Earlier this year, the American Library Association reported that they recorded 729 challenge reports to 1,597 books in 2021. Sadly, recent news suggests libraries and schools aren’t out of the woods. In this roundtable, members of our staff share advice and resources regarding challenges and censorship. We hope this roundtable will be helpful to librarians dealing with challenges or worried about having to handle one.
We also want to announce that ALA’s Graphic Novels and Comics Roundtable is soliciting comments from librarians about resources for dealing with challenges! Head over to this survey link and fill it out! They are taking responses through May 31, 2022.
If you have experienced a challenge (or more), what lessons from the experience do you wish to impart?
Stick to your policy and trust your instincts. If you don’t have a collection development policy, or the one you have is out of date, create a new one! In most cases, if something was purchased according to policy, it can be defended and retained.
I agree, having a good policy is key! I know that the Office of Intellectual Freedom offers resources on constructing policies. Quite a few libraries also have their challenge/reconsideration policies available on their websites.
I think it is also important to have your front line staff (even non-librarians) be familiar with your library’s collection development policy and maybe even have some talking points for them if a patron ever comes to them with a challenge or complaint. You don’t want staff who a patron is interacting with at the circulation, reference, or children’s desk to be giving out incorrect information about how you library selects materials, because that could lead to the patron being more compelled to submit a formal challenge. I think a lot of formal challenges can be avoided by making patrons aware of our policy and selection process up front.
A statement about collecting materials based on their artistic merit as well as their literary merit could go a long way in protecting graphic novels in your collection.
How can you use a challenge policy for graphic novels? Are there issues outside the scope of a challenge policy that you might want to prepare for?
One of the main issues with graphic novels is that they are frequently not reviewed by the “standard review sources” like Booklist or Publisher’s Weekly. If you rely on review sources in your policy you should include other more comics focused sources. No Flying No Tights is a great start. The site Comic Book Roundup is great for this as well.
The biggest difference between challenges to graphic novels and challenges to other texts is that graphic novels include images, and challengers are frequently objecting to these images outside of the context of graphic novels as a whole. It’s important to make sure that the language of your collection development policy is broad enough that it covers materials outside of traditional text based materials. I think a statement about collecting materials based on their artistic merit as well as their literary merit could go a long way in protecting graphic novels in your collection.
Requiring the challenger to be a member or stakeholder in your library is an excellent first step to curtailing these sorts of copy and paste complaints. Don’t remove books without the proper procedures being followed, and stick to your own rules.
Many challenges sent in right now are either leaping over the official policies that many schools or libraries have in place or are using the process in a way that ignores the rules (copying and pasting complaints into a sequence of challenges.) Are there any collection development policy additions or alterations that can help combat these tactics?
Requiring the challenger to be a member or stakeholder in your library is an excellent first step to curtailing these sorts of copy and paste complaints. Don’t remove books without the proper procedures being followed, and stick to your own rules. In an ideal world you have an administration or board who will back you up. Additionally, when handling requests I search the web for the book and see if the same complaint has popped up elsewhere (ALA, Amazon, Goodreads, etc) and that informs my decision. If you can show a coordinated campaign that can help your case, since the challenge isn’t originating locally.
What resources do you recommend for getting help with graphic novel challenges?
The Office of Intellectual Freedom from ALA should be one of your first stops. Report, report, report. Even if you don’t need assistance, or your defence fails. The Graphic Novels and Comics Roundtable is also developing a guide for handling challenges to comics (coming soon!) and the Roundtable itself is a good resource for assistance. Also consider contacting the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund or the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) if necessary.
Are there local allies librarians and/or educators should know about who can partner with them to help fight challenges?
Potentially! I mentioned a bunch of national groups in the last question, but you can find local chapters of many of those groups. There are also typically local parent groups who are anti-censorship in addition to the challengers, and if you are aware of them reach out to them!
See if your state library organization has an intellectual freedom committee or section. They may have resources that they can share with you. Also your state organization will probably be thankful that you made them aware of a challenge happening in the state.
What resources do you WISH were available to all who are dealing with these challenges? What would help that you have not yet seen?
The guide/toolkit from GNCRT is going to be a big help for these situations, and I wish it had existed when I first started getting challenges. Just having links to the various help groups and advice for librarians all in one place will be a big help.c
There is a committee creating a guide or toolkit to assist library staff with challenges to comics specifically. We’ve met a few times and are creating a survey to specifically target what library workers want to know, but the guide hasn’t been created yet. It’s a work in progress, and something will be presented at Annual this summer!
Make sure you have a clear goal of developing a well-rounded and diverse collection and promote it for the audience for which it is intended; use reviews and other materials to support your decision.
We are observing a stronger push for greater parental control over curriculums and library collections. Have you seen instances of soft censorship? If you and your fellow library workers have had a discussion about soft censorship at your library, what steps did you decide to take to prevent it?
I haven’t personally seen this in my library system or in my children’s school so I can’t speak to specific examples or steps. All I can say is don’t do it! If the book is in your library, it needs to be accessible. Otherwise, what’s the point?
I agree that it shouldn’t be done. I do think it can be easier to resist pressure to censor the collection or make uncontroversial purchases if you’re under leadership that supports you and values your expertise. So much of an institution’s behavior comes from the top, and working to change the conversation and policies at your institution could help. Also remember that you and your library can get outside support from organizations such as the Office of Intellectual Freedom in the face of challenges. It can be easy to forget you have outside support when you’re dealing with an intensely stressful situation!
We’ve started to see more libraries commit to social justice and diverse collections, and I think setting goals like this can help reframe your approach to collection development. Make sure you have a clear goal of developing a well-rounded and diverse collection and promote it for the audience for which it is intended; use reviews and other materials to support your decision. The NFNT staff has put together some lists and has a sorting function that allow you to drill down to specific groups.
I can’t think of any specific instances of soft censorship that I’ve witnessed or participated in per say, but I know that I’ve definitely thought twice about buying certain materials because I didn’t want to deal with the possible pushback if I did add them to my collection. And I think we all do it in small ways because we all have our own biases. So I think an important part of stopping soft censorship is checking in with your own biases and asking yourself, “Am I not selecting this material because I don’t agree with it or feel it’s too controversial or because it is not a good fit for my collection?”
Further Resources and Information
For further resources, aid, and information on challenges and best practices, we recommend the following starting points.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
With more than 1.7 million members, 500 staff attorneys, thousands of volunteer attorneys, and offices throughout the nation, the ACLU of today continues to fight government abuse and to vigorously defend individual freedoms including speech and religion, a woman’s right to choose, the right to due process, citizens’ rights to privacy and much more.
Book Riot Anti-Censorship Tool Kit
“What can be done to push back against book challenges and bans? Without structures like local journalism to stay on the beat, how does the average citizen or average librarian, school librarian, or administrator stay abreast and work to ensure intellectual freedom remains a fundamental right? There are several potent tools and methods to engage with, whether you’re able to dedicate a few minutes to the cause or lend hours of time to do the work. These lists are split up for citizens and for those inside libraries, but know that these are not mutually exclusive lists.”
This extensive list of resources from Kelly Jensen is invaluable for anyone in a community fighting challenges.
Book Riot Censorship Coverage
Book Riot is the largest independent editorial book site in North America, and home to a host of media, from podcasts to newsletters to original content, all designed around diverse readers and across all genres. In particular, Kelly Jensen at Book Riot has been instrumental in sharing practical advice and tracking censorship and challenges across the country.
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of the First Amendment rights of the comics art form and its community of retailers, creators, publishers, librarians, and readers. The CBLDF provides legal referrals, representation, advice, assistance, and education in furtherance of these goals.
EveryLibrary is the first and only national political action committee for libraries. We are a gold-rated non-profit organization that helps public, school, and college libraries secure new funding through tax and advisory referendum, bonds elections, negotiations with school boards, and advocacy at municipal, state, and federal levels.
Office of Intellectual Freedom (ALA) Challenge Support
The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom provides confidential support during censorship challenges to library materials, services, and programs. Anyone can report censorship, even if they do not require assistance.
Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table
The Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table of the American Library Association is dedicated to supporting library staff in all aspects of engaging with graphic novels and comics, including collection development, programming, and advocacy. With more than 1000+ members from all over North America – and colleagues in Australia, Europe, Latin America and more – we are committed to comics advocacy and library and educational work in all aspects and in all areas. We believe #comicsareforeveryone.
Not Quite Banned: Soft Censorship That Makes LGBTQIA+ Stories Disappear
“Book banning can be quite dramatic, with petitions, public outcry, media coverage. Not infrequently, it also means a boost in attention and sales for a book that otherwise would not have been as visible.
But there is more subtle censorship that doesn’t get the headlines: a quiet banishing that often comes without explanation.”
Trade Secrets: Addressing Challenges to Comics in Libraries
A guide to addressing challenges from the Chair of the GNCRT Addressing Challenges Committee.
What’s It Like to Be the Target of A Book Banning Effort?
School Librarian Martha Hickson Tells Her Story. This article not only prepares staff for what it’s like to go through a challenge but also provides several practical steps staff can take to deal with challenges in terms of policies and emotional impacts on the staff and community.
Have a question about comics, graphic novels, manga, and libraries?
Send us a question through this form. We may use it in a future column!