Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Dirty Little Library Secrets: We forgot to tell the staff not to ban the books

I never liked it when Technical Services called down to my office because it usually meant I had done something wrong: ordered a duplicate, maybe ordered book 2 when we didn’t have book 1, or a book came in covered in green astro turf (that really happened once).  But no, this time it was a staff member calling to tell me that she refused to put a graphic novel I had ordered into the collection because she thought it was inappropriate.  My jaw fell to the floor because, well, that’s not really how we do things.  I order things all the time that I would never personally want to read, because my job is to serve EVERYONE regardless of my own personal beliefs.  So, after picking my jaw up off of the floor, I informed said staff member that she would have to add the book to the collection and go through the formal book challenge procedure as outlined in our policy book and I hoped that would be the end of that.  She did of course go directly to the director, but he backed me up.  As far as I know that book is still in the collection to this day; although since it’s a graphic novel, it has probably fallen apart.  Today, TLT blogger Heather Booth tells her about an internal book challenge that happened to her.  And yes, there really are internal book challenges.
Most of us leave library school all het up about Intellectual freedom and determined that our role in the community is, in part, to save the world by providing free and open access to books of all types.  We learned that we’re the champions of Democracy – free access to information is the cornerstone of our society right?  And that applies to everything and we all agree about it, right?

 Actually, no.  Well, not exactly.

The interplay of nuanced of community expectations, individual perspectives, and institutional culture became clear to me when I dealt with my first book challenge, fresh out of library school.  I thought I knew what to do: have a formal complaint process in place, listen to the complainant, and work with your administration to move through and resolve the process.

But my challenge came from a coworker, escalated to a supervisor, and was largely resolved levels above me, behind closed doors, without going through traditional channels.  It was an extremely difficult situation that left me shaken and questioning many of my assumptions about my role in the community, in the library, and about our profession’s dirty little secrets.

Having encountered an internal challenge exactly once, I’m no expert on the topic, but if you find yourself in a similar situation, here are some things to do:


Report it

Whether an official complaint is filed or not, report the incident to ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.  The OIF keeps a database of challenged material, with entries collected from newspaper articles and from individual reports.  Since an internal challenge will likely not make it to the papers in the same way a challenge initiated by a community member would, it is up to you to report it.

Ask for help

You can speak to the OIF for guidance, but aside from pointing out what I already knew to do and wishing me luck, which was helpful, doing this didn’t make me feel especially empowered.  What did was seeking out other libraries that have the material that is being challenged.  I had the immensely good fortune of finding a more experienced librarian who had the item in question and was able to talk to me about the book, the process, and helped me understand how different communities might meet needs in different ways.  She also helped me see that not all libraries respond in the same way to their librarians.  More on that later.

Collect your research

Just like you would for an external challenge, if you intend to defend your material, you need to collect every review, article, circulation statistic and testimonial that you can.  The difference is that you’ll likely be doing this on your own.

Make the big decision

In library school, I was taught, emphatically, that all challenges, all challenges, should go through formal channels: the request for reconsideration form, the meetings, the hearings, whatever path your institution has in place.  But as a new librarian just starting out, putting most of my paycheck into food, gas, and car repairs, I felt I had neither the institutional support nor the personal financial freedom to challenge my superiors in such a way.  When I brought up the issue of a formal complaint the first time, it was clear to me that it should probably also be the last time.  The stigma associated with going against the institutional flow is significant.  You’ll see I haven’t named the material or discussed the resolution here, many years later.  It’s not a very big profession, and we are loath to burn bridges.  I have much admiration for those librarians who do force the issue despite the perceived risks.

Take heart

No matter how the situation resolves, know that you are not alone.  In general, librarians like things to go smoothly.  We’d rather not deal with an awkward silence and simmering glares at staff luncheons.  So these things may not be issues that are shared between in-house mentors and up-and-coming librarians. 

But from my experience, I learned a lot, and I gained a lot.  I had my first communication directly with an author about her work, I got some lovely words of wisdom from a librarian across the country, whom I subsequently had the privilege of working with through my involvement with YALSA, and ultimately I made the decision that my interests and focus were better suited to a different organization, where I flourished and grew into my own as a librarian.

 The ideals we leave library school with are laudable.  But they are also ideals, not practicalities.  Sometimes, even when we do our best, things will go sideways.  Sometimes flexibility, diplomacy, and hard choices will need to carry you through. It’s no walk in the park, but it’s not the end of the world when you find material in your care challenged internally, and both your career and your material can survive.  Take solace in knowing that you’re fighting the good fight, and that your intention to serve your community can become even stronger after such an experience.
Train staff
It’s easy to think that everyone who works in a library clearly understands the role of the library, but that is clearly not the case.  Remember our circulation clerks, pages, etc. don’t go to the library schools that we go to and learn about the importance of – which is why staff training and communication are so very important.  We need to tell our co-workers, often, about the importance of libraries and intellectual freedom.  Don’t assume because you live and breath it that your co-workers do also; you do know what happens when you assume, right?  And this is a good time to remember how to make champions of co-workers and the “Be-Attitudes” of communicating with staff.
Have you ever had to deal with an internal challenge?  Tell us about it in the comments.


  1. Wow. I am just surprised that this happens!

  2. I guess we never really think about challenges coming from our own organization. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  3. It can happen more than you think… Maybe not formal challenges, but a staff member decides that something doesn't fit in the collection because they decide that they don't *like* the subject matter. Or someone isn't familiar with a type of material, and doesn't extend themselves to learn or move out of their comfort zone. I've run into more restrictions than outright challenges in different systems, and worked around things.

  4. Great post and wow… that is just crazy. I would have had no idea what to do.

  5. It happens ALL THE TIME where I work.

  6. I just wanted to tell you that, as a new librarian who just graduated in May, I really appreciate your posts that deal with best practices and ways to handle less than common problems in the teen department. I love this blog!

  7. iI was surprised myself, but it does.

  8. Thanks Sheila, and thanks for reading.

  9. Thank you so much Tahleen!

  10. Heather Booth says:

    I'm glad people are talking about this! I think something else to keep in mind if you find yourself in this situation is to beware the chilling effect of an internal challenge. Taking risks in your collection is really crucial to meeting the diverse needs and interests of your patrons. The real shame is not losing the one book from the collection, but not adding many others that could similarly benefit your collection.

  11. Wow, I had no idea that things like this were happening within the staff! I've worked in a library for 18 months now and I've never heard of something like this happening. Most of the complaints we get are more about computer hardware and more physical aspects of the library.

    I love this blog because I always learn so many new things, so thank you SO much for posting things like this guys. 🙂

  12. Part of the reason that Stephanir, Christie, Heather and I have this blog is because we want to share our passion an continue to be better librarians. It is an opportunity for us to talk about our experiences once we are out of library school and working in the real world, so we love that you are reading and engaging with us. Thank you.

  13. As a high school librarian, I have had internal challenges from other teachers who thought that whatever book a student was reading was inappropriate. Subsequent to a particular book's being confiscated from a student in class, another (female) student said to me, Ms. G, that book has nothing on our conversations in the locker room… My thoughts were that, if this particular teacher had a problem with the book, he should have had a dialogue with the student. His behavior was disrespectful to the student as well as short-sighted.

  14. I have never had a staff member directly tell me I couldn't put a book on the shelf; although I have had my boss suggest I not order books on a particular topic. I have had a fellow staff member outright tell a patron that the books her child had were too old for her and she needed to find something more for her age.
    I understand that in library school we learn theory, and intellectual freedom is very important, but we also become part of the community and I feel that I develop a relationship with my patrons and want to help them the best I can, but I do not ever want to come right out and restrict what they are checking out.

  15. Anonymous says:

    We had a teen magazine challenged. I said we should either keep it as is or I would order a similar, less offensive, title instead. I thought my director was joking when she suggested going through each issue with scissors. Found out six months later she had told tech services to inspect and scissor each issue as it came in, removing any “inappropriate” images or advertisements and then the circulation clerk in charge of magazines checked again to make sure nothing was missed.

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