Supporting a Colleague Facing a Challenge

Q: Recently there was a book challenge at the library in a neighboring community. I thought often about contacting the librarian in the middle of it all but didn’t know if it would be welcome. How can I help a colleague who is facing a challenge?

We’re so glad you are thinking about this. It is probably a safe bet that no one understands more what a school or public librarian is going through during a challenge than another school or public librarian. Even if you’ve never experienced a challenge on the job, you understand the professional principles of intellectual freedom and access to information that informs your work. And if you have experienced a challenge, then you know firsthand the frustrations and fears that can arise.

So we absolutely encourage you to contact and offer support to a colleague who is dealing with a materials challenge. As to what kind of support you offer, there are several things you might do:

1. Send a note of thanks and support, or call your colleague on the phone. Be mindful of communication issues. If you call the librarian at work, s/he may not be in a position to talk about what is happening even if they are available to take the call. E-mails at publicly funded institutions are subject to open records laws. Sending a note, labeled “personal,” via U.S. mail to the library or school or to the person’s home address (if you know it) may be the wisest and easiest way to show support.

What do you say when you write or call? Well, do you admire the way the librarian shows respect for the person challenging the material while defending intellectual freedom and the right of members of the community to make their own choices? Are you impressed with her/his articulate response to the media or ability to remain calm under pressure? Say so!

When you do make contact, think about including your home phone number and inviting them to call.

2. Listen. Offer to be a sounding board, especially if you’ve been through a challenge yourself or know the librarian well already. Being at the center of a challenge can be incredibly stressful, so let the librarian know you are willing to listen if she/he wants to talk. But don’t make this offer without understanding the need for confidentially that is inherent in doing so. And don’t offer to listen and then give advice instead. If you’re asked for advice, then you can offer it (if you are knowledgeable on the issue), otherwise, focus on actively listening.

3. If you live in the community where the challenge is occurring, don’t wait to contact the librarian: Speak up as a citizen and voice your support for the library (or school) and the principles of intellectual freedom. This might include speaking at a hearing and/or writing a letter that articulates the importance of libraries having materials that meet the needs of everyone the library serves. It might also include commenting on the importance of evaluating a work as a whole rather than singling out individual words, passages, or scenes. It might mean circulating a supportive petition signed by other citizens.

You can speak as both a professional and as a member of the community. For example, you might say, “As a librarian myself I know that a core value of library service is the freedom to citizens to read and make choices, and a core goal of library service is making sure there is a wide range of materials to meet the many and varied needs and interest of individuals in the community. Our community is so much more diverse than any single one of us may know. I’m so happy to have a library that not only respects my rights as a citizen and my interests as a reader by offering so many choices to me but also to everyone else in our community.” If the challenge is in a school library, you can speak to the same issues as they apply to students the school library serves.

You can also do a lot to educate others in the community about intellectual freedom and libraries, through informal conversations with friends and neighbors, or perhaps at more formal community forums if the challenge is one that is garnering a lot of public debate.

4. If you live outside the community and are interested in publicly voicing your support at a hearing or in the local paper for the item being challenged, the library staff, and/or the principles of intellectual freedom, try to find out first if such “outside” support would be welcome. Challenges are local issues. There are times when outside support for a challenged work’s place in the library may be welcome and effective, but there are other times, especially early in a challenge process, where it could cause more harm than good (e.g., boards may resent “outsiders” telling them how to run the library or school). It’s possible there is already someone within your state library or media association who is in touch with the librarian and passing on information about what would be most helpful.

Even if you do live outside the community, you may know people who live within it. One way you can still directly impact what is happening is talking to people you know who live there. Discuss the principles at stake—from intellectual freedom to library service for all. Explain that the library is, or should be, a place of inclusion rather than exclusion–something that benefits everyone. And encourage them to speak out in support of a library that serves everyone in the community or school.

Finally, we’ve focused on challenges in libraries in our response, but keep in mind you can offer the same kind of support to a teacher or other school personnel if there is a challenge to classroom materials at a school in your community.

March, 2010