Administrators, faculty and staff, parents, students, and community members have the right to express concerns about or formally challenge a library resource and request its review. Those who express concern should be treated courteously and addressed with respect. Listen to the individual. Try to determine the specific reason for concern and the action the person would like the library to take. Do not make promises and do not appear to agree with the person.
If the individual wants the item removed from the collection, point out that although the person may be offended or concerned, others may not have the same perspective. If the individual is concerned about a children’s or young adult resource, it is often out of concern to protect all children. Explain that it is the responsibility of each family to determine which library materials are acceptable for its children. The individual cannot make that decision for other families. Often, the individual simply wants to have his or her concern acknowledged. After the informal discussion, the complainant may be satisfied. No further action is needed except to inform the principal of the conversation.
However, if the person is not satisfied and still wants the item removed, explain the formal reconsideration process. Provide a copy of the selection policy and reconsideration form. Explain that absolutely no action is taken unless the form is completed, signed, and submitted to a school official. When the school receives the completed reconsideration form, the formal challenge process begins. When faced with a challenge, school administrators and the school librarian should follow the steps outlined in the district’s reconsideration process.
There are very specific tasks a school librarian should complete during this process. First, maintain the item in the collection during the reconsideration process. The book is being reviewed. It has not been judged inappropriate. To take it off the shelf sends the wrong message. Review the school’s selection policy and think through the reconsideration procedures. Examine the reconsideration form carefully. Look for information such as was the form completed by an individual or a group? Review the reasons for the challenge. Has the complainant read the entire work or just selected parts? What is the action requested? To remove the item, restrict its use, or move it to a different level of school library; for example, from an elementary library to a middle school library.
Prepare a one-page memo for the principal to present facts about the resource in question and discuss the situation with him or her. Gather information about the resource, such as reviews and a list of awards. Reread, view, or listen to the questioned item. Obtain copies of the challenged item for use by the reconsideration committee. Prepare packets of information with the reconsideration committee that may include reviews and awards, analysis of how the questioned item meets selection policy criteria, why the material is needed in the collection, and other items as specified by district policy.
The review committee will read and discuss the challenged work, prepare report, and forward it to the administration depending on the district’s reconsideration process. If not satisfied, the complainant may appeal the decision to the board of education. It will make the final decision. When the challenge ends, retain your notes about the process. Report the result to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom for their confidential records. During a challenge, seek support from colleagues, state and national library associations, and First Amendment advocacy groups. At the local level, pick a trusted confidant with whom to discuss the situation and who will keep the information shared confidential. It may be another school librarian or public librarian or it may be a friend who will lend emotional support. When the challenge becomes public, find allies to support your students’ freedom to read.
State library associations often have intellectual freedom committees who can offer support. Nationally, the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom staff provide assistance to school librarians facing challenges. A school librarian need not be a member of ASL or ALA to receive help with a challenge. Staff in the Office for Intellectual Freedom can be contacted by phone or email. In addition to ALA, another good organization to contact is the American Civil Liberties Union. They have been involved in protecting against attempts to censor school library materials and are very responsive.
The district in which I worked experienced four formal challenges in seven years and countless expressions of concern. We were fortunate that the four books that were challenged remained in the collection. However, some challenges do succeed and library materials may be removed to another level, restricted, or removed from the collection. When that occurs, school librarians need to feel that they have done their best. It is natural that some residual feeling about the challenge will remain but resolve to continue to select the books your students need.