Social Justice Library?

As one who loves libraries, I was appalled at what happened to the library at Pescadero High School last year. Without consulting other teachers, two in the middle school and the “Friends of the Social Justice Library” completely eliminated the existing library. In an act of extreme censorship, ALL the books were boxed by aides paid to write the titles on a piece of paper to add to the box (with no semblance of organization). The boxes were first piled in a classroom, then eventually in the hallway – waiting for the dumpsters?

The wooden bookshelves were trashed, replaced with Chinese pressboard of dubious dimensions. The new paint job is nice, but the charming fireplace heater was ripped out. On the too-deep shelves were placed “social justice” books donated (grant?) by the HMB Library. Teachers who attempted to add books to the shelves were told they could not. Such additions needed to be approved by the “Friends of the Social Justice Library.”

What about math & science, history & literature, art & picture books, periodicals & reference books, anthologies & technical manuals? In any case, here are the former shelves that could/should have been repurposed…

Perhaps I myself am more disappointed by these actions because I donated hundreds of books to this library not long after moving here. In fact, a large part of one whole wall in the library had books I brought from SoCal, many about ecology and environmental studies, nature, horticulture and climate change.

However, I recognize that the library needed sorting, organization, and more than a little culling. Disruption can be good, and reset buttons can be wonderful.

Jumping to the current situation as I write here in July 2021, Jennifer Freeman & I, with the help of five students, sorted through all the books you will see below – when the books were taken back out of their boxes and displayed in the hallway. There is a big pile of re-boxed books for donation or elimination in the Multi, a large collection of books is in my Social Studies room 8, and Jennifer has some in her room. Here are just some of the original huge number the boxes piled up (in what used to be part of the library, repurposed as a career center)…

Officially, I have held my tongue. I’ve made some comments here and there, and spoken at length with colleagues, but I’ve held off on a formal complaint. I’m hoping my proposal to build shelves in the space opposite (former library area, then college/career center) and populate them with the rest of what should be in most school libraries. Nonetheless, as this situation played outside my classroom door, I speculated. This from months ago…

  • Were teachers consulted? Was the school community consulted? While improvement of the facility and an inventorying of the books are appreciated, common courtesy, not to mention a collaborative exploration of educational goals, would seem to necessitate a process that respects the ideas of our faculty, students, and others?
  • What is a “Social Justice Library,” and does it preclude other topics? What goes in the math & science sections? What goes in the arts & humanities sections? What reference materials are – and are not – there? What about social injustice? If doctors study disease (and educators should study stupidity), shouldn’t students learn some hard history?
  • What is to become of the boxed books? Is this censorship? Fahrenheit 451? All those classic titles and reference books, are they trash? All those books about ecology & environmentalism (along with others I donated), garbage? All those National Geographics (great for multiculturalism!), adios? Was there nothing socially justicey already there at all?
  • Speaking of which, did the grant – which is funding this new library – pay our employees to fill those boxes? Where did the grant come from? What book titles is it providing? Where do these titles fit in the standards-based curriculum which we are supposed to deliver? What metrics will determine the success of this initiative? We should all be curious!
  • I’m sorry if I sound like a complainer. However, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr. were complainers, and thus do a post my theses from the Birmingham jail of not having a seat at the table. Where is the suffrage, the respect? Where is the consensus building? Where is the collaboration and common purpose? Where is the justice? 

Eventually, the boxes of books were piled in the hallway. Then, tables were brought out, and students unpacked the books. Please note some of the titles…

Perhaps I’m being a bit too comprehensive, but this little drama has unfolded over some months and the ironic injustice of the whole thing compels my attention. Jennifer has spoken eloquently in meetings and in writing concurring with my sentiments. In an email chain between her, our Principal, and myself, I added these comments…

  • I’m trying to be solution oriented. “Disruptions” can be good. An overhaul was needed. If my suggestions can be implemented, then we can crawl from the wreckage of this egregious fiasco into a brand system for our students. 
  • It is wrong – a lie – to say that the books were not being used! Every year I taught English, I’d take the kids in there to pick a book for SSR or book reports. Did anyone ask? Teachers were not consulted. The ENTIRE library was removed – with no system other than to make random lists (at the cost of how many paid hours)? 
  • Except for the fire, this was censorship straight outta Fahrenheit 451. I’m reminded, not of Kristallnacht, but of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the destruction of the “four olds.” And then I hear teachers cannot add to this “Social Justice” library without approval from the Friends of Communism Party? Shady!
  • What was saved from the flames, the dumpster? Books about Native Americans and indigenous people, about slavery and famous African Americans, books about Mexico, Mexican Americans, and Latino American history, about the struggles for equality, rights, and empowerment for many different peoples, and many books about ecology and the environment, etc.
  • There was no void. Power structures? Please. Catering to the lowest common denominator, to student whim, to “high interest” at the expense of academic rigor – this will only disempower our students. They will be armed only with their indignation, and they will not know how or why we got here – nor how to take themselves somewhere else, somewhere higher.
  • Further, serviceable bookshelves made of real wood were added to the landfill. Chinese pressboard (of awkward dimensions) took their place. Was any consideration given to how we vote with our wallets? The Chinese got over their Cultural Revolution, but what about their current take on “social justice”? Smells like mindlessness or hypocrisy, either way it stinks.
  • I agree with Jennifer and the several other teachers who look with disdain on these actions, and others should know of this injustice, but again, like everyday, I’m trying to make the world a better place. To do that we need another place to put books. I’ll build the shelves if I may. I’ll organize the books according to the UDC (and teach the implicit bias of the DDC).
  • I propose consolidation – making all the “keepers” also “sellers.” If I can implement my “Applied Economics” course, we can start to put this other library on the market. Not only will the system get systematized, the students will learn the value of books in more than one way. The funds raised will subsidize Outdoor Ed., Senior Trips, and other student activities…

Perhaps I’ll update this post (or make another) when/if the idea of adding some shelves to the library becomes a reality. In the meantime – and at this time – the books I wanted to save from elimination are here, stored in my classroom, awaiting reorganization using UDC

I should update this post with pictures of the new “Social Justice Library,” it does look nice. In fact, I don’t want to mess up what’s been done or impose my version of that vision. All I want to do is build another shelf in the adjacent space and provide students for years to come with a more complete school library. Hopefully, there will be more to “check out” in the months to come. Thanks for sharing your thoughts…

One thought on “Social Justice Library?

  1. I’m so glad you’ve documented this crazy scheme. I’m perplexed as to why you have been denied the opportunity to build new shelving, a great compromise. I, however, think it’s more important to insist on integrating books back into the library; otherwise, we run the risk of this cancel culture continuing to remove anything that comes from the “outside.”

    Perhaps it’s time to share this situation with greater, more influential organizations?



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