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Sunday Reflections: A Radical Banned Books Week Thought – Throw Out Your Materials Challenge Form and Truly Embrace the Freedom to Read

A funny thing happened on Twitter a couple of weeks ago.

In preparation for Banned Books Week I came up with what I thought was a great idea: We would put challenged books on trial and I tweeted out asking everyone if there were certain books they wanted to write a defense for as guest posts.  You will see those posts during this next week.

But one person replied and said: What if I said we shouldn’t even be arguing the merits of books? What if that’s not the point at all?

And then we talked about it and he was right.

Why do we have material challenge forms and give people the option of trying to say, I don’t like this book or it offended me or whatever so I think you should remove it from the library – all because of me.  Maybe this whole time we have been doing Banned Books Week and Intellectual Freedom wrong.  Throw out your forms!

Read the Freedom to Read Statement from ALA 

Here’s a snippet of the conversation:

If we truly believe that people have the Freedom to Read what they want to read, then the answer isn’t to hand out forms saying well, maybe we’ll remove this book if you can make a good case.  The correct answer when someone complains about a book is simple: I’m sorry that this book offended you, let’s do some awesome reader’s advisory to see if we can help you find some other materials that are right for you.

It’s a radical notion, I know.  I have written the collection development policy at two libraries now and made the actual materials challenge form at one.  It was a masterpiece.  And now I think it was wrong.  Our whole approach is wrong.

I get there are things that offend people, but those things are different for each person.  And when I read the comments, most people say the same things for other types of media: If you don’t like a show, turn the channel.  If you don’t like a song, turn the radio dial.  If you don’t like a movie, don’t go see it.  And the answer for books should be the same: If you don’t like the book, read a different book. 

Banned Books Week is September 22nd through the 28th

There are shows I don’t let my children watch (a lot of them actually.)  Just the other day I told my YouTube cruising Tween that she had to add her former favorite Miley Cyrus onto the list of music videos she wasn’t allowed to watch.  I have a list of actors whose movies I won’t go see.  I have banned Spongebob Squarepants because I don’t like the way they treat one another.  But here’s the thing: those are all personal parenting decisions.  I know that other parents would make different ones.  I don’t get to make those decisions for your kids and you don’t get to make them for mine.  Which is why we shouldn’t even have material challenge forms.  Because it gives the impression that sometimes, maybe, we would in fact let someone make those decisions for an entire community; that if they could make a strong enough case that we might, in fact, decide to remove a book from the library allowing one person (or a group of people) to make personal decisions for an entire community of people, people for whom they don’t actually have the right to make that decision.

There is no “unless you can prove it doesn’t have literary merit” – who gets to decide that? There is no “unless you can prove it is dangerous to society” – we once thought the belief that the sun was the center of the universe was a dangerous idea, people died for that belief.  Oops, turns out we were wrong.  The only exceptions would be if a book had questionable authority (which you should be catching in your collection development process so it shouldn’t be an issue on the reader’s end) or books that do or advocate breaking the law (like books from NAMBLA, they apparently exist).  Tyrants and dictators ban books, those who believe in democracy do not.

So instead, when a patron comes to a staff member complaining about a book and asking that it be removed, we use this moment to remind patrons about the goals of a library.  Instead of handing them a book challenge form, we could hand them a bookmark or pamphlet that states the Library Bill of Rights and affirms their rights to self-selection and parental guidance.  And then we ask them if we can help them find a new book to read and start the reader’s advisory process.  This moment becomes a teachable moment where we reinforce the library’s mission to the entire (and very diverse) community.  Instead of discussing individual titles, the conversation becomes one about Intellectual Freedom.

I believe that people have the right to read what they want to read.  I believe that you and I don’t get to make those decisions for other people.  Full stop.  That’s actually the end of the argument.  Throw out your forms.

More Banned Books Week on TLT:
Banned Books Week 2012
Teen Fiction is . . . 
A Banned Books Week Primer
Redefining the 3 Rs for Banned Books Week
Libraries are radically unsafe places . . . and that’s a good thing
My Banned Books Week Posters

Edited 9/24/2013 to add a clarifying paragraph.


  1. Amen! And Awesome.

  2. I'm very much anti-book-banning but pro-material challenge forms. “What we say, goes,” just isn't a great message to be sending to people. I think it's much better to say to people, “Hey, if you have a problem with this, let's talk about it — and generally we're going to err on the side of having a wide variety of materials including some that you might find offensive, but let's talk about it.”

    (On the pragmatic side, not having an official channel to deal with material challenges means that the patron doesn't have any recourse but to yell at whichever staff member happens to be on desk, so I can't think that's an ideal solution.)

    As for the the contention that books with authority problems should be caught by the collection development process — well. Isn't it pretty to think so.

  3. I don't view being anti material challenge forms as being “what we say goes” but more as a reinforcement of the idea that no matter how much you may really, really be offended by a book, you still don't get to decide for the entire community and ask that it be removed. Having that process in place suggests to others that they should have that option, and I don't think that they should. But make no mistake, it's also not like I believe that libraries are going to start throwing out their material challenge forms. I'm just not sure that they send the message that we want to be sending. In fact, maybe instead of talking about the individual books when patrons have issues we should instead be talking with them about the reasoning and philosophy of public libraries, intellectual freedom, etc. And as I mentioned, I say that as someone who is a very active consumer – there are a lot of things out there in all forms of media that offend me and I wish were different.

    Unfortunately for us all, when a person is upset with a book/movie/cd/whatever – they are going to complain to whatever person happens to be on the desk no matter what. And I agree that the form can be a way to handle the situation with them. But we can just as easily hand them a piece of paper with the Library Bill of Rights on it as we can a materials challenge form which would present the issue in a different context possibly.

    Yes, yes it is pretty to think so :)In our perfect world books never come in covered in astro turf (that actually happened) or come in too small to fit on the shelf in a way that makes sense (that one was totally on me, my bad).

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