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Dealing with Challenges to Graphic Novels

This is part of a larger project, Graphic Novels: Suggestions for Librarians (PDF), created by the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and the American Library Association. For additional help in dealing with challenges, see Support for Dealing with or Reporting Challenges to Library Materials.

In theory, dealing with challenges to graphic novels is no different than dealing with challenges to print material. In practice, however, it is important to keep in mind that many people consider an image to be far more powerful in its impact than any written description of that image. That said, the following tips will help you prepare to cope with challenges to graphic novels.1

Be Prepared

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Make sure all library staff and board members understand the library's policies and procedures for dealing with challenges. Provide customer service and other human relations training that will help staff deal effectively with sensitive matters. "Dealing with Concerns about Library Resources" (Intellectual Freedom Manual, 7th ed., 2005) is an excellent guide to handling complaints effectively.

Key Messages about Libraries

When responding to a challenge, focus on four key points:

  • Libraries provide ideas and information across the spectrum of social and political views.
  • Libraries provide choice for all people.
  • Parents are responsible for supervising their own children's library use.
  • Collection does not imply endorsement 

Listening to and Dealing Effectively with Complaints

  • Greet each person with a smile. Communicate your openness to receive inquiries and that you take them seriously.
  • Listen more than you talk. Indeed, practice "active listening." Take time to really listen and acknowledge the individual's concern. Stay calm and courteous.
  • Relate the four key points above.
  • Talk about freedom of choice, the library's role in serving all people, and the responsibility of parents to supervise their own children's library use. Avoid library jargon.
  • Sharing personal opinions is not a good idea. Instead, be prepared to distribute facts, policy, and other background materials in writing.
  • Be prepared to give a clear and non-intimidating explanation of the library's procedure for registering a complaint and be clear about when a decision can be expected.

Talking with the Media

A challenge may attract media attention. How effectively you work with the media may well determine how big the story becomes and will help to shape public opinion.

  • Designate a spokesperson or spokespeople for the library. Make sure that reporters, library staff and the members of the board know who has been designated. Make it clear that no one other than a spokesperson should express opinions on behalf of the library.
  • Ask questions. Find out what the approach is, whether there also will be someone with an opposing view present. If you do not feel qualified to address the question or are uncomfortable with the approach, say so. Suggest other angles ("The real issue is freedom of choice. . .")
  • Ask about the reporter's deadline. Even if he or she needs it "right away," you can call back in 15 minutes or less.
  • Remember, nothing is "off the record." Assume that anything you say could end up on the front page or leading the news broadcast.
  • Prepare carefully for any contacts with the media. Know the most important message you want to deliver and be able to deliver it in 25 words or less. You will want to review your library's borrowing and collection development policies and the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights.
  • Practice answering difficult questions and answers out loud. You may wish to invest in a session with a professional media consultant or at least practice answering sample questions with someone else (see Sample Questions and Answers below).
  • Be prepared to tell stories or quote comments from parents and children about how the library has helped them.
  • Be clear who you represent-yourself or your library.
  • Don't be afraid to admit you don't know. "I don't know" is a legitimate answer. Reporters do not want incorrect information. Tell them you'll get the information and call back.
  • Never say "No comment." A simple "I'm sorry I can't answer that" will suffice.

Sample Questions and Answers

The following questions provide sample language for answering questions from parents, the media, and others. You will want to personalize your remarks for your library and community. Remember, keep it simple. Keep it human.

Why do libraries have to buy graphic novels?

The library has a responsibility to serve its community-your neighbors-including those you may not agree with or who may not agree with you. Libraries purchase materials, such as graphic novels, because they have a mission statement that requires them to serve a broad range of community needs and wants. The material you find in your library was selected by librarians, who are taught as part of their professional education to determine the needs of their communities and to select materials based on library policies.

Shouldn't I be able to control what my kids are exposed to?

You can control what your children are exposed to by going with them to visit the library or supervising what they bring home. If there are materials you don't approve of, talk with your children about why you would rather they not read or view them. Most libraries provide suggested reading lists for various ages. And librarians are always glad to advise children and parents on selecting materials we think they would enjoy and find helpful. Ultimately, we believe parents know what's best for their children, and each parent is responsible for supervising his or her child.

Can a child check out graphic novels, even those intended for adults?

The conviction that young persons are entitled to enjoy the same freedom to read as adults is not a belief that children should be given adult-themed materials. We believe in freedom of choice for all people but we also believe in common sense, and common sense will tell you that it is extremely unusual for a young child to check out adult material.

Well, I can't be at the library every time my child is there. Does this mean my child is on her own?

No. The best library resource are the librarians. They provide assistance and guidance, such as suggested reading lists, to help young people make appropriate choices. Our goal is to provide the best possible service for all of our users, and we are very proud of what we offer. If you haven't been to our library recently, we encourage you to come and see for yourself!

What should I do if I find a graphic novel I don't approve of in the library?

We want to know your concerns. If you have a concern, simply speak to a librarian. We take such concerns very seriously. First, we listen. We also have a formal review process in which we ask you to fill out a special form designed to help us understand your concerns more thoroughly. Anyone who makes a written complaint will receive a response in writing.

1Tips were excerpted and modified from those found in "Coping with Challenges: Strategies and Tips for Dealing with Challenges to Library Materials" and "Libraries and the Internet Toolkit." These guidelines are available, along with other related material, on the ALA OIF Web site.

The American Library Association (ALA), founded in 1879, is the oldest and largest library association in the world, with more than 64,000 members. Its mission is to promote the highest quality library and information services and public access to information. The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom is charged with implementing ALA policies concerning the concept of intellectual freedom as embodied in the Library Bill of Rights, the Association's basic policy on free access to libraries and library materials. The goal of the office is to educate librarians and the general public about the nature and importance of intellectual freedom in libraries.

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) was founded in 1986 to protect the First Amendment rights of the comic book field. Since the Fund's establishment, the organization has defended dozens of retailers and artists in Free Expression cases, while promoting pro-active education to libraries, booksellers, and educators concerning challenges to comic books and graphic novels.

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), founded in 1974, is an alliance of 50 national non-profit organizations, including literary, artistic, religious, educational, professional, labor, and civil liberties groups. United by a conviction that freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression must be defended, we work to educate our own members and the public at large about the dangers of censorship and how to oppose them.

Related Files

Graphic Novels: Suggestions for Librarians (PDF File)