Banned books

The question of censorship in international school libraries

It is inevitable that at some point in a librarian’s career the suitability of their stock choice will be questioned. Sally Flint knows that in an international school library this is not an infrequent problem. What to do?

Multicultural readership

Parents, and sometimes teachers, quite often question whether some texts are suitable for schools. It’s no surprise when you think of the diversity of international families and educators. As the readership of an international school library originates from varied cultures, countries, religions and backgrounds, all with their own sensitivities of beliefs and views, librarians are meeting a lot of different readers’ needs.

Understand your school’s values

When taking on a librarian’s role in an international school, it is a good idea to learn about the school ethos. Some school libraries are very conservative, omitting anything from its shelves that might possibly upset its users, or more realistically, the parents of its users. Other libraries claim not to censor and are very liberal in their choices, believing that to push  boundaries through reading, leads to thought provoking discussion and a greater depth of understanding of the world. Even if adopting the latter approach, a librarian is in fact censoring every time they place an order, or decide whether to accept a student request for a book order. In doing so librarians are afforded huge amounts of trust and need to take the responsibility of their position seriously.

Criteria for choice

Trying to pin down the criteria for choosing books is difficult. Decisions can even seem to be based on instinct, using the knowledge and experience that working in school environments and being an avid reader create. There are though, guidelines that can be used to prevent censorship problems in schools while also building a diverse, exciting and challenging stock. Whether building a classroom library collection of providing for a larger readership these tips may be useful.

Some practical guidelines

1. Transparency

  • Actively share your school’s library censorship policy with parents and teachers so that there is transparency on the rules and regulations.
  • Label books clearly with a suggested age range of readers, but on the whole do not limit younger children from accessing books suggested for older readers. By and large children are excellent self-censors.
  • Use websites such as to seek advice if you are unsure about what age group a particular title is suitable for.
  • Keep records (accessible to teachers and librarians) with information about titles that deal with issues or topics that may be sensitive within the particular school environment.
  • Have a policy where parents have the option to opt out of allowing their children to borrow particular titles. This doesn’t always sit comfortably with me as I am, by and large, opposed to censorship. Ultimately, though, librarians and teachers beliefs aren’t always the same as those of individual families. Having this as an option is considered by parents to be a respectful gesture. If a parent can limit their own child’s access to a particular book they will probably be less concerned about removing it from the library.
  • Share your knowledge with school leaders. Pre-warn staff if you are likely to stock a book that might cause conflict in the school community. Fore-warned is forearmed about potential complaints. School leaders can be part of the difficult decision of making difficult choices about whether to include controversial titles.

2. Values and pastoral programme

  • Stay in tune/aligned with issues that are being tackled in the school’s pastoral programme and stock books to support the message the school is keen to share. Parents may be more likely to accept a controversial publication if it links explicitly or provides additional information on a ‘taught’ topic.
  • Avoid books with gratuitous violence. There is no place for it in a school library.

3. Awards, recommendations and audience

  • When completing book orders use established and respected reading suggestions such as the School Llibrary Association Magazine. Also order  the long-listed titles from established organisations such as Carnegie. This can also encourage students to participate in reading shadowing schemes. The titles in these book award programmes are likely to be as challenging and diverse as any other orders you might place, but the leverage of having being recommended by respected organisations can mollify concerned parents.
  • Know your users. If you think a title might not be appropriate for a particular reader, for example because the content is quite adult then play safe. Don’t refuse to lend the book to the child but check with their parent first.
The Censorship Debate Continues

The issue of banned books and censorship is one that continually rears its head. It will come as no surprise that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird used to be a ‘banned book’ because of its sympathy towards a black man at a time of segregation. However, what is surprising is that in 2019 “A school board in Ontario, Canada told teachers in Peel, a region near Toronto, to stop teaching it because it is ‘violent and oppressive’ to black students and its trope of a ‘white saviour’ makes its black characters seem ‘less than human” (Blake, 2019). I agree somewhat with this interpretation of the text, but would strongly argue for using literature to explore the issues that cause anger and resentment rather than censoring.

Consult your Head of School

Choosing what to and what to not censor can be controversial. Swearing in fiction, nude images in art books and the exploration of LGTB issues are likely to be the key issues that conservative parents may object to. It is therefore important to keep in mind a school’s vision and mission and to discuss with school leaders what it is appropriate to expose students to and at what age. You might not always personally agree with the outcome, but having a clear understanding of the reasons for reaching a particular decision can help avoid conflict when interfacing with parents.


Sally Flint

A teacher of English, Sally is the former Head of Libraries at Bangkok Patana School. In addition to writing articles for various educational publications (including this one) and working as a freelance library consultant, Sally enjoys blogging about family, books and education.

Click here to link to Sally’s blog


Further Reading:  

Blake. M. (2019). A surprising list of recently banned books. Penguin. {Accessed 4 January,} 2019.

Sep 3, 2019. 10 books that have been banned in schools


Feature Image: by StockSnap from Pixabay

Support Image: by engin akyurtKarolina Grabowska from Pixabay