As we see more and more books being challenged in school and public libraries (indeed, ALA reported a record number of censorship demands in 2022), library staff have to consciously make the decision to not self-censor purchases out of a desire to avoid conflict. As early as 2018, librarian publications began to speak out against the harm self-censorship has on the communities in which librarians serve.
Hopefully, your library has strong selection policies that you can point to when a book is challenged and that is used to guide purchases in your organization. However, self-censorship can be more insidious than simply purchasing or not purchasing a title—will you display possibly incendiary titles?
There are the anecdotes I have heard about display complaints; like many challenged books, they often had to do with LGBTQ+ content. In these instances, items were hidden, or the book turned backwards rather than an official complaint…but I personally experienced backlash to a display in early March 2020.
I came home from work one evening and discovered that a post had gone viral on Facebook about a title on a Who Was… display at my branch. This time, the dispute was over political leanings, with an emphasis on accusing the library of promoting Communism to young children. Since I could view some of these posts, you would correctly surmise that people I knew were also involved in the uproar.
I was hurt, confused, and quite frankly angry that they did not at least reach out to me with questions. I never would have taken the book down, but I definitely could have explained the reason for the display (tight shelves of a popular series in a floating collection that we wanted to circulate) and the fact that individuals representing a range of politics are highlighted in the series. Indoctrination was not on the menu. I was working up to approaching someone when…well…March 2020. The library closed “for a week” that turned into about three months and, after that time passed, I decided to let it slide unless it overtly came up with this individual.
Last summer, after I had moved into a different position, I learned that the same book caused a customer to become so angry staff felt it had to be written up in an incident report at the same branch. Again, the Who Was… series was on display, this time because it was on the local public school’s third and fourth grade summer reading list. All titles in the series had been pulled to a more prominent section.
Again, strong policies in my library system backed up the staff’s right to display any book in the collection. A reconsideration form was offered in the second instance (the first was never brough to attention in the library, but rather went viral on social media).
Make sure you know your policies, the steps to take if a complaint occurs, and know that there is a community of librarians here who can offer support and advice.
One more thought…sometimes there are books that are popular in a community for which the librarian might have a distaste. While this is honestly another, longer blog post, I did want to bring up that food for thought. Can we as librarians censor in the “opposite” direction? I’m sure there are arguments to be made for or against. Again, nothing on this topic is easy right now.
Have you ever experienced a challenge to a display? What happened?
Today’s blog post was written by Maria Trivisonno, Family Engagement Specialist at Cuyahoga County Public Library in suburban Cleveland, Ohio on behalf of the ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This post addresses the core competencies of I. Commitment to Client Group and IV. Knowledge, Curation, & Management of Materials, VI. Administrative and Management Skills, and VII. Professionalism and Professional Development.