How do you tell a bad book from a good one? I’m sure you have some excellent ideas from your own selection techniques. You know how to select and recommend books for your readers and their individual tastes and interests. But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about what a constituent, citizen, taxpayer, parent, or child d thinks it’s a “bad” book, and it’s in your library and they want it out. What do you do when a book is challenged? There may be many of your readers who like this book, but the person in front of you with irritated look on his or her face think it’s bad, and you should do something about it.
Bullet point 7 of “The Freedom to Read Statement,” states, “It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians to give full meaning to the freedom to read by providing books that enrich the quality and diversity of thought and expression. By the exercise of this affirmative responsibility, they can demonstrate that the answer to a “bad” book is a good one, the answer to a “bad” idea is a good one.”
When a member of our committee reminded us during our meeting at Midwinter in Denver that “the answer to a ‘bad’ book is a good one,” it got me wondering which good book might be the answer to what a customer (or patron if you prefer) might consider a bad one. For example, suppose a customer complained about the dangers of witchcraft in the Harry Potter series. Would the “good” series to answer the “bad” series be The Chronicles of Narnia? Or to put it the other way around, suppose this customer was incensed by the thought of Santa Claus dolling out sharp swords, bows, arrows, and daggers into the hands of young children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, what book would answer this? Perhaps it would the story of a pacifist (and incidentally anti-fascist) bull such as The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf.
I suggest these somewhat frivolous examples of turning a customer concern and complaint into a lighthearted readers’ advisory exercise, as a way of introducing a better way to handle a book challenge, so that the person making the complaint feels heard, and that you don’t feel personally attacked.
If this hasn’t happened to you yet, it’s in your future. Something to anticipate, if not eagerly await. It’s been my experience that complaints about dirty books are not going to happen nearly as often as complaints about dirty restrooms, but they are going to happen.
First prepare yourself. Read your mission statement. If you are working in a private school library with a religious affiliation this could be quite different from the one in your local public library. In either case, it’s important to know the purpose of the library in the context of the larger institution. Read your materials selection policy which usually includes a policy and procedure for handling book challenges. If you can’t find any of these document, ask your supervisor. If he or she says they don’t exist, then strongly and politely suggest that they’re needed. If your library offers training on how to handle complaints, sign up for it. If they don’t, start looking online. The answers are out there.
Next have when the challenge comes, listen attentively to the customer, using active listing techniques such as paraphrasing what they said. For example, “I understand that you object to the Berenstain Bears series because you feel that they promote disrespect for fathers.”
This is a very important step. I clearly remember a customer complaint about a dirty book where the dirt in the book was actually an ink stain that obliterated the text on half of one page. And there I was all set to defend the 1st amendment, the Library Bill of Rights, and my institution’s selection policy. The virtue of humility is enhanced by listening.
Finally, offer the customer a Request for Reconsideration form, if they want one. Some people do not, they just want to know that you’ve heard their concern. If they do, give them a copy of the form—you were so prepared that you had one readily accessible, and explain what the next steps will be, and when they can expect to receive a reply. Then thank them for their concern for the library and the people it serves.
On the off chance that they become vocal and abusive, remember it’s not about you. They are unhappy about the book or the library policy. They have a first amendment right to gripe, or “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” In a public institution you are the government. And if your institution is a private one, it’s still good to hear them out. But if they become threatening—and I mean more than the comment, “I pay your salary”— and you feel endangered it’s time to move from listening to taking the proper security measures, which may mean removing yourself from the situation and notifying your supervisor.
When it’s all over, and no matter which way it went, notify your supervisor. Tell him or her what happened, pass on the Request for Reconsideration form, if proper, and you may want to request a break. These exchanges can be stressful, and if you are feeling shaky, that’s normal. It a normal human fight or flight response. It’s good time to calm down, and if you want to vent do that with your co-workers in the break room, not in front of the public. Always remember if the customer called you a chair, it does not mean that you are one.