Should I Contact Author of a Challenged Book

Q: Recently, we had a challenge to a book, and a colleague suggested that I contact the author. I ended up running out of time and never did it, and the outcome was fine (the book was kept in the library), but I’m wondering if you think this would have been a good idea.

We know that sometimes librarians and teachers do think of contacting an author when that individual’s book is being challenged. And many authors and artists have web sites that include information about their books that go beyond promotional materials. But in most instances, the type of information and support that will be most helpful in dealing with a challenge to materials in a library or classroom will not come from the author or artist of the book in question.

Think first about the fact that challenges are local issues. As a result, support for challenged materials, and for the principles of intellectual freedom, needs to come first and foremost from within the community where a challenge occurs, not from beyond it. So focus your energy on obtaining and building that support within your own community. If you are in a school and a school board hearing will be taking place, for example, make sure colleagues, parents, and students know what is happening and what they can do. You can also build support in the broader community. Start with your local public librarian. The press can be your ally as well, because media representatives know the importance of First Amendment Rights. (See ALA’s “Working with the Media” for some guidelines on speaking to the press.)

These local voices can and should have far more influence on the outcome of this local issue than the voice of the author, unless that author also happens to be a member of the community in which the challenge occurs and wishes to speak as a citizen (rather than as the author of a work about which they understandably cannot be impartial).

It is also important to remember that it is everyone’s right to question materials and it is important to respect that right and the process in place to address the concern. If there are policies and procedures in place and being followed that allow for due process and fair consideration of a request for reconsideration, we don’t think anyone’s local question about a book should become a national issue.

Think also about the information needed to defend any book’s role in a library or curriculum: professional materials that speak to the book’s merit and usefulness, and information on how the book fits into the selection policy in that specific library, or meets that specific district’s curriculum and classroom goals. You will want to obtain professional assessments: reviews in professional library and education journals, and information or recommendations from other professional sources that have the purpose of evaluating materials with library and curriculum needs in mind. This information can usually help support the librarian or teacher’s rationale for how the book fits into the selection policy or curriculum.

If you are a librarian or teacher in Wisconsin, contact the CCBC’s Intellectual Freedom Information Services to obtain this type of information. If you are elsewhere in the nation, contact the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Intellectual Freedom Center, will also be helpful for middle and high school classroom challenges.

Finally, in these days of instant access to information, blogs, and more, it’s also important to keep in mind that news travels quickly but not always reliably. If, at the time of an initial complaint, an author is contacted, that individual may, with the best of intentions, spread the word. The facts of a case can become quickly distorted or misunderstood as the information travels.

What if you are contacted by an author who has heard about a complaint against their book in your community or at the school where you work? Make sure they have the facts straight, thank them for their concern, and let them know you will keep them apprised of the outcome. Assure them — assuming this is true — that the library or school has policies in procedures in place that are being followed and that a defense that aligns that book with the selection policy or curriculum guidelines is being prepared. Are there exceptions? Absolutely, but rarely. An author may be able to provide a piece of factual information or perspective not available elsewhere that directly relates to the complaint expressed. But in most instances, at least for an initial reconsideration process, professional assessments and a defense that aligns the book in question to the library or district selection policy is what is needed, along with support from within the community.

If a book is censored — perhaps because there were not policies and procedures in place that provided for due process and fair consideration of the concern in light of the principles of intellectual freedom, or because reliable policies and procedures were not followed — then voices from beyond the borders of the local community can support those within the community.

Of course, just as any citizen has the right to question materials in a library or school, any other citizen, authors included, has the right to speak up on behalf of a specific book or the broader principles of intellectual freedom, and many authors have written articulately and passionately about those principles. We applaud their voices. But the most essential support at the time of an initial complaint or challenge will always come from the voices of the citizens of the community where the challenge occurs.

February, 2008