“Over the years, many people have tried to ban books by claiming that they are obscene. If persons like the petitioners obtain similar orders every time they have objections to a book, it will chill the freedom to read and stifle the voices of authors and publishers. Librarians, educators, authors, publishers, and booksellers will be targeted for making available books that everyone has the right to choose to read.”
Almost every library worker will experience a challenge to their collections at some point in their careers — about books that are included, excluded, or weeded; prominently displayed or shelved spine out; unavailable in preferred formats or in a timely manner. Good faith questions and challenges typically demonstrate sincere community interest in a library’s offerings and can be a good opportunity to have an open dialogue about collection development policies, budgets, and marketing programs.
In addition to ideally positive interactions, though, there has been an upswing of widespread, organized challenges to library collections — by legislators and parent groups — often targeting specific books or categories for removal from library shelves.
The American Library Association (ALA)’s Office for Intellectual Freedom “tracked 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2021, resulting in more than 1,597 individual book challenges or removals. Most targeted books were by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ persons.” Comics and graphic novel collections, in particular, are seeing challenges at higher rates than usual, with Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir a popular target. This is due to many factors, including the comics industry’s own history of self-censorship; the medium’s visual nature, which makes it easy to take individual illustrations out of context; and the pervasive belief that comics are only for children who need to be protected from a wide range of “objectionable” content.
As this trend shows no sign of slowing any time soon, being aware of what’s happening locally and nationally is critical. Arming yourself with best practices can also help proactively address any legitimate, good faith challenges of specific books from local patrons, while providing a solid foundation for dealing with organized, widespread challenges from groups and politicians with different beliefs about what a library’s mission should be.
Plans, Policies, and Procedures
“Book-selection and reconsideration policies are meant to counter complaints and challenge attempts. Only 49% of respondents have a district selection process, but 79% have a formal book-challenge policy in place. But the policies are often ignored or circumvented.”
The first crucial step in proactively addressing possible challenges to your collection is having clear, publicly available, regularly updated collection development plans, policies, and procedures. While the process of creating and updating these documents can be daunting, they are absolutely necessary. Wherever possible, library industry terms should be defined clearly for public comprehension. Finally, each document should include the date of last revision, and by whom they were approved.
A Collection Development Plan introduces your community to the library’s goals and expertise. A well-crafted plan should lay out the library’s statement of collection purpose; define “collection” to include all relevant materials and their scope; and explain selection criteria and staff responsibility. If special collections exist, such as local history, they should also be addressed. This can also be a great place to explain donation criteria so that patrons understand that not all donated items will be added to library circulation, and also cover the de-selection process.
In addition to a formal collection development plan, your Collection Development Policy and request for reconsideration document(s) should also be publicly available on your library’s website, and at in-person service points upon patron request.
While there are ways the collection development plan and policy might overlap, there are key differences in scope:
- Collection development plans should inform readers of the library’s overall goals and provide broad generalizations of collection categories.
- Collection development policies should be more in-depth and include criteria for public objections to specific material; weeding or de-selection procedures; how physical material versus digital resource allocations are decided; and clear insights into specific collection criteria.
- The Request for Reconsideration information can be detailed within the plan or linked separately. It should be straightforward and simple, but also include broader professional best practice language, such as paraphrasing sections of ALA’s Library Bill of Rights.
Proactively Dealing With Challenges
Beyond providing information about why a book is being challenged, you may consider requiring patrons to confirm they have read the book in question before submitting their challenge, or asking them for more information, such as where they first heard about the book. When a patron cannot demonstrate relevant context for their complaint, or if the source of the original complaint source is not within the library’s service population, that’s a red flag. This additional insight lets library staff know how familiar the patron is with the book, while potentially getting ahead of any organized initiatives that might not be relevant to your library’s community.
Include a clear explanation of the reconsideration process, along with a realistic timeline for library response and action. Consider adding which levels of staff will be involved in the reconsideration, if applicable; what happens to the content in question if their challenge is supported; and what next steps are available if they are unsatisfied by the reconsideration process’ outcome.
Another recommendation for modern reconsideration requests is an expressly stated mandatory “cooling off” period during which the content in question cannot be challenged again. This proactive thinking can save staff hours and grief, while ensuring appropriate content remains in circulation for patrons to access.
NOTE: Many libraries are also opting to keep reconsideration requests at strategic in-person service points to ensure actual patrons are challenging content.
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Nurture and Engage Your Community and Staff
It takes more than just solid policies and great documentation to proactively defend library collections, especially well-organized efforts driven by larger agendas. Libraries should always be fostering, nurturing, and actively engaging its community, too.
All libraries should encourage and support advocacy networks, including Teen Advisory Groups, parent organizations, local professional organizations, and frequent program attendees, while tapping into relevant national advocacy groups for support and resources. Use neighborhood events to build and strengthen community engagement. Ideally, staff at all levels will be in contact with various groups. Arm these stakeholders with talking points, information, and resources. Be open to their questions and explain library procedures as much as possible. When library staff is transparent and readily available, community members will feel like they’re part of your team, too.
Being proactive in community engagement also ensures that when externally organized challenges are pushed into the community, they will be ready and willing to act in the library’s best interests.
One of the keys to success in all aspects of library work is positive staff engagement. Library staff at every level should understand critical policies and procedures, and be well-versed in communicating them effectively to concerned patrons. Make sure everyone knows who key contacts are, what specific procedures might entail, and how to present a united front through clearly communicated talking points. Consider including role-playing question and answer sessions in staff meetings. Remind everyone of the effectiveness of allowing patrons to vent their frustrations without taking them personally. Active listening can go a long way towards patrons feeling heard and helping them understand that the library has the community’s best interests in mind. Even if they do not agree with the outcome of a content challenge, the goal should always be transparency, understanding of all viewpoints, and widespread buy-in of decisions that align with the library’s policies and procedures.
Assign Content Experts
No single person can review and evaluate everything in a library’s collection. Organized groups seeking widespread bans of certain content are aware of this and often use it as “proof” of negligence or willful inclusion of inappropriate content.
Library staff can overcome this obstacle by assigning content experts to specific collections and/or categories. Identify relevant areas of expertise or interest, and pair staff with content they are particularly knowledgeable about or have the ability to effectively research. Ensure everyone is familiar with the content they inherit and are equipped to de-select older materials based on agreed upon weeding practices.
Have your team thoroughly review materials before purchasing, and check them again before making them available for circulation. Whenever possible, library staff should remain aware of widespread and local challenges, keeping their colleagues and other stakeholders updated as challenges progress. Facilitating a feeling of collection ownership while maintaining communication will help staff remain united against organized threats to the library’s collection.
Momentum for bans and challenges to library collections is increasing across the nation, creating a daunting road ahead for library workers. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” though. Library collections should be treated like living organisms that require regular maintenance in order to continue successfully serving their communities. Creating and updating policies; building and maintaining communication, internally and externally; and cultivating content experts are time-consuming practices but ultimately better than threats of staff firings, lawsuits, and library defunding.
Whether your content concerns are comics-specific or you have general questions about proactive best practices, the Comics Plus team is available to answer questions or connect you with additional resources.
Moni Barrette is Director, Collection Development & Publisher Relations for LibraryPass, and President for American Library Association’s Graphic Novel & Comics Round Table. As a former public library manager, Moni won the California Library Association PRExcellence Award (2018 & 2019) for library events aimed at underserved adult library users, and has proven success using comics to increase library circulation. She is a frequent panelist at San Diego and New York Comic Con, San Diego Comic Fest and Wonder-Con, hosting industry networking events and providing instruction to educators and librarians.