It doesn’t take a librarian to notice the surge in news stories about book challenges in public and school libraries, disputed materials vanishing from shelves and librarians getting fired. The stories are everywhere, but are you ready if this happens to you? Let’s flip a popular catchphrase to show that “sometimes the best offense is a good defense.”
Questions to Ask Yourself
1. When was the last time your library’s materials challenge form was revised?
Check that the language reflects current policies and revise if needed to close loopholes. The public library I work for, Sachem Public Library in New York State, serves a suburban district of more than 80,000 and has a form you can use as an example. It’s available from the Library’s main page toolbar, under an “Applications” heading, viewable after two mouse clicks.
2. How easy is this form for your patrons to find?
If it’s available in-person only, why? If it’s available online, is it in a user-friendly location?
To discover information that’s currently being provided, I looked at the websites of a wide variety of libraries from across the country. I found that many only have this form available in-person, not online. This may deter some patrons but could also inconvenience and provoke others leading to a “mad on arrival” situation between staff and patron. If the form is online, the challenge can be made without the patron being required to physically come in to the building.
Provide Your Selection Philosophy
The same library website search revealed that many libraries do not make readily available a statement regarding materials selection. Consider Brooklyn Public Library’s approach, which can be easily found by entering the words “challenged materials” in the main page search box and includes their specific Materials Selection Policy along with links to several ALA statements including challenged resources, freedom to read and labeling systems.
Pairing your library’s challenged materials form with your selection philosophy won’t avoid challenges altogether, but such transparency might stop a challenge before it happens!
The Human Element – Staff Training
Train library staff how to handle an in-person materials challenge before they happen. I’ve often found that a situation with an angry patron can be diffused simply by listening. Staff should sympathize, listen, express understanding, offer other materials. It doesn’t always work, but there are times that connecting, person-to-person, has de-escalated a tense situation.
If your library is coping with challenges from a large group, gain invaluable insights from a recent blog post titled “Grassroots 101: How to Save Your Library from Organized Censorship” written by my IF Committee colleague, Julia Nephew
To help with staff training, web resources are readily available. ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Manual lists nine practical strategies for handling informal challenges to library resources.
WebJunction is offering a webinar titled “Book Challenges and Intellectual Freedom: Proactive Planning for Public Libraries” coming up on Tuesday, May 24, 2022 from 3:00-4:00pm EST. Registration is required, but the webinar is free of charge.
A March 2022 ALA survey found that the overwhelming majority of people support libraries and their staff. 71% of voters oppose efforts to have books removed from their local public libraries. 75% said they trusted their local libraries to make good decisions about their collections and agreed that libraries in their communities do a good job offering a diverse set of books. Let’s hang in there!
Marybeth Kozikowski is a member of the ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee and works as a Librarian II, Children’s Services at Sachem Public Library, Holbrook, NY.