Dealing With a Materials Challenge


ALA’s Banned Books Week kicks off September 25 and runs through October 1. While it is a bit of a misnomer, as “banned” refers to those materials that are completely removed from the library or system, this week highlights the necessity of libraries’ and teen service specialists’ being prepared for materials challenges. No matter what you call them (challenges, reconsideration of materials, or other fancy verbiage), in reality they can be a jolt to you and your staff. The best way to handle challenges is with impartial grace and advance preparation.


When I think of those who want to challenge materials within communities, my first thought always goes to movie scenes. Those like in the original Footloose with John Lithgow playing the preacher and member of the city council of the community who, due to the death of his son, has worked to restrict what he believe to be dangerous and sinful influences from the teens- and at one point the community goes through the library and burns books. Or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when the Nazis are burning books. In reality it’s nothing that obvious or that nefarious; those who are wanting materials moved to parent sections or adult sections of the library honestly feel that these materials don’t belong in the teen and tween sections for any of a variety of reasons.

What they don’t realize is that they’re viewing these materials through one set of lenses, when as librarians and library service professionals we need to look for and build collections reflecting all facets of the community. What we also need to realize is that we look at the world through our own set of lenses, as well, and we can be our own censors.  When building collections we need to keep looking for materials that reach every aspect of the community we’re serving, even if they aren’t vocal, and even if it is outside our personal paradigm.  Personal bias has no place in your collection.


So what do you do? On a personal level, take an honest look at your community, your collection, and yourself. Is your collection harmonious with your community? Do you have diversity on your shelves? How can you change things for the better? Not every book is going to be right for every reader, but we need to make sure that if someone walks into our library we’re providing the widest range of choices we can to engage and invite tweens and teens, in order to make sure that they feel welcome and know that this is somewhere that they belong. That includes fighting for getting materials on the shelves, pulling materials that don’t fit, and listening when teens speak up about things they feel work and things that they feel don’t.

For outside challenges, make sure that you have a solid plan before a challenge hits your staff:

  • Make sure your selection policy is current and that it fits within the legal workings of your city and state codes. If it’s not, talk both with your manager and up the chain so that they know there’s an issue.
  • Have a “right for reconsideration” form (using whatever name your system chooses) available at each staff desk and make sure everyone knows where it is. There’s nothing more frustrating for a patron than being upset about a situation and then having a staff member fumble for something, and it’s unnerving for staff to be the one doing the fumbling.
  • Work with everyone involved so that they individually know the library’s policies once a reconsideration form is placed, whatever they may be. Like everything else, this is a library policy, not a personal decision, so personal feelings need to be set aside and procedure needs to be followed.
  • Ensure that your collection does not reflect anybody’s personal biases.  If you can stand up and say that your entire collection is in line with impartial selection policies, then you will have a stronger position when challenges occur, and it will be easier to remember that it is not personal.
  • Make sure that your PR has been going strong long before anything happens, showcasing all the good that the library and teen services have done for the community.

When dealing with people:

  • Breathe and keep your calm. Remember that no matter who is bringing the challenge that it’s not personal, it’s professional, and while we as teen service professionals tend to take things to a deeper level, it’s not an attack on your character.
  • Make sure that you and your staff can articulate in a clear and concise manner the library’s collection development policy and be able to do it in ways that a layman can understand.
  • Take the time to emphasize with the person and actually hear the concerns, without agreeing with them. Often it goes a long way to just listen to someone when they’re upset about an issue.
  • Encourage parents to stay involved with their tweens and teens by discussing books together.
  • Keep your manager and director informed of issues and concerns that are going on, whether or not you think they are resolved. Coming from a manager’s point of view, the last thing they need is to be blindsided by something that was supposed to be fixed, when a patron brings it to a higher level with a whole different story.
  • Work with adult services on parent workshops throughout the year, like how to raise a reader, how to read comic books and the importance of comics in reading, gaming education and theory. By sharing some of theory and library science with parents and patrons, you help them to be educated on why you’re doing what you’re doing, so they can get behind your programs and be less confused.
  • Don’t spread the stories. Talking about that person last week who wanted to ban some book can get around to another person in a different library, or get back to a patron, and rumors can spread like wildfire. Patrons who hear rumors will think the library isn’t taking things seriously, or worse still, might organize efforts against the library.

Once you get a challenge:

  • Follow the policy to the letter. Get the form filled out, and make sure everything is proper.
  • Make sure the patron understands and feels that they are being taken seriously.
  • Let your manager and director know and escalate as appropriate.
  • Find reviews and other supplemental material to support your selection of the material for the collection.
  • Breathe. It’s not personal, but it can get nasty, and it is likely to feel personal.
  • Remember your support group and reach out as necessary.
  • De-stress as often as you need to.

Need sample questions and answers to practice on? Try here. Need other resources? Go here.

Have you dealt with a formal challenge?  What about an informal decimation of your collection, such as materials checked out by adults from the teen or youth section and never returned, books blacked out, or illustrations colored on or covered up?  Share your stories with us!




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