Blogger Intellectual Freedom Committee

Is It a Complaint or a Challenge??

“Uh, oh!! That patron looks mad!” I remember thinking as they walked determinedly toward the desk early on a Saturday morning. (Any time on a Saturday morning has always been “early,” as far as I’m concerned.) It quickly became clear they were impervious to my welcoming smile and upbeat greeting, and were kicking up quite a flurry of dust balls from the wind they were creating by waving a book in the air. You’ve probably already guessed where this is going: they were unhappy about a book their kid had checked out several days before. Unhappy? More like furious, steaming, aggrieved, and irate. And on the inside I was panicked: looks like today is when a book will be challenged in my library!

But was it really? Was there about to be a challenge that required the implementation of policy, or a collaboration between a children’s librarian and a concerned parent?

I remember that long-ago weekend shift well, and while it’s clear from the recently wrapped up Banned Books Week, and the experiences of some readers of this blog, that there are times when a patron complaint does indeed become a formal call for a removal of a title from a collection, it didn’t happen on that particular Saturday. And I learned from that about the importance of not jumping to conclusions when a patron shares their concerns, however blunt or threatening they may be. It is important to keep calm and not consider every complaint to necessarily be censorship. Many institutions’ policies define a challenge as a very formal process with specific procedures that are only put into action after conversations between librarians and patrons, and many times those conversations can create understanding and convey respect for all readers, rather than foster a costly conflict.

Careful and purposeful terminology is important when discussing such important issues with patrons as well as referring to incidents internally, and for the times that concerns and complaints do become official challenges and literal censorship, it is an important role of ALA and ALSC to help members feel supported. Of course a vital component is being prepared with a policy addressing such situations and, again, ALA and ALSC are here to help with resources on developing those policies and procedures and supporting intellectual freedom through programming.

The next time you’re faced with responding to a patron’s concern about something in your collection:

  • Be Courteous: Listen with an open mind and refrain from being defensive.
  • Practice Compassion: While ALA’s Library Bill of Rights is a foundational document for intellectual freedom work as, again, is your own institution’s policy, don’t necessarily dive right into quoting policy in a way that may raise the patron’s defenses by making them feel like they’re not being heard.
  • Don’t Commiserate: Even if you personally agree with the patron and hate that particular book, it will be more professional and productive to redirect them to other material that will be helpful to them, just as the material in question may be helpful to someone else.
  • Communicate with Colleagues: Make sure your boss is up to speed on what happened and how well you handled it.

Much more practical support can be found on ALA’s How to Respond to Challenges and Concerns about Library Resources page.

Andrew Medlar is the Director of BookOps for Brooklyn Public Library and New York Public Library, checked out his very first book as a kid from the Dayton Metro Library, and served as a children’s librarian and youth materials specialist at Chicago Public Library. A Past President of ALSC, he is currently a co-chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee. 

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