Reports of the National Center for Science Education

"Equal Time" In School Libaries?

Most evolution/creation controversies in public schools involve questions of whether "creation science" will be presented to students in the classroom or at assemblies. However, libraries are also a target of creationist efforts. For example the Idaho School Boards Association recently voted down a resolution that called for including "creation science" materials in school libraries (RNCSE 18(4):7), and some state party platforms have included planks like this one:

3.38 We support the stocking of CREATIONIST produced resources in ALL TAX funded public and school libraries. We OPPOSE the current censorship of CREATIONIST resources. (Iowa Republican Party, 1998)

NCSE has assisted school districts that were being pressed to add "creation science" books to their libraries. In 1998, we evaluated books that had been suggested for use as library "resources offering [theories] considered contrary to evolution" in a Michigan school district (RNCSE 18(3):5), and advised a New Mexico parent whose local schools were being pressed to purchase creationist books because supposedly "libraries must have materials on all controversies."

What are the facts? Is your school or public library required to purchase or accept donations of books presenting "creation science" or "arguments against evolution"? How can the appropriateness of such books be evaluated?

The Role of Libraries

Public libraries: No public library is currently required to accept donated materials, though they should use consistent policies to assess donations. A good illustration is the case of the Athens Regional Library in Oconee County, Georgia. When the library refused the donation of a subscription to the Answers in Genesis publication Creation Ex Nihilo in 1996, there was considerable public controversy, and the would-be donor announced that he was considering a lawsuit. However, the library's decision prevailed because it had been made fairly: the library staff was not attempting censorship, but had applied the same standards to the donation as they did to possible purchases. They judged that the magazine's content was too specialized for their limited shelf space. They had consulted the American Library Association (ALA), and had been advised that such decisions are generally legal when they follow policies applied to all library materials (NCSE Reports, 16(3):18-19).

School libraries: Like public libraries, school libraries have space and budget constraints, and must carefully evaluate materials whether they are purchased or donated. A school library also differs from public libraries in two important respects: it serves a less diverse community — a specific age group — and it must further the school's educational mission. According to the American Library Association:
School library media professionals cooperate with other individuals in building collections of resources appropriate to the developmental and maturity levels of students. These collections provide resources which support curriculum and are consistent with the philosophy, goals, and objectives of the school district. (ALA, 1990)
While the library should have some materials that satisfy the general reading and learning interests of students, a large proportion of material must support classroom curricula — for example, if students in the school study early American history, the library should have biographies of leading figures of the time, historical novels set in that time, and material covering various topics in greater depth than do textbooks — both to provide supplementary readings and to support research assignments. The number of such books related to any given topic is limited by the need to provide similar selections supporting other courses and teaching units.

Both civil liberties organizations and many individual school districts emphasize the importance of providing students with diverse collections that prepare them to debate social issues responsibly. However, these concerns must be understood in the context of a district's legal responsibilities and educational goals, and the school librarian's responsibility to provide materials of high quality. The ALA puts it this way:
Members of the school community involved in the collection development process employ educational criteria to select resources unfettered by their personal, political, social, or religious views. Students and educators served by the school library media program have access to resources and services free of constraints resulting from personal, partisan, or doctrinal disapproval. (ALA, 1990)
Proposed "creation science" or "evolution/creation" materials must be evaluated within this context. Even citizens who support putting such materials in the school library will not want to change district policies in a manner that would lead to filling school libraries' shelves with third-rate novels and tabloids that report UFO sightings. They can also see why it is untrue that "All controversies must be heard." "All controversies" could include everything from disagreements in neurology journals over whether pallidotomy or hypothalamic stimulation is the better treatment for Parkinson's disease, to disagreements within militias over the best way to "resist" the federal government.

Again, considerations of age appropriateness and educational value apply. To take American history as our example again: There was a controversy about adopting this country's constitution, but a book containing the Federalist Papers is at the wrong reading level for an elementary school library. It might be appropriate for the high school library — but teachers and the librarian might have good reasons to choose other controversies.

The fact is, scientific controversy over evolution died in the closing decades of the nineteenth century; it is now a political and religious controversy. Even people who believe that there is still a scientific controversy about evolution cannot deny that many "creation science" books discuss long-dead "controversies" — like the Piltdown hoax that scientists uncovered decades ago — which are too dated for library use. Books presenting religious arguments against evolution should not be brought in as part of the science curriculum; they might be considered to support critical thinking curricula in other classes, depending on the advice of teachers who may have found that other topics or materials fit better into the curriculum.

Evaluating proposed books — lessons from experience

School administrators and elected officials face many decisions and balance many legal, financial and curricular concerns while trying to satisfy a varied constituency. Some districts try to compromise by suggesting that the library obtain "nonreligious", purely "scientific" critiques of evolution. What then?

Then comes the hard work! Neither librarians nor advisory committees can evaluate proposals unless they have copies of the books in question, or substantial book excerpts and reviews from reliable sources such as scientific publications or library journals. Such information can be very difficult to obtain, and the information that is most easily available may be confusing (see sidebar, "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Number").

NCSE has published a book containing scientists' reviews of forty-two "creation science" books that are frequently suggested for school use. (See sidebar for a list of books reviewed.) In addition, we can provide reviews of other books, from our own periodicals and from other journals. Also, in some cases we can provide information about "creation science" children's books that are in the NCSE library.

Even when such information is unavailable, evaluators can use criteria and procedures based on NCSE's experience advising school districts: * Is the book genuinely scientific, or primarily religious? How can this be determined?
In some instances, the religious emphasis of a book is obvious: It is explicitly stated on the cover, in the fly leaf or introduction, in a publisher's catalog or on the website of the publisher or another organization promoting the book. Often, however, it is necessary to review the text itself. For example, the cover of one book in NCSE's collection makes no mention of religious views; it says: "...a new approach to biology in plain language.... spectacular breakthroughs in molecular biology can be combined with the widely used laws of probability reasoning.... Topics include... How DNA Duplicates Itself." The text, though, contains numerous examples of religious advocacy, such as: "The materialist must never have stood at dawn and watched the pink light begin to tinge the sky.... 'If you can see a sight like that and not worship God, you don't deserve to be called a person!" (Coppedge, 1973: 279)

When evaluators lack time to read an entire book, using the index can be a big help. Reading pages cited with these key words can help determine whether the book advocates religious views: abrupt appearance, creator, design, God, intelligence, intelligent design, purpose, teleology, teleonomy. Do not assume that finding such words in the index means the book is primarily religious! A page indexed by the word "intelligence" might discuss the evolution of intelligence, or it might argue that DNA is proof of an "intelligence" that "designed" living cells.

* Is scientific content of the book accurate and current?
Any library book about science needs to be up-to-date, unless it was specifically chosen for its value in the history of scientific thought — for example a book of readings from pioneers in their fields such as Mendel (genetics), Copernicus (astronomy), and so on. NCSE has found that many books critical of evolution do not discuss current scientific views; one book we evaluated this year had not been revised since 1982, and contained no citations more recent than the early 1960s! Checking a book's bibliography and footnotes is very helpful in assessing whether it is up-to-date. You may also find that, while a book lacks religious rhetoric, ostensibly "scientific" arguments in the book — such as claims that human tracks have been found alongside dinosaur tracks — are standard, inaccurate creationist claims for which NCSE can provide scientific refutations.

* Is the book age-appropriate and suited to students' educational level?
Ask science teachers whether students have the knowledge they need to understand and evaluate statements in a book. For example, a book requiring high school reading skills might be donated to a middle school, or a book criticizing methods for determining the age of the earth might be suggested for use by students who have not yet studied earth science.

* Does the book meet general selection criteria such as sturdy construction and reasonable availability?
NCSE has found that some books suggested for adoption are no longer in print. Evaluators can check on the book's availability by consulting Books In Print or on-line book services such as "". Some "creation science" books in NCSE's collection — especially those that are self-published — are so poorly bound that they literally fall apart in a reader's hands.


It's no news that evolution/creation controversies can become heated and emotional. In the heat of controversy, "creation science" proponents may complain in all sincerity that their views are being "censored". They may also ask rhetorically, "What are you afraid of?" The answer rests on common grounds that all parents can share, "I'm afraid the library will spend its limited budget on low quality books. If we aren't careful about library policies, the good books our kids need will be crowded out by junk!" Your school library can select books in a way that avoids censorship without sacrificing quality, and common-sense application of the criteria suggested here helps assure that your school's students will have access to the best science books available.
By Molleen Matsumura
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.