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

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.

Tags: , , , , , ,

6 Responses to “Banned Books Inquiry, And What We Found Here”

  1. Tori Says:

    I never had any formal challenges when I was a teen librarian. But we had materials go missing in the teen area on GLBTQ topics regularly. Sometimes we would find them in the trash. We had to put notices out that it was a crime to steal or damage public property. There wasn’t much we could do except be vigilant, we had a very good idea who the persons responsible were, but we were never able to catch them at it.

    In an interesting reversal, we did have one problem when a board member wanted us to add material that pretty much the entire staff found objectionable, Created to be His Help Meet by Debi Pearl. Fortunately, we had a collection development policy that stated we only added materials from reputable publishers (i.e. no vanity presses). So we dodged that bullet.

  2. looloolooweez Says:

    This is an interesting topic! I love reading about how other libraries have experienced/handled challenges. I’ve only personally had to deal with 3, all informal (never getting to the paperwork stage):

    1. Challenge: A parent complaining about an age-inappropriate book that his kid picked up at an annual Friends book sale. Resolution: The book sale is stocked with donations that don’t get added to our collection, so the library was not really responsible in this case — the parent was, for not checking his kid’s purchases.

    2. Challenge: A locally semi-powerful patron complained about the inclusion of an adult fiction book in our collection on grounds of lewd content. She actually read the whole thing and put sticky notes in it at every objectionable scene. Resolution: The book was actually purchased at the request of another patron & it had moderately decent reviews. The patron spoke to the director and I wasn’t in on that convo, but she never did follow up with her complaint.

    3. Challenge: Several times a couple of concerned staff members have complained about kids checking out age-inappropriate stuff — movies in particular. Resolution: We changed circulation parameters so that patrons with a Child level card can’t get R-rated films, but that doesn’t stop them from using parents’ cards and it doesn’t stop the teens with Teen level cards. Since the cards’ age types are determined by parent/guardian when they’re made & can be changed at request, the responsibility is theirs to moderate what their kids check out. But the complaints from concerned staff keep coming…

  3. Liam Hegarty Says:

    I’m responsible for the music at my library. The only complaint I’ve ever gotten was a parent complaining about a censored cd. I explained we had a policy of not buying edited cds and obviously this “child safe” version slipped through the cracks. She complained to the director who told me to buy the mature version of the cd. I’m not kidding.

    There is someone who does the informal challenges of hiding what he or she considers to be objectional material, usually stuff on Roe v. Wade.

  4. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Tori: having a policy like that is great – it’s saved me from buying crap I didn’t want also. And how sad about the anti-GLBTQ idiot, but you’re right, it’s hard to stop actual motivated criminals.

    @looloolooweez: I don’t think we’ve had complaints about booksale items, but your #2 sounds familiar. It’s funny how often people think, “I don’t like this therefore it must burn!” and then achieve a much more levelheaded position when we explain that libraries serve the entire community, not just them. As the saying goes, if you’re not offended by something on our shelves, we’re not doing our job. And interesting about restricting by card age-level – we don’t do that, but yes, letting parents make that decision must help. Do you then give the kid control after they reach a certain age?

    @Liam: ha, that’s great! (about the uncensored CD of course, not the hiding business)

  5. Emma Says:

    I think the issue of whether a patron should have had to read or watch an item before asking that it be banned is a difficult one. On the one hand, you obviously don’t want to have someone who has no understanding of what the item is making decisions about it, but it also seems unfair to ask someone who objects to, is disturbed by, is disgusted by (etc.) something to have to carefully study it before making a complaint. I would want to say that the patron should have examined the item, but not necessarily read or watched the whole thing, but where do you draw the line?

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Emma: that’s a great point. Perhaps a good place to draw the line is that the patron be able to point out exactly what about that item offended them, and why it poses a harm to the community at large. If they read a book up to a part they they just couldn’t stand, I wouldn’t ask them to finish the rest of the book. However, if someone has no experience with something and is just objecting because someone else told them to, I would prefer that they read it for themselves to at least understand the presentation of the material. Or better yet, not read it, and at the same time not try to prevent other people from reading it. Censorship is a serious thing, and I do personally believe the bar should be set pretty high for submitting a challenge that would affect everyone in the community.