reasonable, it still qualifies as censorship in public libraries.

Perhaps education about censorship can help us all understand the position of public libraries on this issue. Remember that, in my last blog post, I discussed how the courts’ interpretations of the First Amendment have established that censorship can be defined as any act by which a government agency, or its representative, removes or restricts access of a resource from its intended audience.

Let’s test your knowledge of intellectual freedom first. Which of the following scenarios constitutes an act of censorship?

1. A school librarian, while reading a professional review journal, decides not to purchase a nonfiction book because an unfavorable review notes that the book lacks credible sources and is filled with grammatical errors.

2. A parent tells their teenager that she can’t see an “R”-rated movie with her friends.

3. A newspaper editor cuts a direct quote by a local politician from a story about a bond issue, because the quote is about city board appointments.

4. A public library material selector decides not to purchase a book because its author is a public figure who identifies as transgender, and she is afraid of objections from her community.

5. A public librarian moves nonfiction sexual education materials, written for a teen audience, to the adult section of the library.

6. A library director quietly peruses his library shelves for books he’s heard about being challenged in other parts of the country; when he finds any, he simply checks them out and keeps them on his personal shelves in his office.

7. A public librarian moves a book with a 16-year-old protagonist to the adult fiction section because the protagonist identifies as bisexual.

8. A children’s librarian decides to label picture books that depict what she deems as “difficult” content with a sticker to warn parents.

9. A public library youth librarian determines that a requested book series is out of date and difficult to purchase, and therefore communicates with the patron who made the request that the book series won’t be purchased.

10. A parent tells his son he doesn’t want him to read the most recent winner of the state book award, because the parent disagrees with the author’s views.

How did you do? If you noticed that the examples of censorship were sandwiched in the middle of the list, you were correct. Items 1 through 3, as well as 9 and 10, are not examples of censorship. Items 4 through 7 are examples of censorship which happen more frequently than you might think. And example 8 is an “it depends” scenario which could be censorship depending on its use.

Let’s go back to our scenarios and examine them a bit more:

Example 1 is not an example of censorship. Librarians have a responsibility to expend allocated funds reasonably; part of that responsibility involves purchasing high-quality resources. Libraries rely on their collection development policies to guide purchasing: these policies outline what types of materials, subject areas, and formats are purchased by individual libraries. They also discuss the selection criteria by which materials selectors determine which purchases to make. Authoritative, credible sources and high-quality use of language are two of the potential selection criteria that librarians use to guide purchases.

Example 2 is likewise not an example of censorship. A parent has a right to determine what content their child sees or reads. Although not specifically mentioned in this example, a private movie theater, or a private business, also has a right to restrict content according to age level.

Example 3 – also not censorship. In this case, a newspaper editor can cut content that is irrelevant to the story. However, had the politician’s quote been about the actual bond issue, and cut because of its potential impact on the politician’s reputation, there would be questions of the editor’s motivation for doing so.

Example 4 is a form of “quiet” censorship. The American Library Association’s “Library Bill of Rights,” which was first adopted in 1939 and is based (and updated as necessary) on the courts’ interpretations of the First Amendment, states that “materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.” As long as the book in question meets the selection criteria of that library’s collection development policy, and fits the parameters of the collection, the librarian’s choice to not purchase because of fear of potential disapproval is censoring that material.

Example 5, 6, 7 and 8 are all examples of censorship that have relevance to book-centered conflicts in public libraries today. In each of these cases, books are being removed from view, impacting what librarians call the “discoverability” of books. In Sund vs. City of Wichita Falls, TX, an often-cited 2000 United States District court case, the Court found that physically removing books from a youth collection impacted the First Amendment rights of the youth affected. The Sund case dealt with a City policy that allowed the removal of two books from the Children’s collection of the public library to the adult collection, based on the content of the books and in response to a public petition. In this case, the Court published 27 Conclusions of Law about the First Amendment and the role of public libraries. Of particular relevance to the examples above are these conclusions (all taken, and quoted, from Sund Vs. City of Wichita Falls, Tex., 121 F. Supp.2d 530 {N. D. Tex. 2000}):

  • The First Amendment protects the right to recieve information – “a fundamental right that is enjoyed by both adults and children.” The First Amendment makes no distinction based on age, race, gender, or other identities.
  • A public library is a “limited public forum for purposes of First Amendement analysis,” and as such, “the government’s ability to restrict patrons’ First Amendment rights is extremely narrow.” Restrictions on the First Amendment rights of patrons, based solely on the content of the materials, could only be allowed if the government could demonstrate that the restriction is necessary to “achieve a compelling government interest and there are no less restrictive alternatives for achieving that interest.”
  • While some would argue that patrons’ First Amendment rights are not impacted if the books in question are not removed from the library but simply moved to a different section, the Court found that “the burdens on the Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights….are nonetheless constitutionally objectionable.” The Court went on to note that “By authorizing the forced removal of children’s books to the adult section of the Library, the (Altman Resolution) places a significant burden on Library patrons’ ability to gain access to those books. Children searching specifically for those books in the designated children’s areas of the Library will be unable to locate them. In addition, children who simply wish to browse in the children’s sections of the Library will never find the censored books. Moreover, parents browsing the children’s areas in search of books for their children will be unable to find the censored books.”
  • The resolution in question in the Sund case, known as the Altman Resolution, was defended as a means to support “some notion of ‘parent’s rights.’ ” The Court noted that the “Altman Resolution can hardly be said to support ‘parent’s rights,’ as it permits a non-parent to dictate what someone else’s children may read and allows one parent to suppress material not only for her own children, but for all others in the community.”
  • Finally, the Court concluded that “Where First Amendment rights are concerned, those seeking to restrict access to information should be forced to take affirmative steps to shield themselves from unwanted materials; the onus should not be on the general public to overcome barriers to their access to fully-protected information.” In other words, while a patron or parent certainly has the right to restrict the content viewed by themselves or their children, that content should still be freely accessible to others who wish to view it. Any situation that prevents this access is a form of censorship.

Example 9 is a common practice that can become censorship, depending on how it is used; in fact, here in our Library, we do sticker some books with potentially sensitive content that parents may want to be aware of. However, this practice does influence the First Amendment rights of children, although parental rights to restrict content accessed by their own children has a place in this discussion. Stickering, or other forms of labeling, certain content is a practice that may impose a psychological barrier on access; patrons may be uncomfortable checking out material on which a sticker identifying the content is clearly visible. Librarians who utilize this practice in an effort to curate their collections should be clear about their reasons for doing so, and ensure that the stickering imposes no more of a barrier than necessary. In some cases, the curation benefits of stickering or labeling for the potential audience may outweigh barriers to First Amendment rights: stickering a book in which the dog dies, for example, alerts parents who select picture books for read-alouds to their children, and does not necessarily impose a psychological barrier to access. Stickering books that are about LGBTQIA+ issues, however, can make a teen who wishes to access those books uncomfortable to check them out, for fear of being “outed” by the stickers, no matter how that teen identifies.

At examples 9 and 10, we are back to scenarios which are not censorship, and have already been explained above. Example 9, in which a librarian declines to purchase a series that is out-of-date and difficult to acquire, is another example of the use of selection criteria, as defined in a collection development policy, to build library collections. While most public libraries make every effort to meet patrons’ request, there are materials for which purchase would be irresponsible.

And example 10 is another example of parental rights to dictate what a child may read. While a book award list does imply a certain quality or standard of literature, these lists, when used in a public library setting, are not required reading (and are not necessarily required in schools). Parents still make the ultimate decisions for their own children, and most library circulation policies state this clearly.

By making a wide variety of high-quality resources available to all members of its community, and making them as accessible to their intended audience as possible, libraries serve the First Amendment rights of all patrons. By allowing patrons to choose materials for themselves, or for their own children, libraries liberate patrons from the effects of even seemingly reasonable incidents of censorship.

Intellectual Freedom and Public Libraries

So far in this blog, I’ve reviewed a bit of the history that has led to the public library system as we know it today.  There’s much, much more to the history, including debates about the role of youth in public libraries, the changing nature of access to information and the role of libraries in providing that access, the role of the publishers and content providers in influencing collection management.

Before going deeper into those topics, I’d like to spend time exploring a fundamental commitment of public libraries:  to uphold intellectual freedom, as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,  or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that one statement, and much of it has direct relevance to public libraries.  For the purposes of this blog, however, let’s focus on freedom of speech.

For the following explanation of the role of public libraries in upholding freedom of speech and, by extension, intellectual freedom, I’ve used resources published online by the National Constitution Center, at www.constitutioncenter.org.  The mission of the National Constitution Center, according to its website, is to serve “as America’s leading platform for constitutional education and debate, fulfilling our congressional charter to ‘disseminate information about the US Constitution on a nonpartisan basis in order to increase awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people.’ ”  It’s quite a rich resource, and I invite you to explore it further.

Back to our topic, then:

  • Although the First Amendment specifically names Congress, the US Supreme Court has interpreted this term to mean any governmental body.   Therefore, speakers rights’ of free speech may not be denied by any governmental body, including local governmental bodies,  such as Library Boards.  This is the reason that access to public library materials may not be restricted in the same way that, for example, private movie theaters restrict access to certain movies by age level.
  • Freedom of speech, and of the press, has also been interpreted by the Supreme Court to include “not only talking, writing, and printing, but also broadcasting, using the internet, and other forms of expression.”  (https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/interpretation/amendment-i/interps/266)  Information that is provided by a public library for its patrons to select freely is therefore protected.  I appreciate this explanation from the National Constitution Center: 
    • “The Supreme Court has held that restrictions on speech because of its content—that is, when the government targets the speaker’s message—generally violate the First Amendment. Laws that prohibit people from criticizing a war, opposing abortion, or advocating high taxes are examples of unconstitutional content-based restrictions. Such laws are thought to be especially problematic because they distort public debate and contradict a basic principle of self-governance: that the government cannot be trusted to decide what ideas or information “the people” should be allowed to hear.”

There are some reasons, however, that a government body may use what’s called a “less demanding standard” of interpretation of freedom of speech in order to restrict some forms of expression.  Again, I am referencing the National Constitution Center (NCC) for these explanations:

  • Some types of speech are considered of “low” First Amendment value; specific court cases that led to these classifications, as well as descriptions of such, are available on the NCC site.  Types of speech that might be considered of “low” value are:
    • Defamation
    • True threats
    • “Fighting words”
    • Obscenity
    • Pornography
    • Commercial advertising

We’ll return to a more detailed discussion of obscenity and pornography in a future blog post, as definitions of these terms have direct relevance to current debate about some library materials.

  • Speakers who have a special relationship to the government may have their free speech restricted in the execution of their role.   When I was a teacher, for example, I could not encourage my students to experiment with illegal drugs, as such encouragement would have conflicted with my professional role.
  • Speech, or printed forms of expression, may be restricted when the restriction is not content-related and is viewed as “reasonable.” A local example of this restriction is a time limitation on public comment, when applied equally to all potential speakers.

As I’ve pointed out in earlier blog posts, not all libraries are public libraries, and therefore not all have the same expectations in upholding freedom of speech.  It’s a complex issue, one that we’ll dive into in a bit more detail here. 

And to return to our topic of the history of public libraries, I’ll point out that, as the US Supreme Court has evolved in its interpretation of the First Amendment, so have public libraries.  Remember how some of those first women’s clubs established public libraries to promote literacy and access to information?  Many members of such clubs also believed their role was to “improve” citizens by selecting only material that upheld the values of a certain social group.  Not many public librarians would share this viewpoint today; and even if they did, they would be restricting First Amendment rights of patrons by selecting only material that reinforced one group’s values. Therefore, a carefully-written collection development policy, which I’ll be writing about soon, is important to ensure that a public library fulfills its legal duty to all its citizens.

In public libraries today, we realize our job is not to “fix” or “improve” our patrons.  Our job, rather, is to liberate our patrons to find materials to meet their individual needs; we do this by upholding intellectual freedom and our patrons’ First Amendment rights.

County Library Boards

In Wyoming, as I’ve mentioned, we have 23 county library systems, which are public libraries.  These systems were the result of that Wyoming Territorial Legislature’s 1886 passage of the first legislation in the country to provide for statewide public libraries. Wyoming Statute Title 18, Chapter 7 addresses the establishment of library systems.  The statute mandates that County Boards of Commissioners shall set the budget for the establishment and ongoing maintenance of a County Library and shall appoint a Library Board of Trustees to oversee it. Much of the budget for the County Library comes from property taxes; in Campbell County, the collections and services for youth receive additional funding from One-Cent sales taxes.

The appointed Library Board then oversees the library system.  Board members are appointed for three-year terms and may serve two terms consecutively.  Board members are county residents and serve without compensation. Board members may be removed by the County Commission for misconduct or neglect of duty.

 A Library Board has four statutory responsibilities:

1. To expend the revenue budgeted for maintenance, operation and promotion of the county library system in order to carry out the library’s mission, as defined by the statute.

2. To receive and be responsible for real estate, money, or other property to aid the establishment and maintenance of the library system.

3. To set policies for the establishment, organization, operation and use of the county library and library system.

4. To appoint a library director, who then, with the authority of the board, appoints library staff and determines staff duties.

The responsibilities of the trustees are serious, and require adherence to the following ethics, listed in the Wyoming Public Library Board Members’ Handbook, and available from the State Library at https://library.wyo.gov/assets/ldo/boards/Board_HandbookWY_2018.pdf:

  • Public good over personal gain. Board members must avoid situations that might benefit them personally or financially at the expense of the library and/or library patrons.
  • Group decision over personal opinion. After a vote is taken, all must speak in a unified voice and not undermine the Board’s decision, even if one disagrees personally.
  • Confidentiality versus the public’s right to know. Board members must respect the confidential nature of some library business while being aware of and in compliance with applicable laws governing access to public records and with requirements to hold open public meetings.
  • Intellectual freedom. As public officials, Board members have an obligation to uphold the Constitutional right of free speech. Board members have a responsibility to resist censorship of library materials by groups or individuals, regardless of personal feelings and beliefs.
  • Fulfill Board responsibilities. When citizens accept an appointment to the Board, they are agreeing to perform all the functions required; thus, Board members must be prepared to meet this commitment.

Current information about the Campbell County Library Board, including meeting dates, meeting minutes, and current members, as well as a Board contact form, can be found at https://www.campbellcountywy.gov/231/Library-Board.

Forward-thinking legislation, a partnership between professionals and community members, and the expectation of high ethical standards – in my opinion, these foundational principles help to ensure that Wyoming libraries liberate all Wyoming citizens.

All types of libraries, all types of benefactors…

As mentioned in my previous blog post, the Wyoming State Library supports library services to all types of libraries throughout the state:  public, school, and academic.  Not everyone realizes there are different types of libraries, each with a slightly different mission.  In the most general terms, a library is a collection of information resources.  However, without limiters provided in the mission and the collection development policy, any library system would have difficulty in determining the types of information resources to collect, as well as how to allocate funds and space to these resources.

So, the three main types of libraries in Wyoming each serve slightly different groups of patrons.  School libraries and academic libraries focus on collections of resources that support the educational needs of students enrolled in their institutions. Other types of specialized libraries might include medical libraries, law libraries, even music libraries; two important special libraries we have in Wyoming are the George W. Hopper Law Library in Laramie, and the Wyoming State Law Library in Cheyenne.  These libraries have missions to provide resources for a targeted population; in most, not all, cases, those resources can only be accessed by that specific group of people.

Public libraries, on the other hand, are tasked with providing resources and services to support the entire population of their service area.  Some public libraries serve entire counties, as in Wyoming, while some serve cities or library districts, and are supported by tax monies from those.

Did you know that, when libraries were first being established in America, they were not public?  According to author Ariel Aberg-Riger, writing for Bloomberg, one of the first libraries in America was established by Benjamin Franklin in 1731:  a social library called “The Library Company” whose members paid a subscription fee to have access to a communal collection of books. These types of subscription-based libraries became increasingly common among the upper-class and can still be found in some parts of the country today.  In fact, children’s author Jack Gantos, who visited Campbell County students as part of our CCCPRD-funded visiting author program in 2015, mentioned that he does most of his writing at a private, subscription-based library near his home in Boston.

As the number of subscription-based libraries grew, it became evident they were not open to everyone.  Aberg-Riger writes that these types of libraries were not open to women, people of color, or lower-class members.  The groups for whom access was restricted began forming their own “clubs,” and championed a variety of social causes.  Women’s clubs, in particular, took up the task of liberating citizens by promoting literacy and access to books. The activism of these women’s clubs, in conjunction with the philanthropy of business moguls, most notably Andrew Carnegie, were instrumental in the establishment of the public library we know today.

In Wyoming, 16 Carnegie libraries were established between 1899 and 1917, according to Wyoming Carnegie Libraries Subject Guide: Sources of Information to the State’s 16 Carnegie Libraries by UW Senior Library Assistant Linda Waggener.  In order for a community to receive a Carnegie Public Library Building Grant, it had to provide the land and establish a fund of at least 10% of the grant amount for building maintenance and upkeep.  The ongoing operations of the library were the sole responsibility of the city or county government. Interested readers can find more information about Wyoming’s Carnegie libraries at https://www.historicwyoming.org/carnegielibraries, or by accessing Waggener’s guide via the Wyoming State Library at https://library.wyo.gov/a-guide-to-wyomings-carnegie-libraries/.

While 16 such Carnegie libraries were established in Wyoming (part of an estimated 1600+ nationwide), Campbell County’s library was not among these. Rather, a different type of benefactor was instrumental in our own library system’s establishment.  George Amos, a lifelong bachelor who ranched in southern Campbell County in the early part of the 20th century, bequeathed his rather large collection of books, as well as his estate, to his sister upon his death.  In his will, he specified that, upon his sister’s death, the remainder of his estate, both books and assets, be used to establish a library. With this foundation, the Campbell County Commission established the Campbell County Public Library system in 1930.   The system began in a small white building, no longer in existence, on Donkey Creek, and later moved to the George Amos Memorial Library, a building that still stands north of the courthouse, in 1941.  The library’s current main building on 4J Road was built in 1983, and the George Amos downtown branch continued operations as a law library until —–. 

So, in that the original collection of books belonged to one man, our own library is not unlike the subscription-based libraries, such as Franklin’s, of the eastern United States; many of these also donated private collections to public institutions as their memberships declined. It seems that once the collections and services of open public libraries grew, the appeal of private, members-only, more limited collections dimmed.

With the decline of these smaller private libraries, and the growth of public libraries nationwide, the institution of the public library underwent huge changes, including the addition of specialized services for children and youth in the mid-20th century, and the advent of technological changes in the late 20th century.  In today’s public library, a patron of any age, social class, race, or gender is welcomed and supported, and is empowered to use the various resources of the public library to meet their informational, educational and cultural needs. Public libraries serve everyone.

That’s what I love about them.

Happy Birthday, WSL!

In the bustle of the recent holiday season, a rather quiet anniversary passed in Cheyenne – on December 16, 2021, the Wyoming State Library celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding.

Having an institution around for 150 years is kind of a big deal.  The Wyoming State Library (WSL) was established before Wyoming was a state – by the Second Territorial Legislature in 1871! That legislation provided for a state library that would have “the charge and custody of all books, maps, papers, charts, engravings, paintings and all other things belonging to the library, or directed to be deposited therein, and shall also keep a regular file of all newspapers published in the territory which shall be deposited thereto.”

That December, Territorial Governor John A. Campbell – yes, the same person for whom our county is named – signed the legislation and established the Wyoming Territorial Library.

It’s fun to think about the history of libraries, and how they’ve changed over the years.  I grew up visiting my small hometown library, a building about the size of the Teen Room in our Campbell County main branch.  Most of the collection was comprised of childrens’ materials – or at least, that’s what I remember.  We used a real card catalog, of course.  I worked one afternoon a week at the library when I was a teen and learned the intricacies of checking out books using the card system.  My librarian, Mrs. Kougl, allowed me to check the books out and discharge them, but never quite trusted me to refile the cards in drawers of the card catalog! (For those of you too young to remember what I’m talking about, you can still view a set of drawers used as a physical card catalog in the George Amos reading room of the Gillette library…and you might find a librarian old enough to remember the system!)

In her 2015 editorial for Public Libraries magazine, “A Librarian Walks Into a Bar,” Oregon librarian Vailey Oehlke writes that for many people, nostalgia for the libraries they remember from childhood has a profound impact on their opinions of what libraries “are/aren’t and should/shouldn’t be.”  Oehlke points out that many of those opinions can be outmoded, and downright impractical, or even limiting, for libraries today. My memory of signing my name on the paper checkout card of a library book is pleasant and makes me somewhat nostalgic for a time before the digital age… but I also recognize that the electronic card catalog has greatly improved staff efficiency, not to mention access for patrons for whom a physical card catalog was difficult or inconvenient to use. The electronic catalog we use today is a simple way libraries have worked to liberate users from barriers that limit access to information.

In this blog, I’ll be talking a lot about today’s libraries – the services offered, the challenges faced, the innovations on the horizon. But to really understand libraries, I think a reader should understand some history and foundational principles.  So, this blog will tackle those topics as well.  Throughout the entries, I hope to inform and inspire; I hope that by reading this blog, you’ll begin to see the ways libraries welcome, serve, and liberate all users.

To return to my earlier discussion of the Wyoming State Library’s 150th birthday, the institution has come a long way since being established as the Wyoming Territorial Library:

  • The Wyoming State Library is now part of the Administration and Information     (A & I) Division of the Wyoming State Government.  The WSL receives some funding as part of the A&I budget, and some from the federal government, such as Library Service and Technology Act funds.
  • The State Library is under the direction of the State Librarian, Jamie Markus, as well as a staff of 19 librarians.
  • WSL has two primary roles.  It supports the research and reference needs of the Wyoming state government; and it supports the development of library services statewide.
  • Central to supporting statewide library services is the WSL’s role in administering the WYLD consortium.  This consortium, made up of Wyoming’s 23 county libraries, 7 community college libraries, and the University of Wyoming Library, works collaboratively to provide services shared by all Wyoming residents. The WYLD – electronic! – card catalog, which allows a patron in Campbell County to search for resources statewide, is just one way this consortium uses an economy of scale to deliver high-quality library services in a sparsely-populated state.
  • If you’ve ever searched the WYLD card catalog; used a WYLD database for research; or downloaded an e-book or e-audiobook from the Wyoming Virtual Library, you’ve interacted with services administered and maintained by the Wyoming State Library. 
  • The Wyoming State Library is located at 2800 Central Avenue in Cheyenne, and is open to the public from 8 to 5 Mondays through Fridays. You can find more information about the Wyoming State Library online at www.library.wyo.gov.

So, somewhat belatedly, Happy Birthday to the Wyoming State Library – just one reason to love libraries in Wyoming, and beyond.