It is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the political creep into our personal and professional lives. When I became an elementary librarian, I thought I could avoid politically sensitive topics because most of those issues are not age appropriate for my little folks. To be clear, I never bring up politically sensitive topics in my elementary lessons. As a public school librarian I recognize my role in remaining neutral when it comes to politics and my professional duties. When children ask me my opinion of President Trump or a controversial political topic, I politely decline to comment and refer the children to their parents for answers. I leave my political views to my personal time away from school.
There was a time in our country when an issue would be discussed and both major political parties would present their interpretation of the facts, debate them in a public forum, and then vote based on their conscience. I never saw either side as lying. I thought of them the same way I think of kids who get in trouble at school. Usually they will go home and tell their parents what happened but only tell the parts that make them look good. Rarely is the full picture seen in just one telling. Politics has changed so much where each side presents diametrically opposite claims. School librarians are required to guide students to verified and trusted sources of information to help students in their quest for answers and understanding. But what happens when the sources we use have their validity called into question? We find ourselves pulled into a political dilemma. Consider this hypothetical example:
Senator Smith (not real, only hypothetical) claims in a news conference that China has annexed Mongolia and is now perpetrating human rights abuses against its people. Senator Smith has made his negative view of China clear over the last year and is openly hostile toward the Chinese. Reporters from the major news organizations report that China has not annexed Mongolia. When those stories run the following day, Senator Smith claims the articles are “fake news.” Meanwhile a student asks about resources on China’s invasion of Mongolia. The librarian is faced with a dilemma. If the librarian provides the news articles and verifies the information presented in them, can the librarian now be seen as not supporting Senator Smith? In this “fake news” environment a key part of our mission of analyzing the validity of sources may be seen as making an overt political statement, which we are not allowed to do. Yet I do not know a librarian in my professional circle who would back down from providing open, valid, and sincere assistance to a student seeking information. So what are we to do in this politically charged world?
Guardians of the First Amendment
Our first duty in our work is to guard all our student’s rights according to the First Amendment. Freedom of speech is vital to the growth and security of our society. Regardless of whether we agree with information or not, we must provide access to information at all times. Good librarians will attempt to the best of his or her ability to limit the influence of personal political views and biases from the library, its collection, and its mission of guiding students to information.
Experiences like this give us great opportunities to teach the process reporters go through in creating content for publication. Words like bias, corroboration, libel, and validity are important words our students need to know. Once we equip students to talk about information the way a reporter would, they will eventually be able to draw their own conclusions.
Primary vs. Secondary Sources
A great way to help students draw the right conclusions from researched topics is to help them see the difference between primary and secondary sources. If Senator Smith still makes his claim regarding China and Mongolia, share with students information from all sources: Senator Smith’s speeches and press releases, news articles from the media, and information directly from the Mongolian and Chinese government as well as citizens who live within those countries. All the librarian has done is to guide the students to both primary and secondary sources. Any conclusions drawn or political statements made are the student’s, not the librarian’s.
Stay True to Our Values
Our values as defined by the American Library Association are in the following headings: Access, Confidentiality/Privacy, Democracy, Diversity, Education and Lifelong Learning, Intellectual Freedom, The Public Good, Preservation, Professionalism, Service, and Social Responsibility. As public school librarians our first duty is to the safety and well-being of our students. We do not have as much wiggle room when it comes to politically charged topics as do librarians in the public library system or in institutes of higher education. When children need our services as librarians it is imperative, now more than ever, that we provide exemplary service even in the face of political turmoil. We must remain neutral and guide students to information from all sides.
If we ever reach a point where information is censored and either side of the political spectrum seeks to silence any of our core values, we must fight for the First Amendment rights of all students. If we hold true to our values and play within the accepted rules of our profession, I believe we can continue to serve children professionally and without worry of unintended political consequences.