LIBRARIES ARE A cornerstone of the community dedicated to serving the information needs of everyone. As such, they collect and make available a wide variety of information resources representing the range of human thought and experience. With such a broad spectrum of ideas and information available, it is inevitable that people will occasionally encounter resources they believe to be inappropriate or offensive. They may complain and request that such resources be removed.
Below are step-by step suggestions about how to respond. These suggestions are not enough, however. Every library should have a collection development policy with a resource reconsideration process approved by its governing body. In addition to outlining the process and criteria for selecting resources, the policy should describe the procedure the library workers will follow when a user requests that a resource be reconsidered. Having a policy and procedure in place will help library staff deal confidently and fairly with users who express concerns.
Throughout the process, it is critically important that library workers remain calm, respectful, and courteous. There is no reason to become defensive when a complaint is made. Not only is this counterproductive, but it negates the library's efforts to encourage user involvement.
If the library has no collection development policy with a review process, affirm the principles of intellectual freedom found in the Library Bill of Rights as you respond to the challenge. Two relevant ALA documents to read are "Challenged Resources: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights" and "Access to Library Resources and Services for Minors: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights".
All challenges, regardless of the source, should be handled in the same way and in accordance with policy. Do not make exceptions in the reconsideration process based on whether the challenge is submitted by a member of the public, an administrator, a library staff member, or a volunteer.
INFORMAL COMPLAINTS AND EXPRESSIONS OF CONCERN
Informal complaints can occur at any time, and every library should have a process for handling verbal concerns. Library workers and educators who receive expressions of concern should courteously refer them to the person responsible for responding to concerns, who should take the following steps:
- Acknowledge that every person has the right to question library resources. A library user with a complaint should feel confident that their concerns will be taken seriously. Listen thoughtfully and respectfully. Try to elicit the specific reason for their concern, whether they have read the entire work or only parts, and the specific action they would like the library to take.
- Do not promise to act or appear to agree with the individual. Instead, offer assistance in finding something else that would better meet the person’s needs.
- If the person requests the item be removed from the library’s collection, explain that although the individual may be offended by the library resource, others may not have the same perspective. Describe how library materials are selected. Libraries have diverse collections with resources from many points of view, and a library’s mission is to provide access to information for all users. All library users have the First Amendment right to borrow, read, view, and listen to library resources.
- If the individual is concerned about a children’s or young adult resource, explain that parents and guardians play a major role in guiding their child’s reading and library use. Often a person’s concern about a children’s or young adult book involves a desire to “protect all children” by removing that item from the collection or restricting access to it. Explain that each family has the right to determine which library resources are acceptable for its children and must accord the same right to other parents.
- Many expressions of concern end after the individual has had an opportunity to express personal feelings about a library resource. The person only wanted to be heard and have his opinions acknowledged. No further action is needed. If this is the case, thank the person for their interest, make notes about the conversation, and file them for future reference. Additionally, report the conversation to the library director or principal.
- If the concerned individual is not satisfied during the discussion and wants the item removed, explain the formal reconsideration process and its timeline. Often people who have a concern would like immediate action and are not aware of the length of time this procedure takes. State what your policy says about the availability of the material during the reconsideration process. Best practice is that the resource under reconsideration will not be removed from use or have access restricted pending completion of the process.
- Provide a copy of the library’s collection development policy and resource reconsideration form. Stress that no action is taken unless the form is fully completed by the concerned individual. Explain that the submission of a completed form will trigger the formal reconsideration process, and that the document will become part of the public record.
- After the conversation, make notes, date them, and retain the information to provide background in the event that a request for formal reconsideration form is filed. Remember that all such notes become part of the record of the reconsideration process and may become public records.
- Keep your director or principal informed of any concerns expressed, whether you feel they have been successfully resolved or not. Knowing that a concern was expressed helps that individual respond knowledgeably if the concerned person contacts them.
FOR ADDITIONAL GUIDANCE on handling informal complaints, refer to the "Guiding Principles for All Types of Libraries" in the "Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, & Academic Libraries."
Garnar, Martin, and Trina Magi. Intellectual Freedom Manual. Tenth Edition. Chicago: ALA Editions. 2021
Purchase the Intellectual Freedom Manual, Tenth Edition at the ALA store.