Requests to Purchase “Propaganda”

Q: My public library has received several requests to purchase books that are outside the scope of what we would typically collect. The request is for a subscription book series designed for the consumer (home) rather than library or school market. They are also written from overtly conservative perspectives around a number of common social and social justice issues, such as gender identity and Black Lives Matter. In other words, they’re propaganda. Several board members are aware of the request and pressuring me to purchase them and I am not sure what to do.

There’s a lot to consider in your question, but the bottom line is this: As with anything in your collection, the decision you make should be supported by your collection development policies and procedures. You will want to reference the selection criteria for adding materials to the collection, and also the patron request policy, in your decision-making. (Regarding the latter, Does your policy direct  the library to automatically purchase patron requests*, require there be a certain level of demand, and/or evaluate all requests according to its selection criteria?) We suggest you also review your gift policy, because while this particular situation began with a patron request, it could just as easily come up with a donation to the library.

We’ll address the concerns you bring up with the caveat that we don’t believe there is a right or wrong answer to your question about what to do, but rather various factors to consider in arriving at a decision, remembering, again, that as with any selection decision, you should be able to defend what you decide to do based on the criteria and guidelines outlined in your selection policies and procedures.

*not considered professional best practice

Format and Audience 

You are right that many libraries do not typically collect materials aimed at the home market when it comes to books. This is not to say libraries never purchase subscription materials aimed at home consumers, or books in a series. Magazines for both children and adults are common in public library collections, as are series books, from paperbacks like The Babysitters Club to series non-fiction with durable library bindings. So format and audience considerations don’t necessarily rule out this type of purchase unless your policies and procedures exclude purchasing books that are distributed through a subscription service.

You can also check to see if the material is available through interlibrary loan from other libraries in your system.

Another thing to think about is whether the publisher requires that the library would commit to purchasing all or a certain number of titles, or if you can buy one or more selected, individual books. Because these are books, not issues of a magazine, which means that, as with books from any publisher, you should be able to pick and choose from among the publisher’s offerings.

The Books’ Messaging

Your concern that the books are “conservative” and “propaganda” is trickier to navigate. The definition of “propaganda” includes intent to mislead or harm. Does your library policy prohibit propaganda or materials with the intent to harm? If so, is there guidance on how to determine what it is? This is important because anything can be labeled “propaganda” or “harmful” by those who don’t agree with the content or ideas in the work.^ For example, trade books published for children and teens featuring transgender characters, or about being transgender or nonbinary, offer essential visibility, as well as affirmation and information, but there are some people who consider such books harmful.

Library collection policies typically articulate the goal of collecting materials offering a wide range of perspectives and reflecting the plurality of our society. What you describe as the “conservative” underpinnings of each book may be a reason to consider purchasing at least one or two in this series.  Ideally you can assess them individually and decide if there are specific titles that fit into specific areas of the collection. You don’t mention whether the books are fiction (picture by book stories, readers  or novels) or informational. But thinking in terms of these individual areas of the children’s collection, consider whether there are titles in the series that appear to fill a gap. If not, do they align to other selection criteria?

As you evaluate the books in light of what’s already in your collection, we think it’s important to keep in mind that while picture books and fiction in a library collection created for a child audience should collectively reflect many different lives and experiences, labels like “conservative” and “liberal” apply to points of view, not people’s lives. So a picture book or novel is not “liberal” simply because it reflects “diverse” lives and experiences, such as LGBTQ families, transgender children, or children who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color. Your collection likely already includes many books that reflect the lives of white children, children whose parents are not LGBTQ, and children who are not transgender.

^We don’t want to minimize the very real harm that a transgender child might experience if they encounter a book that sends the message that there is something “wrong” with them.

Board Pressure

Finally, we want to address the pressure from board members. We do understand that a library may consider purchasing such titles to ease pressure–whether internally, from your board, or from members of the community. But that is not a justifiable reason to purchase any material —collection decisions must be based on criteria outlined in the selection policy and procedures. In the case of a patron request or gift, those policies and procedures are also relevant.

In the moment, it can be hard to address the fact that board member pressure to purchase specific materials or to deviate from policies and procedures when it comes to selection decisions is inappropriate. But we encourage you to consider doing two things: First, if your board chair is not one of the people pressuring you and you feel they’d be open to a discussion, talk with her or him about what’s happening. There may be an opportunity for the chair to remind everyone on the board about board roles and responsibilities. Second, develop a response for these board members pressuring you that is professional, courteous, and pointedly informative regarding your policies and procedures. For example, “Thank you for sharing your thoughts. As with all selection decisions, whether through patron request, gift, or ongoing selection, we’ll be weighing a variety of considerations outlined in our selection policies and procedures to arrive at a decision that we can stand behind if someone raises a concern.”

And then do exactly that. Because whatever you decide, you should be able to support your decision based on what is outlined in your selection policy, as you would for any material in the collection.

October 2023

Thank you for Tessa Michaelson Schmidt, Shannon Schultz and Caitlin Tobin for contributing to this response