Preparing, Assessing and Responding to Book Challenges
by Ellen Myrick.
Book challenges are not confined to a specific part of the country or to a certain size of community –they have become part of the everyday life of countless teachers, librarians and administrators. To help you prepare for a challenge in your world, we have gathered the following information both from online resources and from interviews with professionals who have frontline experience.
What to do before a book is challenged:
Have a reconsideration policy in place. Angela Maycock, Assistant Director for the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, notes that a published policy helps everyone to be on the same page. Often, a reconsideration policy is part of your school or library’s selection policy.
Train your staff and/or faculty, board members, and trustees. Maycock recalls how a public library director trained the entire staff—including custodial staff—and provided them all with talking points so that they could respond to questions wherever they were. This is equally important at schools. Also, devote some time in a board meeting to talk about challenges and appropriate responses.
Post the Library Bill of Rights. Whether it’s on your website, in your building, near your circulation desk, make sure the Library Bill of Rights is in a location that is accessible and visible. Article 3 specifically refers to this issue: “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.” This applies to all libraries: school, public and academic.
When a book is challenged:
Being prepared is half the battle but the response to a challenge dictates whether you and your community win the battle for freedom of information or whether you will suffer a setback. Chuck Sherrill, State Librarian and Archivist for Tennessee, faced an organized challenge many years ago when he was the director of the Cleveland Public Library near Chattanooga, Tennessee. His experience mirrors that of many librarians but with a couple of differences that are worth noting. Here is Chuck’s advice on what to do when a book is challenged.
Hear them out—be a non-judgmental listener. Angela Maycock likened this to a reference interview—ask questions and listen to the answers carefully. It may enable you to defuse the situation at the best and at the very least, it will give you an idea of the scope of the challenge.
Invite the individual to put his or her complaint in writing. But don’t lead them to believe that their complaint will mean that the book is automatically going to be withdrawn. Encourage the individual to cite specific pages—this could help ensure that they read the book through rather than lifting passages out of context. This is especially relevant in a school situation when the challenged book is part of the curriculum.
Know the material. If their concerns continue, Chuck Sherrill encourages the library administration to read the book through themselves. Gather reviews, awards, citations, and other data to support its inclusion in the collection. Much of this information has already been gathered for the most challenged books including recent works such as The Hunger Games, notes Angela Maycock. Circulation data can also help, notes Sherrill, who muses “I see that you are the 37th person to check this book out and the first person with a complaint.”
Involve your board. Create a committee to read the book, look at the evidence, and prepare a response. Use your board’s strengths to the library’s advantage. For example, a member of his library’s board was an experienced campaign manager. When the challenge came from an individual backed by a larger group, the library responded with a concerted and successful plan of action.
While it’s easy to feel exposed and alone on the frontlines of a book challenge, there are people eager to help you and resources at your disposal. Be prepared, train your staff, and post your policies. When those preemptive measures fail, listen attentively, build your case, and remember your responsibility to your entire community.
For more information, contact the American Library Association Office of Issues and Advocacy at their website
You can reach Angela Maycock, Assistant Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, at 800-545-2433, ext. 4221, or via email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that you do not have to be a member of ALA to contact Angela—she wants to help!
You can find the Library Bill of Rights at the ALA website.
Special thanks to Chuck Sherrill and Angela Maycock for sharing their experience and expertise and their continued efforts on behalf of intellectual freedom.