or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Banned Books Inquiry, And What We Found Here

   March 26th, 2015 Brian Herzog

banned books displayWe had an interesting request from a college student who is doing a project on book challenges in libraries.

We didn't have a lot to contribute, but I thought I'd share the exchange here anyway to hopefully hear about other libraries' experiences. This student asked [edited for privacy],

Date: March 8, 2015 at 10:40:31 PM EDT
Subject: Banned Books

Currently I am attending Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, NH, and ... am taking a class this semester titled "Banned Books." As part of the course requirements we are reading various books that have been banned such as:
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Fanny Hill by John Clelland
The Witches by Roald Dahl
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
Looking for Alaska by John Green

Many other texts are also touched upon within this course. After reading the texts we discuss why we believe some of these books have been banned. We also look up information about the individuals promoting the banning of these books and their beliefs and values.

As a research project for this course I am supposed to be researching if there have been any challenges towards books in my community. I am also supposed to find information about the book challenging/banning policy within the Chelmsford Public Library. It would be sincerely appreciated if you could send me some information about your library’s policies and experiences with book challenges and/or bans.

A few of us at the library looked around for the paper trail on our book challenges, and were surprised at what we didn't find. This is what interested me most. Book challenges are just a part of life in a public library, but I've never really examined the long view.

Here is the response I sent back [again, slightly edited]:

We actually haven't gotten a lot of challenges to items like what you're researching. In the ten years I've been here, I can only remember a handful of times.

Our official policy on the matter is covered in the "Censorship" section of our Materials Selection Policy (http://www.chelmsfordlibrary.org/library_info/policies/materials_policy.html), which states,

"The Library Director is available to review selection decisions, and welcomes the opportunity to discuss the interpretation of library goals and principles with interested individuals or representatives of groups.

Formal requests for withdrawal of specific items must be submitted to the Director in writing. A copy of the form is appended. Copies of the form are available at all circulation desks and the Reference Department. If the Library Director cannot resolve the issue to the satisfaction of the citizen in question, that person may request a hearing before the Selection Committee (See: “Responsibilities for Book Selection,” above.)"

The Request for Reconsideration of Library Materials form itself is available at

We do have this on hand and give it to any patron who wishes to challenge an item. However, what we've found in practice is that patrons will verbally challenge an item, and usually want to speak to the director as well. But when we looked into our records to find the challenges, we determined that we've never gone beyond this stage to a patron actually submitting the challenge form in writing.

However, this doesn't mean that we've taken no action in situations like this. Here are a few examples that I hope will be helpful:

  • In one case, a mother was upset when she discovered that her 13 year old daughter had checked out the DVD "Thirteen" (http://chelmsford.mvlc.org/eg/opac/record/883844), and she came in to complain about this movie. After a discussion though, she realized she wasn't objecting to the movie itself so much as that someone underage would be able to check it out (this goes into a much larger area of libraries not being able to act in place of parents, and that MPAA rating are just suggestions and not strict mandatory limits). But as a result of this patron's challenge, the library decided to start putting MPAA rating stickers on our DVD collection, to make the rating (and therefore the intended audience) easier to identify.
  • Our Childrens staff said in the last 14 years, they remember about four "informal" challenges. In those cases, like the movie Thirteen, the issue is really about age-appropriateness. They said that in three of the cases, after reviewing the item in question, they decided to recatalog the item to the Young Adult collection so it wouldn't be in the Children's Room - which is an easy way to make the patron happy yet still provide public access to the item.
  • A slightly unusual challenge was to the book "It's Perfectly Normal," by Robie H. Harris (http://chelmsford.mvlc.org/eg/opac/record/1200161). When staff spoke to the patron who was challenging it, we learned that the patron had never seen or read the book, but was part of a church group who were all being encouraged to challenge it (which made national news in Lewiston, ME: http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2007/12/legislation/maine-librarys-its-perfectly-normal-not-obscene-police-agree/#_). I believe that after a discussion, and asking the patron to read the book before challenging it, the patron dropped the complaint.
  • In another case, the library purchased a DVD for the movie "Brown Bunny," based on reviews. After it arrived but before it was put on the shelf for patrons, a staff member watched it and was surprised at how sexually graphic it was. After further review by another staff person, the library decided not to add it to the collection after all. So this wasn't exactly a patron challenge, but more of a self-censoring once we'd seen what the item was actually like.
  • And finally, although not strictly about challenging books, occasionally parents will complain that we don't do enough to keep their kids off of social media websites or other places online, and essentially ask us to "ban" these websites. This brings up larger issues as well, and in these cases we try to address the underlying issue. The first time this happened, we held a workshop for patrons on internet safety, and we do use filtering software on the computers in the Childrens and Teen areas, but we have not changed our computer use policies.

I hope this information helps, and please let me know if you need clarification or elaboration, or just have additional questions. Thanks, and good luck with your project.

Brian Herzog
Head of Reference
Chelmsford Public Library

How far have item challenges gotten in your library? The ALA collects information on challenges (although the deadline has passed for 2014 incidents), and I've seen compiled stats before, but it was entirely different to review specially what has happened in my library.

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/6/11

   November 12th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Show Me! A Picture Book of Sex for Children and Parents - Photography and Captions by Will McBride - Explanatory Text by Dr. Helga Fleischhauer-HardtThis was a bit bizarre. Three or four weeks ago, a woman came to the reference desk holding her Blackberry. English was not her first language, so there was a bit of a language barrier, but on her Blackberry was a photo of a book titled Show Me!

I didn't recognize it, but from what I could piece together of her story, she had found this book in the home of friends of hers. She felt it contained child pornography, and wanted to know if the book was illegal. She said she noticed it while they were all sitting around talking, but as soon as her friend went into another room, she rushed over, snapped a covert photo, and then ran out of the house and came straight to the library. She wanted to know if the library had a copy and if it was legal to check it out.

I tried to explain that "legal" and "illegal" usually doesn't actually come into play - but if it would with anything, it would be child pornography. However, her photo of the book wasn't clear enough to read the author's name, and a search on Amazon for Show Me produced a lot of results, with none matching the cover (although there were a few that were slightly uncomfortable to skim through in this context).

After a few pages of results, I think she understood that there were a lot of books with "Show Me" in the title. I told her if she could get the author's name from the book the next time she goes to her friend's house, then we'd have a better chance of finding the book.

As she walked away, I actually thought, "well, that was weird, and I will never see her again."

So I was surprised when the woman returned this week. She walked up to me as if no time at all had passed, and just said,

The author is Mac Bride.

I don't have the greatest memory for faces, but for some reason immediately knew who she was and what she was talking about. I searched for "show me mac bride," which lead to a Wikipedia article on the book Show Me!, by Will McBride (the Mac Bride/McBride mistake was me not getting over the language barrier right away).

According to the article, this book does have a history of being challenged in court, but the outcome was not definite. Distribution of the book was stopped to avoid potential legal challenges, and some libraries withdrew it from their collection, but the Supreme Court case cited seemed to only allow the government to ban the sale of the book (not owning it or loaning it, although I am no legal scholar).

We do not own a copy of this book, but I did find a copy at the Boston Public Library (through the state-wide Virtual Catalog), and told her we could request it if she wanted. She asked again if it was legal to take that book out of the library, and I said that yes, it was. Someone could challenge the library making it available, but that it didn't seem illegal to have it.

With that, she said thanks, that's all she wanted to know, and left.

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List of 25 Banned Books

   September 23rd, 2008 Brian Herzog

I Read Banned Books buttoniLibrarian is one of my favorite blogs - they always have interesting or useful posts.

Last week they posted about a story from DegreeDirectory that lists the top 25 banned books people should read.

I've never really gotten in to banned books week, or read books just because someone else was trying to outlaw them. It seems so fundamentally un-American and undemocratic to me to feel you have the right to repress or discriminate against something just because you don't like it. So usually, book banning news just slides right by me, but since it's making national news, I gave it more attention.

In looking at this list, I noticed that the books that I've read I'd really enjoyed. Since I liked some banned books, it stands to reason I might enjoy others, so I am going to make a point of reading the rest of this list.

The full list (in alphabeticalish order) is below - check out the original post for descriptions and links to excerpts or full-text online.

  1. A Day No Pigs Would Die, Robert Newton Peck
  2. American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
  3. And Tango Makes Three, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
  4. Annie on My Mind, Nancy Garden
  5. Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Patterson
  6. Candide, Voltaire
  7. Fallen Angels, Walter Dean Myers
  8. Fanny Hill, John Cleland
  9. Forever, Judy Blume
  10. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  11. Harry Potter (The Entire Series), J. K. Rowling
  12. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
  13. Lady Chatterley's Lover, D. H. Lawrence
  14. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  15. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
  16. Silas Marner, George Eliot
  17. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  18. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
  19. The Arabian Nights
  20. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
  21. The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier
  22. The Color Purple, Alice Walker
  23. The Giver, Lois Lowry
  24. The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe
  25. Ulysses, James Joyce

And of course, there's lots of other banned books resources online.

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Fight Tyranny: Read Banned Books

   September 20th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Banned Books WeekThis year's Banned Books Week is September 29 - October 6.

Which is rather fortuitous timing, considering this week's attack on the freedom to read in Lewiston, Maine.

Librarians (and teachers and others) often make a big deal of Banned Books Week (BBW), and many people don't understand why. Who cares? No matter how hard groups fight to ban a book, anyone can always go to the local bookstore and buy it anyway, right?

The point is that everyone has the freedom to read whatever interests them. Once a small group is permitted to make decisions for the whole, and force their views on everyone, then this is no longer a free society.

So, during Banned Books Week - and every other week of the year - read what appeals to you. And be a better person for it.

For more information on banned books and Banned Books Week, here are a few good web resources:

And: I know this is borderline immature (I draw my own borders), but, like the "Adult Books" sections of libraries, "BBW" also makes me giggle. Librarians often forget (or don't know), that our abbreviations and jargon sometimes also have other meanings.

banned, banned books, banned books week, bbw, censorship, freedom to read, libraries, library, public libraries, public library

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