Sep 29, 2011

Confessions from a Book Challenge Part 1

All this week we have been talking (and celebrating) "banned" books. I've pointed out frequently challenged books, ways you can be an Intellectual Freedom Fighter, and even given some of my favorite books away that are chronically on the naughty list to willing readers.

Yesterday, I had an interview with Jo Knowles about her experience having her first published book, Lessons From a Dead Girl, challenged in Kentucky. Today, I want to share a story with you from a youth librarian who has been through a challenge. In fact, two. This story will enlighten anyone not in a library about what happens when a complaint is received. Yes, all libraries respond/act differently depending on the population they serve and what their collection development policy entails.

If you are a librarian and have been through something similar, please feel to share in the comments section.

Allison from Texas:

I've had two of my books challenged since starting in libraries.  I say "my" books because they were ones I had selected, purchased, and put on the shelf.  
My first challenge was GOSSIP GIRLS by Cecily von Ziegesar.  I was working in a very small public library as a part-time Youth Services Assistant while I was working on my Masters degree. I was the half in our one and a half department. I immediately took over the Young Adult collection and started ordering more current, popular books.  One was the GOSSIP GIRLS series.  Everyone was happy until a mother of a teenage girl filled out a challenge form for the book.  My library director went nuts.  Suddenly, I had to look up every library in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex to see where they located this title--if they owned it.  The Youth Services librarian had to read the book to decide whether my findings and judgment were accurate.  I was a little overwhelmed and pissed off.  

I wanted to shake my fist at this mom because here's the thing: she hadn't even read the book.  That's right.  She made her judgment and basis for her complaint by flipping thru the book.  The woman isolated words without context such as drugs, sex, alcohol.  She also failed to completely fill out the "Request for Reconsideration" form.  If you are going to take the time to question someone else's judgment, I believe you should at least do two things. One, read the book you are objecting to.  Second, go thru the formal complaint process if you are serious about having a book removed because it's a BIG DEAL.
In the end, this book challenge amounted to nothing because the patron did not follow the proper steps for filing an official challenge.  It eventually was forgotten and made into "no big deal."  But it made me suspicious, it made me question MY judgment.  And it left a bad taste in my mouth.  I wasn't out of library school, and yet my nerves were already rattled.  It was an eye-opener.
Now my second challenge came from my current job.  I'm the Teen Services Librarian for the Central location of a public library.  This was a very different challenge.  It was made formally using the proper measures sent to my supervisor and our library director.  It was for a young adult non-fiction title, TWEAK by Nic Sheff.  

The parent thought that the book was not suited for her 13 year old son.  This particular mother had read the book specifically referencing several passages that I must admit I was not fully aware of.  However, she did not ask that the book be removed from our collection, but rather requested that it be relocated to the adult non-fiction section.  I pulled all the book's reviews from professional journals and polled local libraries to see where they had the book located.  About half had it in adult non-fiction and half had it in young adult non-fiction.
When a book challenge is made, it is up to the librarians to come down with a decision.  If the patron does not agree with that ruling, he or she is able to appeal the decision to the library board.  So basically, my supervisor asked me what I thought.  It came down to this... Our Young Adult collection development policy states that we select titles for high school readers.  It is strictly 9th thru 12th grade.  This book falls squarely in that category according to reviews and recommendations.  Also, the reason we have a young adult non-fiction is due to the fact that teens rarely browse and check-out titles from our adult collection which is located on another floor.  Move the book out of the Teen Area (where it was circulating like crazy!), and it would hardly ever leave the shelf lost in the stacks.  I could not justify relocating the title based on one person's reading of it.  And my supervisor agreed.
I was genuinely surprised by the full support I received from my supervisors, library director, and get this--the patron.  I fully expected her to challenge my decision, but she actually thanked us for our consideration and accepted our decision.  I did recommend a few things to her.  That if she had any hesitations about her son's choices--to read it first.  Secondly, please ask a librarian for recommendations when in doubt!  We love to help.  Also, I informed her of our YA collection development policy.  That I select for the high school level while juvenile collections include middle school.  (It's this weird split that I've never quite understood, but due to funding it has always worked out okay.)
Oddly enough, I found this book challenge a positive experience because of the support I received from my library.  The willingness of the patron to accept our final decision also helped.  She was willing to listen to my reasons, and it allowed me the opportunity to recommend other titles for her son.  It was very much a "teachable moment."  So I've had both good and bad outcomes with book challenges.  But I always wonder, will this be the next book challenged?  And the truth is, you never know.  Sometimes the books that people choose to challenge surprise me.  But the point is that is hasn't stopped me from buying any books.  I do not censor my selections or purchases based on mine or anyone else's objections.  There's a book for every reader.  
P.S. I just purchased We All Fall Down by Nic Sheff, and a replacement for our well-worn copy of TWEAK.

Thank you, Allison for sharing your story!