Contemporary Book Challenges: What You Need to Know Today

Though panics over the Internet and social media have also affected libraries, book challenges remain a perennial issue for librarians.The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom provides an amazing selection of resources librarians can use in the event of a book challenge. Many of these resources, such as reconsideration policies, have been useful guides for many years.

However, there are some aspects of contemporary challenges that complicate the conventional wisdom many of us gleaned in library school, and complement the resources of the ALA. Below are some ways that contemporary challenges differ from their predecessors, and some ways that librarians can get ready to manage them:

  1. The symbiotic relationship between local and national book challenge campaigns means local battles inform national social movements, and vice versa. With the rise of the Internet, challenges seldom happen in isolation anymore. Local campaigns draw resources from national groups, while national groups publicize local battles to give them support and to maintain a perception of themselves as a grassroots movement. 
  2. Many challenger individuals and groups are well-informed about the ALA, the Library Bill of Rights, and library policy. Where once librarians might have been able to count on these professional tools to stem the tide of challenges, they may now find challengers well versed in these tools and armed with arguments against them.
  3. Challenges focus on library policy as well as library materials. Challengers are increasingly going after the big guns rather than individual titles—collection development policies, Internet access policies, reconsideration policies—even challenging the whole notion of intellectual freedom itself in favor of “responsible sponsorship.”

Given these changes, what are some ways librarians can manage challenges today? The following suggestions may help:

  • Know your community. If there are individuals or organizations who are likely to come knocking with a challenge, be ready for them and don’t be surprised when they do.
  • Know your collection. Be aware of what may be controversial and what may require defending. Don’t self censor, but be prepared.
  • Add to your collection. Sometimes challengers can be mollified if you add materials that represent their views and meet their needs to the collection.
  • Establish good community relationships. Librarians who are well known and liked in the community are in far better shape in a challenge controversy than those who are isolated. Have allies in place BEFORE a controversy starts.
  • Engage with local issues and events. Be a presence for the library and engage with those who hold different beliefs. You may be surprised by what you have in common!

However we decide to respond to book challenges, one thing is clear—libraries stand for something in our culture. Libraries matter. Why else would challengers have identified them as sites of activism? By the same token, conflicts over intellectual freedom demonstrate that this idea is a powerful one, one that would not be contested if it did not offer something vital to libraries and communities.

Author: Loretta Gaffney

Loretta M. Gaffney, MLIS, MA, Ph.D., is a librarian and teacher at Harvard Westlake School in Los Angeles. Illinois-born and Iowa-raised, she is slowly becoming an Angeleno by learning to shiver in 50-degree weather. Loretta is the author of Young Adult Literature, Libraries, and Conservative Activism, published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2017. A frequent conference speaker and guest lecturer, Loretta taught YA Literature, Reading Research, Intellectual Freedom, and Youth Services Librarianship at both UCLA and the University of Illinois. She has twin 13-year-old daughters and two extremely active kittens.

Categories: Blog Topics, Intellectual Freedom

1 reply

  1. Wonderfully said! So many new librarians fear the book challenge, but with this blog post and a little bit of planning, a book challenge can be an opportunity to reflect on librarianship, collections, and what matters to you most as an educator.

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