Respecting the Right to Challenge Materials

Q: Sometimes when I read about why someone complained about a book, I want to roll my eyes. Obviously, I won’t do this if I’m faced with a challenge, yet moving from understanding that someone has the right to complain to embracing an individual’s right to do so seems like a big leap. What is the best way to handle the people who challenge materials, both personally and professionally?

What a great question. You acknowledge the very real difference that may exist between our personal feelings and how we professionally respond to a concern or challenge situation.

If someone raises a question with you or challenges In the Night Kitchen because of the nudity, for example, you might want to laugh. You might think, “Are you kidding? It’s a naked little boy! There are far worse things on the billboards on Main St.!” That’s ok, as long as those are only thoughts you have and not things you actually say. In other words, you need to find a way to separate your very human personal reaction from how you professionally respond.

Your professional response will be informed by the principles of intellectual freedom, which not only affirm the right for the book to be on the shelf, but also the right for someone to question or challenge its being there. It will be further guided by the policies and procedures in place at the library where you work, and any steps it outlines for resolving concerns/complaints both informally and formally. Both the principles (and policies, ideally) guarantee due process will be applied to all concerns that arise.

Aside from policies and procedures, however, we think it’s important to remember three things:

(1) Most (but admittedly not all) people who raise concerns about books or other materials aren’t on a mission to ban books. They are genuinely concerned and want to protect children and/or teens from something they have deemed is upsetting or inappropriate.

As a professional, you need to acknowledge their concern, but you also should try to inform them about the scope and purpose of the library collection. Look for a way to connect with the person and share this in a way that invites reflection. You might say, “Thank you for sharing your concern with me. . . . I find that one of the biggest challenges our library has is making sure we have books and other materials that reflect the many different interests and needs of the people living here (or going to school here). We work hard to make sure every individual and family can find a variety of things to meet their tastes and needs; at the same time, we know that not every book will be one that every individual or family appreciates. But the library is about having choices, because we know that something one person doesn’t like might be the perfect thing for someone else.”

Upon reflection, some may understand that while they have every right to decide what they want their own children reading, they don’t have the right to determine what other people’s children have access to.

(2) People who challenge books are not the people who ban books. Challenges are brought by individuals (or occasionally groups). But the outcome of a challenge is determined by those who have been given the authority to decide, whether that’s an internal review committee or library or school board. (And sometimes by those ignoring policies and procedures and taking action on their own but, again, these are still individuals who have some level of authority in the library or school, not the challenger.)

(3) Someone who challenges a book or other material is simply exercising their democratic right to raise a question. We can’t uphold the principles of intellectual freedom for libraries without also affirming the rights of library users. It’s a two-way street.

Back to your personal feelings: Even respecting the right of someone to complain, you may find yourself frustrated, or even defensive or angry, on a personal level. Again, you are only human. You may need to eye-roll or vent or even just process what is going on, but you still need to be professionally responsible. That means you don’t do it on the job or in any public venue. You do it in private, with one or two people you trust.

Finally, an excellent article we recommend on the topic of how we view complainants is “Buddha at the Gate, Running” by James LaRue, which originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of “American Libraries.”* (Wisconsin residents: you can get it full-text in Badgerlink!) Although LaRue writes as a public librarian, his perspective is applicable across all types of libraries.

*LaRue, James. “Buddha at the Gate, Running: Why People Challenge Library Materials.” American Libraries v. 35 n. 11 (December 2004): 42-44.

October, 2011

(Thank you to Tessa Michaelson Schmidt for contributing to this response.)