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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Lost Item Replacement Policy, And When To Ignore It

   January 30th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Chewed bookMy library recently updated our policy for patrons replacing lost or damaged items.

The problem that arose is that patrons would check out a book (say, a non-fiction book that was five years old, with a price in the record of $30) - then they'd lose it, and eventually they'd get a bill for $30. Our previous policy said patrons could replace lost/damaged items either by paying for it or by supplying another copy of the book.

This meant that, instead of paying the $30, patrons would often find used copies of the item online, for just a few dollars, and give that to us as a replacement copy.

The problem was that often these books were in terrible condition (sometimes even discarded from another library, with their stamps and stickers still on it). Not to mention that there would often be newer versions of this item available, which we would want to get instead of the old outdated one.

So, we updated our policy to be:

Lost/Damaged item fees

  • Book or magazine - patron is charged 100% of the full price
  • DVD, music CD, or videogame - replacement allowed only if it is new and still sealed in the original package, otherwise the charge is the same as books, 100% of full price.
  • Book on CD - $10 per CD (if the entire item is lost, then 100% of full price.)
  • Playaway, CD-ROM, kit - 100% of full price
  • Lost CD or DVD insert - $2
  • Lost CD or DVD case - $2 (so lost case & insert is $4)
  • Still not sure what to charge? Call tech svcs

What to say when patrons ask...

Why can’t the library accept replacements for lost or damaged books anymore?

There are several reasons:

  • Many of the replacements we’ve been getting are used items in poor condition.
  • Replacing the exact same isbn can mean getting an old edition of a book when a newer edition is available.
  • In some cases, we don’t wish to replace the lost item, and would rather use the fee to buy something new that we need for our collection now.

Why does a replacement DVD, music CD or videogame have to be new & still sealed in the package?

  • For similar reasons – we’ve received old and/or used items to replace things we wouldn’t have bothered to replace at all.

Why is the replacement cost 100% of the full price? I can get it for less than that on Amazon!

  • True, but sometimes the items you get from Amazon are old and used, and you might not even realize it till it arrives.
  • Also keep in mind that when we replace a book or other item, it involves staff time to get the new item, catalog it, and process it to go into circulation.

This all happened a couple months ago. Then just a couple weeks ago, we received the following note from a patron:

Replacement Book Note

My favorite part is that she drew a picture of an open book on her note. Since the replacement copy she supplied was a brand new copy, and this title is still on the school's summer reading list, we just kept it.

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Highlighting the Value of Library Use

   May 8th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Here's a more in-your-face twist on the Library Value Calculator. Another library in my consortium figured out how to display the total cost of a patron's items on their checkout receipt, and since we never let a good idea go to waste, we adopted it in my library, too.

Basically, it's a little macro that pulls the cost figure from each item's record, adds them all up, and provides a total. We present it in kind of a cutesy context, but the intent is to show people how much they save by using the library. Check it out:

receipt with cost

Our phrasing is deliberate - if people bought the items themselves, they'd get to keep them (which obviously isn't the case with libraries). Also, we only print out receipts if people ask for them (to save on paper), so I'm not sure what impact this will have - we'll see.

Also: speaking of valuable things, I'm off for the next week to see my family over Mother's Day weekend (hence all the audiobooks I'm checking out above). So no Reference Question of the Week this week, and I'll be back next week.

Update 5/17/12:
This is how I was able to add this to our receipts - as far as I know, this only works with Evergreen version 2.1 and later. If you have a different ILS, contact your vendor and demand they offer it:

  1. In Evergreen, open the Receipt Template Editor
  2. Choose the checkout template
  3. At the bottom of whatever you have in the Line Item, add this:
    <span style="display: none;" sum="sum1">%price%</span>
  4. Somewhere in the footer, add this:
    You saved: $<span sumout="sum1" fixed="2"></span>
    (or whatever you'd like it to read. Also, the fixed="2" rounds to two places.)
  5. Click the Save Locally button

Keep in mind that if the items checked out somehow don't have price values assigned to them, the receipt will read "You saved: $0.00" at the bottom.

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Library Serendipity

   March 19th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Finding information on library shelves always has an element of serendipity to it, but I experienced a bit of it with my request list and patron donations. Here's what I've been reading/watching this recently:

deadlikemeDead Like Me - I've been watching this series on DVD for the last couple months, and the last movie came in last week. It's about a girl who is a grim reaper, living on earth in secret, helping souls cross over (and it has a frog in it).


meetjoeblackMeet Joe Black - I'd never seen this movie, so when a patron donated the DVD, I took it home to watch it. It's about a guy who is death who visits earth, in secret, and helps a soul cross over.


blackbookofsecretsThe Black Book of Secrets - I requested this YA book months ago, and it came in last week. It's not about death, but is about the black and sinister secrets everyone carries with them in their lives (and it has a frog in it).


blankspotsonthemapBlank Spots on the Map - This is the book I leave at work to read during lunch. It's about all the secret places in the country the government uses for intelligence work and top secret programs - in other words, Black Ops.



I always have a lot of things on request, and I thought it odd that this group would all find their way to me at about the same time. Perhaps, rather than serendipity or coincidence, this concurrent collection is actually revealing my true nature in all its secretive blacky deathness.

Or, perhaps I just like spies, YA novels, Mandy Patinkin and Brad Pitt. And frogs.

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