School librarians want to make sure that their libraries have the books that children need to understand the diverse world they live in. And that diversity includes not only cities and farms, deserts and rain forests, whales and sharks and grizzly bears, it also includes diverse religions. So you’d expect to find religious books in school libraries.

But you’ll sometimes hear people say that the libraries at public schools can’t include religious books. Or even that librarians deliberately avoid books that feature religious characters or religious themes. Is that true? I asked Kate Olson, a public school librarian who blogs as The Loud Library Lady, to tell me how librarians handle religious topics in their collections.

Religious Materials in School Libraries

Guest post by Kate Olson

Religion in schools. Well, THAT is a push-button phrase, isn’t it?

I was reading the book Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns to my elementary library classes several weeks ago. In my preface, I told the students that they would be learning about a new religion that day. The book teaches about different terms and traditions in the Muslim faith through a beautiful color walk. After reading the story, at least one student in each class mentioned that they thought we aren’t allowed to talk about religion at school. This spurred a wonderful discussion about the difference between education about religions and cultures, and the proselytizing about religions at school.

The way I explained it to the class is that learning about religions helps us learn about our world, and is perfectly fine at school. However, preaching about religions and telling other people what THEY should believe is not okay in a public school. We had great talks about how the acceptance of all religions in the United States is a foundation of our country and one of the things that makes it so wonderful to live here. We discussed the difference between sharing that you go to a certain church and have certain family customs, and verbally condemning a classmate for not going to the same church or having the same family customs.

These are crucial conversations to have with our kids, but in public schools today so many teachers are fearful of even touching the topic of religion for fear of being reprimanded.

Religious Books in School Libraries

This brings us to the main topic of this post – religious books in school libraries. This is actually a much more straightforward issue than most would believe, due to excellent guidance from the American Library Association and prior legal situations. According to ALA statements (links below), libraries need to be places of inclusion rather than exclusion. This is corroborated by a case involving the Freedom from Religion Foundation. In this case, a school in California was found to have multiple Christian library materials prominently displayed, with a lack of materials representing other religions. A simple fix was adding materials about other religions and displaying them with the same prominence.

Supporting the Curriculum

This, however, is much more easily dealt with when it comes to nonfiction materials than fiction materials. The Children’s Cooperative Book Center from the University of Wisconsin answered a question about this topic. They discussed the difficulty in housing a large collection of “Christian fiction” in a library and being able to defend the purchase as supporting the curriculum.

CCBC also mentioned the fact that donated materials need to be vetted as closely as purchased materials because it is easy for organizations and individuals wishing to “sell” their beliefs to do so via donated books. This is an interesting situation to consider given the number of Santa Claus and Easter Bunny books filling the majority of our school libraries, including my own.

On this topic, however, proponents of these books can argue that while these topics are related to a religion, the characters themselves lean toward the fantasy realm. In that area, I do believe that an organization like Freedom From Religion could still make their case about needing a balance such as the one I attempt in my own library between Christmas and Hanukkah. The unfortunate reality is that there just are not as many quality children’s book being published about Hanukkah as there are about Christmas, leading me toward buying more winter books than winter holiday books.

Quality in Children’s Books

This leads to answering the question of what makes a quality children’s book, and how do librarians find them. As a school librarian, I have my own list of standards to follow when purchasing for and maintaining my school collections. First, I have my district’s collection development school board policy which is based heavily on guidance from the ALA statements, as well as a focus on supporting curricular purposes. Every district also has administrators with their own opinions, which librarians may or may not feel they have the right to disagree with. In the case of a need to disagree with administrators or school boards, there are organizations, such as Wisconsin’s CCBC, that support librarians and districts in the case of a book challenge.

When it comes to actual book content and the evaluation of whether a book deserves to be purchased for a library, much of that is done based on a librarian’s training in evaluating children’s literature using the message, story, illustrations, cultural and curriculuar significance and overall design. One great resource for any teacher, librarian or author is the book From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Childrens Books by Kathleen T. Horning (of the aforementioned CCBC). In addition, librarians rely heavily on reviews from School Library Journal, Booklist and Horn Book among others. Many librarians use services such as Junior Library Guild and Titlewave for collection development as well.

Balance and Diversity

Now, all of these resources are excellent, but the stark reality is simply that there are not enough books from a diverse mix of religions being published to have an equally balanced collection even just between Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths. I did a search in Titlewave, my main book source, and found the following numbers for hardcover titles for grades K-3 with a subject of each of these religions:

Muslim/Islam: 35
Judaism: 83
Christian: 198

I was absolutely SHOCKED. These numbers can definitely explain why schools are not flocking to buy religious-themed texts of ANY religion. Based on this, they would only be able to buy 35 from each religion if they are trying to find true balance between religions! If you are struggling to understand why a school may reject a donation of religious materials or is not purchasing something you feel should be purchased, please consider all of the above information I have shared.

As librarians, our job is to present our students with educational and free reading materials that represent the world we live in. The religious-themed materials must reflect the diversity of that world.

Additional Reading

Religion in American Libraries (American Library Association)

California Library Balances Books (Freedom From Religion Foundation)

The Freedom to Read Statement (American Library Association)

Library Bill of Rights (American Library Association)

Children’s Cooperative Book Center

What If…..Forum from CCBC

Teaching Tolerance – Religion-Related Articles and Lessons

About the Author

Kate Olson is a PK-12 school librarian in Wisconsin, and worked extensively in many areas of education before entering the library. She reads constantly and reads about reading whenever possible. She is also a book reviewer for School Library Journal, Net Galley and Edelweiss. Kate has 3 kiddos and a wonderful husband who put up with her having her head in a book at all times! You can find her at her blog The Loud Library Lady or on Twitter and Instagram.

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