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  • Writer's pictureDonna Brown

Middle school library then vs. now

Between Us - courtesy photo

There has been quite a bit of controversy lately about books in school libraries. Books that school systems deem appropriate and parents feel are pornography. As an experienced middle school librarian, a believer in free speech and opposed to banning books, I have one concept that I feel schools should embrace, “Age-appropriate selection.”

Unfortunately, some teachers feel it is their duty to indoctrinate and enlighten students on social issues, and some librarians who believe it is a sign of inclusiveness to have drag queens read to preschoolers. I fear we have totally lost our way.

I became librarian in the late 1980s. Our library was stagnant with nonfiction books on the shelves from the ‘50s and ‘60s. As I took to weeding the shelves my favorite example was an astronomy book that stated, “Some day man will walk on the moon.”

Funds at that time were very meager so I ordered nonfiction books that teachers asked for to supplement their class curriculum. I ordered books on etymology for John Weissner’s English classes, books on pond life and trees for Pete Suhmann and books on American History for Pat Alvino. There was little money left for fiction and I was very careful about my choices.

When it came to controversial books in schools, I must relate a few personal stories. As a sixth-grade teacher in the 1970s, I had an extensive library in my classroom. One day I was called to the principal’s office and was told that a parent reported I was offering my students “smut” to read. I was flabbergasted. He said the parent reported that the word damn was in it, once, and at the end of the book the seventh graders kissed. I was told to remove the book from my classroom, and I did.

Oh, times have changed, but let me stay in the past. When I began in the library in the brown brick building on Central and Vine, I often heard kids giggling between the book stacks and I soon realized they were either sharing pictures of Roman sculptures or the sex ed books.

Let me describe the sex education books that were in the library at that time. Written in the ‘60s or ‘70s, they dealt with puberty and hygiene, and very little about sex. The few pictures in the books were drawn and were very vague. Once again, I was called to a different principal’s office to show him the books a sixth-grade parent had complained about. He smiled and said to have them behind the desk and to make them only available to eighth graders. A few years later they were moved back into circulation.

I still had commotions in the book stacks, so I came up with an addition to my first-day orientation. This is what I said to the students in a loud whisper, “I want to tell a secret about the library. We have books with naked people in them.” A low murmur and stifled laughter could be heard across the room. I continued, “Yep, naked people. Some are in the art section and are photos of paintings and sculptures that are very old and worth millions of dollars.

Some are sex ed books. Yep, I said the word sex.” Loud laughter now shook the library.

I went on to say, “You are allowed to read these books, you can even take them home and share them with your parents over dinner.” By now several kids had fallen off their chairs with hilarity. Take in mind they didn’t know me and were new in the middle school.

I ended with this, “Here is what you are not allowed to do. You can not hold up a book in the middle of the library and yell across the room, ‘Hey Louie, take a look at this!’ And you can’t make copies on the library copy machine for five cents apiece and sell them for 25 cents each at lunch.” After that all went well in the library.

In 2005, I had extra money in the budget and decided to order a set of Newberry Award winning fiction books. We had sets of Newberry books from the 1970s which were now considered modern classics. The American Library Association recommends these as age-appropriate for middle school students. I trusted their judgement and ordered the twelve books.

When they arrived, I decided to read them for content. They were all dark filled with sex, violence, cutting, suicide and murder. I did not put any of them on the shelves. My judgement was that they were not age-appropriate for Hammonton children, and yes, they are children in middle school.

It brings us to what is in our school classrooms and libraries today. Does the administration and do the school board members actually know what books are in our schools? Are our schools emphasizing math, reading, science and social studies or caring more about indoctrination of social issues? I don’t really know, do you?

Donna Brown is a former Hammonton Middle School librarian and a columnist for The Gazette. To reach Donna Brown, send an email to


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