Dealing with Concerns about Library Resources

As with any public service, libraries receive complaints and expressions of concern. One of the librarian’s responsibilities is to handle these complaints in a respectful and fair manner. The complaints that librarians often worry about most are those dealing with library resources or free access policies. The key to successfully handling these complaints is to be sure the library staff and the governing authorities are all knowledgeable about the complaint procedures and their implementation. As normal operating procedure each library should:

  1. Maintain a materials selection policy. It should be in written form and approved by the appropriate governing authority. It should apply to all library materials equally.
  2. Maintain a library service policy. This should cover registration policies, programming and services in the library that involve access issues.
  3. Maintain a clearly defined method for handling complaints. The complaint must be filed in writing and the complainant must be properly identified before action is taken. A decision should be deferred until fully considered by appropriate administrative authority. The process should be followed, whether the complaint originates internally or externally.
  4. Maintain in-service training. Conduct periodic in-service training to acquaint staff, administration, and the governing authority with the materials selection policy and library service policy and procedures for handling complaints.
  5. Maintain lines of communication with civic, religious, educational, and political bodies of the community. Library board and staff participation in local civic organizations and presentations to these organizations should emphasize the library’s selection process and intellectual freedom principles.
  6. Maintain a vigorous public information program on behalf of intellectual freedom. Newspapers, radio, and television should be informed of policies governing resource selection and use, and of any special activities pertaining to intellectual freedom.
  7. Maintain familiarity with any local municipal and state legislation pertaining to intellectual freedom and First Amendment rights. Following these practices will not preclude receiving complaints from pressure groups or individuals but should provide a base from which to operate when these concerns are expressed. When a complaint is made, follow one or more of the steps listed below:
    1. Listen calmly and courteously to the complaint. Remember the person has a right to express a concern. Use of good communication skills helps many people understand the need for diversity in library collections and the use of library resources. In the event the person is not satisfied, advise the complainant of the library policy and procedures for handling library resource statements of concern. If a person does fill out a form about their concern, make sure a prompt written reply related to the concern is sent.
    2. It is essential to notify the administration and/or the governing authority (library board, etc.) of the complaint and assure them that the library’s procedures are being followed. Present full, written information giving the nature of the complaint and identifying the source.
    3. When appropriate, seek the support of the local media. Freedom to read and freedom of the press go hand in hand.
    4. When appropriate, inform local civic organizations of the facts and enlist their support. Meet negative pressure with positive pressure.
    5. Assert the principles of the Library Bill of Rights as a professional responsibility. Laws governing obscenity, subversive material and other questionable matter are subject to interpretation by courts. Library resources found to meet the standards set in the materials selection or collection development policy should not be removed or restricted from public access until after an adversary hearing resulting in a final judicial determination.
    6. Contact the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom and your state intellectual freedom committee to inform them of the complaint and to enlist their support and the assistance of other agencies.

The principles and procedures discussed above apply to all kinds of resource related complaints or attempts to censor and are supported by groups such as the National Education Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Council of Teachers of English, as well as the American Library Association. While the practices provide positive means for preparing for and meeting pressure group complaints, they serve the more general purpose of supporting the Library Bill of Rights, particularly Article 3, which states that “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of the responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”

Office for Intellectual Freedom
American Library Association
50 E. Huron Street
Chicago, IL 60611

Revised by the Intellectual Freedom Committee, January 12, 1983; November 17, 2000

(ISBN 8389-6487-7)



Sample Request for Reconsideration of Library Resources

[This is where you identify who in your own structure, has authorized use of this form—Director, Board of Trustees, Board of Education, etc.—and to whom to return the form.]

Example: The school board of Mainstream County, U.S.A., has delegated the responsibility for selection and evaluation of library/educational resources to the school library media specialist/curriculum committee, and has established reconsideration procedures to address concerns about those resources. Completion of this form is the first step in those procedures. If you wish to request reconsideration of school or library resources, please return the completed form to the Coordinator of Library Media Resources, Mainstream School Dist., 1 Mainstream Plaza, Anytown, U.S.A.

Name ___________________________

Date ___________________________

Address ___________________________

City ___________________________

State ___________________________

Zip ___________________________

Phone ___________________________

Do you represent self? ____ Organization? ____

  1. Resource on which you are commenting:

    ____ Book ____ Textbook ____ Video ____ Display

    ____ Magazine ____ Library Program ____ Audio Recording

    ____ Newspaper ____ Electronic information/network (please specify)

    ____ Other ___________________________

    Title ___________________________

    Author/Producer ___________________________

  2. What brought this resource to your attention?
  3. Have you examined the entire resource?
  4. What concerns you about the resource? (use other side or additional pages if necessary)
  5. Are there resource(s) you suggest to provide additional information and/or other viewpoints on this topic?

Revised by the American Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee
June 27, 1995