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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Libraries and Parents and Children

   July 26th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Movie poster for 'Thirteen'We recently have been faced with an interesting problem in my library. On the surface it seemed like a pretty simple issue, but the more we thought about it, the more complex it became.

The Situation
A mother came in and said that she had found the movie "Thirteen" (Official Website, IMDb, Wikipedia) in her (thirteen year old) daughter's room. It was overdue, which means that she must have had it for weeks. It also means that we checked out an R-rated movie to an underage child.

The mother was angry that her child could have checked out such a movie, and didn't understand why the library wasn't enforcing the MPAA movie ratings.

One unusual twist in the story is that the woman wasn't directly challenging the movie being in the library's collection (which is usually the case). She understood that it is a movie people in the community might want to see. She was just upset that her daughter was able to check it out, since the mother had seen this movie and felt it was particularly graphic and inappropriate for her young daughter.

As librarians, our collective first response was the party line: we do not censor materials, we don't tell people what they can and can't check out (based on content, anyway), and library staff certainly can't keep track of what every parent in the community allows their particular children to do. Besides, no matter we may do at the desk, kids can use the self check-out machines and we'd never know.

However, none of us felt that this answer was good enough. Yes, all of it is true, but it also felt like a cop-out. We wanted there to be something we could do, rather than just throwing up our hands and telling parents they're on their own. So, we brainstormed what could be done, and came up with options:

1. Regulate Materials Based on Item/Patron Type
We felt that there must be a way within our ILS [?] to make certain types of borrowers unable to check out certain library materials. We use SirsiDynix Horizon 7.3, and we already use Item Type codes to differentiate between feature films, documentaries, kids DVDs, audio books, fiction books, etc. Horizon also allows different borrower types. We thought that we could let parents choose to give their children a "child" card, which would prevent them from checking out anything with the Item Type for R-rated movies.

Unfortunately, after checking with our system administrator, we found that Horizon does not compare these two codes, and so this idea would not work with the Horizon software. There is a "birth date" field, which we have never used, and we're not sure if Horizon can block certain Item Types based on birth date, either.

2. Create a Separate "Adult" Video Collection
Another idea was for us to shelve any R-rated (or unrated) feature film separately from the rest of the films. This way, at least, a parent can tell their children they are not allowed to check out "adult" videos (we called it "adult" for lack of a better word. We thought about "Mature," but then had a hard time calling something like Jackass "mature"), and it would be up to the kids to obey their parents.

The drawback in this situation, apart from the snickers at the library having "adult" videos, is that it makes browsing for movies more difficult for all the other library patrons. Now, instead of having to look in two places for a movie for tonight (regular videos and also in the Children's room), they'd have to look in three places. Plus, there's the inadvertent stigma for people being seen browsing the "Adult" collection. We didn't want a solution to one problem to create new problems for other patrons.

Another issue with separate collections is that, years ago (I'm told), a nearby library was successfully sued by the ACLU for not allowing children into an adult reading room in the library. In that case, the library wanted to keep kids out to give adults a quiet place to read, but the ACLU said that the library could not discriminate based on age in this way (oddly, many libraries have a similar policy to keep adult males without kids out of the Childrens Room, but I don't think any of them have ever been sued over it). So, we couldn't use a method that barred kids from an area of the library.

3. Label Movies Clearly with Ratings Stickers
Since we didn't want to shelve these movies separately, another idea was to keep them all interfiled, but to put rating stickers on the movies. That way, parents can still tell their kids that they can only check out movies with certain stickers on them.

This seemed to be a good option, but it also puts the Library in the position of possibly judging the content of the material. It really isn't up to us to decide what's "mature" or "family" and what's not, because it's a subjective decision and people will disagree on it. MPAA ratings are not exactly definite indicators either, but at least they are a recognized "standard."

Something interesting I learned through all of this that MPAA ratings are just guidelines and not legally-binding in any way. The mother in this case thought that we were breaking the law by letting underage children check out R-rated movies, but there actually is no law that says this. Movie theaters that enforce age limits based on ratings are doing it of their own accord, not because they have to.

In addition to stickers indicating ratings, we also talked about putting stickers on the movies marking them as "comedy," drama," "horror," etc., as we already do for many books. Of course, DVD cases are so small that the stickers necessarily need to be small, too. Also, more than two or three stickers will looked cluttered and hard to read, which would be counter-productive.

Another concern with starting a labeling program, as I see it, is in knowing where to stop. If we do start labeling movies, and parents successfully use this, it's really not much of a leap for them to want us to put rating labels on books, too (because we certainly have some that some parents might not want their kids reading). And from there it's just a short hop to internet filtering, so although well-intended, even this is a slippery slope.

The argument in support of labeling said that DVDs are different than books. When reading a graphic book, your own imagination plays a large part in how disturbing the book can be. Also, reading a book is a solitary event, and the read can put them down at any time. When watching a movie though, very little is left to the imagination - once something very graphic is flashed on the screen, it'll be in your head whether you are ready or not. Also, kids watching naughty movies is usually a group event. So, one kid, even if they know they're uncomfortable and want to stop watching, might not be able to stop because of peer pressure and not wanting to look scared.

4. Start a Viewers Advisory Program
We already have a few Readers/Listeners Advisory stations in the library. These computers are dedicated to this purpose, and so do not go out to the general internet. Instead, patrons can use them to access our catalog, recently-added books (using the Delicious Library software), NoveList, and iTunes (to listen to music before they decide to check out the CD). Also, we create printed reading guides for various subjects and authors that are available in the library, as well as having a Reading Room webpage.

Our thought was to do the same thing with movies. We could add movie review related resources to these stations (such as Common Sense Media, Rotten Tomatoes, Kids-In-Mind, Yahoo's Movie Mom), as well as creating and printing viewing suggestion guides, such as "Family Movies," "Movies for Girls," etc.

Where We Are Now
At the moment, nothing has been finalized. Since this is a pretty big issue, we wanted to make sure whatever we choose will be useful to parents, but won't interfere with other patrons' use of the library. I think we're leaning towards a mix of options 3 and 4, but the exact outcome depends on what is actually available to us, and how much extra work the Technical Services department can handle in the processing of new movies.

The bottom line for us is that we don't want to be making choices for patrons, nor do we have the staff or mandate to enforce parenting decisions on a child-by-child basis. But what we can do, what we can use our librarian expertise to do, is provide parents with tools and information to raise their own children the way they want to.

Of course, knowing how I was as a kid, it probably doesn't matter. If there was something I wanted to do, I'd continually look for a loophole or a way to accomplish it, regardless of what my parents or the library said.

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