“A parent came in to the library today and challenged one of our books. Mrs. Smith wants me to remove The Kite Runner from the collection. She says it’s too violent for students.” Wait a minute, let’s analyze that statement. Did the parent really challenge a book or did she make an expression of concern? There is a difference among the terms expression of concern, challenge, and censorship and the terms should be applied precisely. Let’s clarify them and their definitions.
Expression of concern or an oral complaint means that an individual informally questioned or expressed an objection or concern about a resource in a library collection. In my opening story, the parent did not challenge the book, rather the parent made an expression of concern. So, what is a challenge? It is an attempt by a person or group to have a resource removed from the library collection. The person is not simply expressing a point of view. “I don’t like this book,” but rather the person is saying, “This book is bad and it should be removed.” A challenge begins when a person or group submits a written request to have the resource removed. The request is made using the library’s reconsideration form. The submission of the form triggers a review of the item by a reconsideration committee. In the opening scenario, if the parent went from expressing a concern to filing the reconsideration form, she has then challenged the book. She is challenging its right to remain in the collection.
So, what’s censorship? Censorship is a decision made by a governing body such as the school board or its representative like a principal to remove an item from the collection or restrict access to it based on a person or group’s disapproval of its content.
Now that we’re all using the same terminology, let’s look at why challenges occur. Challenges frequently occur because adults are trying to protect children and young adults. It may be that the individual or group is offended by the subject of the book. They may consider the book’s content disrespectful to a religion or they feel it may harm young people.
In 2014, 315 book challenges were reported to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. The majority of challenges occur in schools, both in school libraries and for classroom materials. The Office for Intellectual Freedom annually reports the titles of the top 10 most frequently challenged books. Some titles are repeats to the top 10 challenged list such as the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Reasons given for challenges to this book include anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs, alcohol, smoking, gambling, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to the age group, and violence. And Tango Makes Three has also been on the top 10 list at least four times in the last five or six years. Reason given for challenging this book are anti-family, homosexual theme, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited to the age group, and promoting the homosexual agenda.
The Office for Intellectual Freedom staff estimate that for each challenge reported, as many as four or five are undisclosed. Who challenges the most books? Between 2000 and 2009, there were over 5,000 challenges reporting to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. Parents are by far the largest group attempting to challenge and remove materials from school libraries. Over 50% of the challenges reported to ALA were initiated by parents. Parents are legally responsible and have the right to guide and control the reading choices of their children. Although some parents are concerned and want to protect their children from what they believe to be harmful or scary or inappropriate language or sexual descriptions, they should not try to remove library books, denying access to those resources for all children. In other words, parents are responsible for their children’s and only their children’s reading choices. They should accord the same right and responsibility to other parents. One parent should not make the decision of what is acceptable for other families.
Knowing that there will inevitably be concerns expressed about library resources, can you challenge-proof your library and guarantee there will never be a challenge? No, that is not possible. In reality, any book or other library resource may be offensive to someone. Therefore, it is essential to be prepared.
There are proactive steps that you can take to prepare for a potential challenge including assist with creating a material selection policy that includes a formal process for reconsideration of school library resources. Ask that the policy be officially approved by the school board. Post the material selection policy on the district’s website to inform the community of how library resources are selected. Become thoroughly familiar with the reconsideration process. Work with administrators to clarify any steps or responsibilities that are not clear. Arrange with administrators for opportunities to educate the school community about the process of selection and reconsideration of materials.
Finally, I want to point you to a tool for assessing the readiness of your school library for a challenge. It’s called the challenge-proofing your library checklist. It can be found in the supplemental materials in this workshop.