Tuesday 5 December 2023

Managing Safe & Inclusive Library Spaces - CILIP Guidelines make sense for school libraries too.

 CILIP recently published “Managing Safe and Inclusive Public Library Services: a practical guide” - aimed primarily at public libraries but with references to good practice for other library services such as schools and prisons, and with key principles based around CILIP’s ethical framework, that could be applied across all library environments. I always like to read these documents with my school librarian hat on to see if they could be useful to the sector.

School and public libraries are very similar – they have a varied collection of resources (both hard copy and digital), offer a range of services aimed at their community’s needs, provide internet access, and run activities and events – but they are also very dissimilar. A school library community has specific demographics that come with specific needs. There is a range of statutory DfE requirements that need to be taken into consideration along with bespoke policies that may be applicable to that particular school. The library space is managed within the school day with booked and ad hoc lessons, and many school librarians are solo workers, undertaking all library tasks usually managed by a team.

It should also be noted that the guidance has been written in the context of the growing suppression of freedom of expression, the increase in online harms and attacks on marginalised communities. Certainly the school library sector is not immune from these so it is important to be prepared for any such incidences and to ensure that the safe and inclusive spaces we provide for all students are not threatened or diminished. As the guidance says “don’t be scared but do be prepared.”

The contents are divided into several sections, some of which are more relevant to school libraries than others, and the document is eminently readable, a nice change from other published official guidelines I’ve read this year! I’ve highlighted the aspects that I think are the most applicable to school libraries but it’s worth reading the whole document if you have time.

·         Freedom of expression for libraries: This section is based on Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 and reinforces CILIP’s ethical and professional commitment within the context of book bans and contested spaces, and the duty of librarians to oppose any form of censorship. The recommendation from CILIP is for librarians to resist the removal of titles, explaining the implications of censorship, and to make CILIP aware of any incidences. This can be hard to do within the framework of a school library. The instinctive reaction of many senior school leaders, when faced with challenges from parents, is to keep the peace and remove the offending item. However, I truly believe this is a slippery slope; once you remove a book merely because somebody has objected to it and not assessed the title against your stock selection policy to determine whether the challenge is valid (or even legal), you have little argument against any other book challenges.

·         Key principles: There are 11 key principles; I’m not going to list them as it’s easy enough to read them fully in the guidance. There’s also a very useful checklist to help library staff consider various issues. All the principles are relevant but some may be of more use to school librarians than others:

- Understanding the law and its limits
Although schools have a range of legal policies and procedures they need to implement, it is important that “access to information, events, activities … should not be prohibited unless it has been prohibited by law.” The reality is that school libraries are “in loco parentis” and need to ensure that their collection and any activities are suitable for the age of the students, which can be difficult when you are working with a range from 11 to 18 years. It can also be hard when parents have different perspectives regarding what they think is suitable for their own children. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t avoid books aimed at older students just because we have younger ones in the school. And we certainly should not let one or two parents determine what is suitable for the whole of the student body to read.

- Reflect on your biases
We are all susceptible to personal biases; I think it’s fair to say that my library collection probably had quite a few books that featured dragons and I had to make a conscious effort to seek out and purchase manga for my students as I’m not a fan myself. So we need to be aware of our own preconceptions and possible prejudices to mitigate their impact. A collection diversity audit can help to overcome this as well as a pro-active approach and training in stock selection, and involve your students in the process to create an inclusive environment.

- Develop appropriate policies
As I’ve mentioned, a school library will be subject to a range of policies that will vary from school to school. The DfE has a list though be aware that these may be different for the devolved nations. Libraries should also have their own policies relating to collection development, weeding, dealing with donations and book challenges, use of the library, IT use, etc. However, it’s my experience that the creation and updating of school library policies receives little attention in most schools. This may be partly because people rarely ask for any library policies. They’re not a statutory requirement and, with most school days filled with a never-ending to-do list and a constant stream of student requests, it’s hard to find the time and motivation to sit down and write them. But they should be the guiding values that underpin your collection and services, ideally linked to the school’s mission, development and relevant policies. And when you receive that book challenge and don’t have a policy to direct the challenger to then it’s almost too late to write it.

- Train your staff
It is important that all library staff are aware of school policies in relation to the library. These tend to be on the website for ease of access so consider adding specific library policies as well. Policies change over time; sign up to the relevant DfE newsletters so you’re not reliant on other staff telling you when they have been amended and ensure you maintain your awareness of any changes in the law that impact on schools. Another important aspect is ensuring staff are aware of library policies, particularly those that deal with book challenges. A parent/carer’s first contact may be with a tutor or member of the SMT rather than the librarian and if they’re not aware of your collection development policy, their first reaction may be to say “they’ll get the librarian to take it off the shelf” – not realising the implications around censorship or the legal requirements of the Equality Act’s protected characteristics. If you have a robust policy in place with clear guidelines and procedures, staff (including the librarian) will have the confidence to deal with any such issues.

- Reflect and learn from experience
As anyone who works in a school will tell you, it is a dynamic environment with constant changes and updates. The library is no exception. This means it is essential that librarians maintain their CPD around the aspects covered in this guidance, and regularly review and adjust any policies.

·         The law and its limits: This section considers intellectual freedom and its limitations in UK law, the Equality Act 2010 and hate speech. These are all relevant to school libraries but it should be noted that public libraries also have byelaws to consider. 

·         Management of stock: The management of library stock is a core function that is on-going and active, changing to reflect the demographics, needs and interests of the school community, and encompassing a range of perspectives and viewpoints. It should be underpinned by a robust collection development policy covering all aspects including selection, weeding, disposal and donations, ensuring the collection is developed according to the policy rather than the personal views or interests of staff, suppliers, parents, etc. However, ultimately, it should be the librarian who makes the final decision as to whether to stock a particular resource; they are the person who knows the existing stock and where there are gaps in the collection, they know the school demographics and students’ interests, they know their readers, and they know the curriculum. Schools need to use their librarian’s experience and knowledge when it comes to collection management.
The section talks about involving others. The majority of school librarians connect with their students to ensure any requests and interests are included in the collection – obviously within reason and assessing for cost effectiveness and suitability. Teacher requests are also taken on board although I find many are unaware of new publications that might be useful within their subject and, in the past, I have ordered requested items only to find, when they arrived, that they were teaching rather than library resources. I soon learnt through this experience!
Promotion is also mentioned and the guidance points out that these activities are to “raise awareness, encourage understanding, improve accessibility and increase library usage” (p29) rather than promoting a particular belief or opinion. I recently saw a post on X (aka Twitter) where a US school librarian said they didn’t put up any Christmas decorations as it wasn’t inclusive. If you follow this thinking through then you also wouldn’t have any displays around Diwali, Hanukkah or the Chinese New Year; surely “inclusiveness” doesn’t mean not celebrating anything but rather including “everyone”? So find out what your school demographics are and make sure you feature displays throughout the year that reflect their festivals and celebrations – this way students will feel welcomed in the library.

·         Public internet access and public spaces: These sections aren’t quite so relevant to school libraries. School internet access will be filtered with many websites blocked (I can remember a student undertaking a project on breast cancer who couldn’t even access the major charities from the library computers) and the school will have its own IT use policy/agreement that all students and parents sign. Likewise, the school library is not a public space; even if the school runs community activities, these are likely to occur outside of school hours when students are not present.

·         Events and activities: Both public and school libraries organise and run a wide range of events and activities. In schools these are often linked to in-house, local or national events and most librarians will have an annual programme designed to entice the school community to engage with the library and to promote sections of the collection. This section (p37 – 45) has a list of possible suggestions that school librarians may find useful, along with some guidance around planning, promoting and evaluating activities and events that could easily be adapted for school library use.

·         Managing challenge: The guidance states that “when considering how best to manage challenges to library services, it is always helpful to work with the governing institution – whether that is a local authority, school board or prison governor (p46).” It really is vital that you have the support of your Headteacher and governing body with regards to your Collection Development policy and procedures for dealing with any challenges. Without this support, you are likely to be one small protesting voice, which could feel rather daunting. If you’re not sure how to approach this, why not write a draft policy and discuss it with your line manager, raising the US book banning situation and the increase of such incidences in the UK. Librarians who have spoken to their Heads about this have reported that the Head had no idea and was shocked, immediately getting involved in creating a procedure for any challenges. If you’re not sure where to start I’ve written a blog about creating a Collection Development Policy.

This is an extremely relevant and beneficial document, and the above is a brief overview. It is unlikely your SMT will read it as they will see it as being aimed at public libraries and thus not relevant to the school library so it may be on you, the school librarian, to extract the pertinent points. At the very least, it will provide you with valuable CPD reading to increase your knowledge around managing a safe and inclusive space – and there’s also lots of links to websites for further investigation.