ASSOCIATES (2008, March, v. 14, no. 3)


Strategies for Public Libraries Regarding Challenged Books

Rita DufresneRita Dufresne
Seattle University
Seattle, Washington

Public libraries are commonly targets of complaints from patrons who question the presence of, or challenge, certain materials in the library collection. Frontline and public service staff must be aware of policies and strategies to respond to this inevitable situation.

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling is an example of a wildly popular series that has been challenged because of the theme of witchcraft and the recent announcement by the author that a lead character is gay. Another concerns the forthcoming release of the movie “The Golden Compass” based on the first novel in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. A large media campaign questions the presence of these books due to the supposed anti-Catholic/Christian nature of the subject matter.

In Oklahoma, the State Legislature has threatened to tie library funding to the presence of materials with a homosexual theme, urging libraries to restrict children’s access to books with homosexual themes. The state’s budget committee has threatened to consider withholding funds to libraries that they deem in violation of this resolution. Since libraries, especially smaller, rural libraries rely heavily on state funding to purchase new materials, the implications for library support are grim.

All libraries, particularly pubic libraries, need to formulate an action strategy in the likely event that a library user challenges a book. For guidance on this strategy, several sources need to be considered. First, recommended standards and ethics of libraries and the profession are elaborated in the American Library Association (ALA) “Library Bill of Rights” <> and the ALA “Code of Ethics.” <>

Second, the policy of the Seattle [Washington] Public Library can be used as an excellent model of an effective procedure. <>

Section 3 of the ALA “Library Bill of Rights” gives clear guidance on whether or not libraries should engage in censorship of library materials. The section states:

Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

Section 2 of the ALA “Code of Ethics” states:

We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.

A patron who challenges the presence of a book in the library collection is, in reality, requesting that the library engage in censorship. Censorship is contrary to the values of the library profession. A patron may challenge this viewpoint by arguing that libraries are funded by public tax monies, and should therefore refrain from purchasing materials that are offensive to the public it serves. An argument could be made that a library should engage in censorship, if by doing so the materials in the collection would more closely reflect the sensibilities of the community.

However, according to Section II of the ALA “Library Bill of Rights,” the library should not restrict access to materials because they may be offensive to certain members of the public, even if those materials may not reflect the majority view of a certain population:

Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

This principle recognizes that there are many points of view on topics and not everyone will agree. Furthermore, what offends one person may not be offensive to another. One person does not have the right to proscribe materials that may be of interest to another member of the community.

Librarians themselves are not permitted by the ALA “Code of Ethics” to allow personal views interfere with the duty to provide information to the public. From sections 6 and 7 of the ALA “Code of Ethics:”

We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.

We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.

A useful mental exercise may be to suggest that if librarians or individual citizens were to be given the power to censor library materials, it may harm other citizens who disagree. For example, a librarian or library patron may find the presence of all Christian materials offensive. They may demand that all Bibles, indeed all materials that so much as mention Christianity be removed, because of their offensive nature. In this thought-exercise, it may be that a community consists of many non-Christians. The majority of this community may be offended that their children are exposed to what they deem Christian propaganda, and they do not wish their tax monies spent on these materials. In this case, the policy of non-censorship would be a protection to retain those materials.

Another aspect to emphasize, in the case of those patrons who object to materials that their children may be exposed to, is that libraries do not act in loco parentis (Latin for “in the place of a parent,” referring to the legal responsibility of a person or organization to take on some of the functions and responsibilities of a parent). Libraries do not exist to protect children from harmful materials in their collections. The responsibility lies with the parent to screen materials for their own children. Not all parents hold identical views. What one parent may consider harmful or offensive may be considered a valuable and important resource for another.

With these principles in mind, here are the details to consider for a proposed strategy. First, an official statement of the library’s policy must be written. This statement must clearly state the non-censorship stance of the library. The policy must be available both on the library website and in print as a handout to patrons. In addition to the statement of policy, a form should be created that a patron may fill out and deliver to the library. This form should request the following information:

1. The name of the patron
2. The title of the challenged book.
3. Whether or not the patron has read the book in question or merely heard about it from another source.
4. The nature of the complaint. Why does the patron want to have the book removed or reconsidered?
5. Sources of information about the book that a patron may wish to bring to the attention of the library: reviews? articles?

The form should also contain the actions and procedures that will be followed by the library upon receipt, clearly stating the steps that will be taken after a patron fills out a form requesting reconsideration or removal of an item. The library should have in place a collection development committee as the body that will conduct a follow-up to the patron’s request. The patron will also be provided with a time when they can expect a response, and from whom. An appeal procedure should also be in place, if the committee’s decision fails to satisfy the patron. The final decision regarding an appeal should be made by the head librarian and communicated in writing to the patron.

The library should also have the collection development policy of the library available, both online and in print. The collection development policy should contain information affirming the library’s policy of including as wide a variety of viewpoints as possible, in the interest of commitment to intellectual freedom and non-censorship. The Seattle Public Library offers a list of items to consider in a collection development policy:

Present collection composition
Current or historical significance of author or subject
Public interest
Level of demand
Audience for material
Community relevance
Diversity of viewpoint
Effective expression

A well thought out and detailed collection development policy will be a valuable part of the strategy to respond to patrons who challenge the presence of particular library materials in the collection.

Below is a compilation of frequently asked questions (FAQ’s) to be made available to front-line staff when responding to a patron who wishes to fill out a form requesting withdrawal or reconsideration of materials:

1. May any patron request the review of a library material?

Answer: Yes. In fact, the library affirms the rights of patrons to not only make recommendation about materials to be included in the library, but also to make recommendations about what should be withdrawn. Both kinds of requests are welcomed.

2. What are the procedures to be followed?

Answer: The patron must fill out a form. On the form will be a list of actions that the library will perform in response to the request. A copy of the collection development policy should be offered, as well.

3. Does the library ever segregate certain materials due to the nature of the content?

Answer: The library policy is to organize materials in order to help patrons find the information that they want. Therefore, the library may not sequester, label, or alter materials because of controversy surrounding the author or subject.

4. Do librarians monitor the materials available to children?

Answer: On computer terminals that provide access to the internet, the library conforms to the directives given in the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and installs filtering software on those terminals (details of the filtering software available on request). Otherwise, the library maintains that only parents and legal guardians have the right and responsibility to monitor and screen library materials for minors in their care.

Libraries and public service staff need to be prepared if a patron challenges an item in the collection. By being prepared, libraries will be better able to diffuse the strong emotions that can surround such difficult situations and maintain the goodwill of the community that is so valuable to a library’s mission.


1. “Code of Ethics.” American Library Association. 2006. (Accessed 02 Dec, 2007)

2. “Library Bill of Rights.” American Library Association. 2006. (Accessed 02 Dec, 2007)

3. “Selection and Withdrawal of Materials.” Seattle Public Library. 2002. (Accessed 02 Dec, 2007)

4. Freitas, Donna. “God in the Dust: What Catholics attacking the Golden Compass are Really Afraid of.” Boston Globe. 25 Nov. 2007.

5. “Library Funds Threatened.” NCAC – National Coalition against Censorship. 2007. (Accessed 02 Dec, 2007)

Rita has been a Library Technician in the Cataloging Department, Lemieux Library, at Seattle University for 10 years. Currently she is pursuing her MLIS at the University of Washington iSchool.