Most Important Thing in Responding to Materials Concern or Challenge

Q: It seems like I’m hearing about challenges happening in many places right now. I’m trying to make sure we’re prepared in case it happens here. What do you think is the most important thing to do when responding to a complaint about or challenge to materials? 

It’s great you are being proactive about making sure your library or district is prepared. 

Because concerns and challenges are often emotional situations, staying calm, being a good listener, and knowing your library or school’s process for handling these situations are all critically important. Being prepared for this part of your job in advance can help you with all three.

In the bigger picture, however, we would say the most important thing is this: Follow your institution’s board-approved policies and procedures for responding to concerns and challenges. Ideally, the local, board-approved policies and procedures lay out a thorough, thoughtful process for reviewing the complaint and arriving at a decision that considers the material and concern in the context of the mission and goals of the library and how and why the material was selected. 

We know that this is something most librarians already understand, but it’s critical that everyone involved in responding to a complaint knows how important this is.

Why is following board-approved policies and procedures so essential? Doing so:

  • Ensures a consistent process for responding to a complaint regardless of who it comes from or what it’s about
  • Respects the rights of everyone in the community being served
  • Avoids the controversy that comes with abandoning responsibilities
  • Upholds expectations that board-approved policies and procedures will be followed

Ensuring Consistency

It doesn’t matter whether a concern was raised by a parent, a student, a staff member, an administrator, or a member of the school board; it doesn’t matter whether the complaint was initiated by a single person, ten people, or an organized group. The process for responding to a concern or complaint about materials as outlined in the policies and procedures applies to them all.

Likewise, it doesn’t matter what topic the concern is about. Perhaps the material in question is considered too scary, or too mature, or “inappropriate”; maybe the material is being questioned because it’s considered biased or racist. Whatever the issue being raised, the process for responding to a concern or complaint about materials as outlined in the policies and procedures applies.  

Respecting Rights

The consistency that comes with following board-approved policies and procedures helps guarantee no individual or group, and no single perspective, is given favoritism. The least vocal, or least visible, members of a community have the same rights as the most visible, or most vocal, and libraries serve them all. 

It’s also critical to note that children and teens have the First Amendment right “to receive information.” Several years ago the American Library Association (ALA) provided a reflection and analysis of one of the most significant court cases affirming such rights. The ALA also has a summary of significant First Amendment court cases, applying to both minors and adults. 

Do individual parents and guardians have the right to decide what they want their own children reading? Yes, and conversations between adults and their children provide critical guidance as kids make choices, not just about what they may choose to read but about many other aspects of their lives. But the rights of an adult to put expectations or limits on what they want their own child reading doesn’t extend to limiting what other people’s children can read, and that’s what material challenges are determining: what every child or teen in a community a library serves will have access to.

Avoiding Controversy

Whether the desire is to quietly make an issue go away or to appease a vocal individual or group, sometimes the process outlined in policies and procedures for handling a materials complaint is subverted in the hopes of avoiding controversy. The irony is that doing so invites greater controversy. 

In addition to abandoning responsibility for following board-approved policies and procedures, those who do this have abdicated their authority by turning all power over to the complainant. They have failed to respect and protect the rights of others in the community. They have set a dangerous precedent, and it’s unlikely to remain a secret. Whoever raised the concern will likely remember and share with others how easy it is to remove materials from the library. 

Upholding Expectations

Finally, public libraries and school districts are expected to follow their board-approved policies and procedures. Doing so not only protects the rights and interests of everyone involved in and impacted by a materials challenge, but it protects the institution itself from potential legal challenges that can arise in not following them and maintains the integrity of the institution.

Leaning into the Challenge

Those who raise concerns about library materials may have little understanding of the library’s mission and goals, of the board-approved policies and procedures that provide the guidelines and criteria for choosing materials, of the critical concept of the library as a place of choice serving everyone in the community, or of the principles of intellectual freedom that are foundational to the work. And while there’s never a bad time for education and advocacy, a concern or challenge is also an opportunity to share information about the library’s commitment to providing a collection of materials to support its mission and meet the varied tastes, needs, and interests of everyone in the community it serves. Perhaps considering the role of choice or the rights of others, or better understanding how and why books are selected for the collection, will make a difference to the person raising the concern. 

Or perhaps it won’t, and that’s ok. 

They do make a difference to the work you do and the community your library serves.

Someone who challenges a book or other material is exercising their right to do so. Librarians, educators, administrators, and boards should understand that responding to such challenges is part of their job. They have a professional responsibility to follow board-approved policies and procedures so the specific material in question can be reevaluated in light of the concern raised, using the library’s guidelines and criteria for materials selection as outlined. 

It doesn’t mean there won’t be stress or uncertainty when or if a challenge occurs, but knowing there is a process in place, and staff and board members committed to following that process, is one way to reduce both. 

Update: In December, 2021, The Wisconsin Association of School Boards published “Setting Library Policies,” an article School News that underscores the importance of library policies, and planning ahead to be prepared for a challenge.

October 2021

Updated December 2021

Thank you to Monica Treptow for contributing to this response.