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On February 17th, I posted a link to a survey that a library school student was doing about book challenges and removals in libraries.  Here are the results.  Granted, the people who will take the time to fill out this survey are likely interested in book challenges already, so we may get a higher rate of incidents reported.  But the results are still disturbing — that challenges and removals of library materials are grossly under-reported to ALA.

Book Challenges and Removals Survey Results

Of the 73 respondents: 9.6% worked at academic libraries, 67.1% worked at public libraries, and 23.3% worked at school libraries.

How many incidents of material challenges have you received in the last five years?
160 challenges reported from 73 respondents (average of 2.19)
How many incidents of material challenges have you reported to the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom in the last five years?
33 challenges reported to ALA (20.6% of the 160 actual challenges)
How many incidents of material removal (following the library’s challenged material policy) are you aware of in the last five years?
23 challenges resulted in removals per the library’s policy (14.4% of the 160 actual challenges)
How many incidents of material removal (bypassing or ignoring the library’s challenged material policy) are you aware of in the last five years?
56 incidents of material removal in violation of the library’s policy (over twice the number of “per policy” removals)
The primary that jumps out at me is the gross under-reporting of incidents to ALA–only 20%!  Is this because libraries don’t want the professional stigma associated with challenges (especially removals or book-relocations)?  Or is it simply bad record-keeping?  Or apathy?  I don’t know.  But if I was a powerhouse in the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, I’d be planning a way to figure out if and why this is happening in member libraries.
The other thing that bothers me is that twice as many items are removed ignoring or violating the library’s challenged materials policy as are removed in keeping with the policy.  This says to me that people either take it upon themselves to make a decision and just remove something (perhaps to placate an angry interest group or parent) -or- librarians are just too irritated by the formality of the policy (and again, perhaps the stigma) so they just remove the items the easy way by just de-accessioning them from the catalog.
What do you think?  Have you experienced, like I have, a “hiding” of materials challenges in your library?  Have you seen them go unreported to ALA?  Have you experienced customers or library staff removing items or moving items in the collection?  Tell me your stories!

“Book Challenges and Removals Survey Results”

  1. Dances With Books Says:

    The stigma may be on the librarian. I mean getting the reputation for being the one who defends “those kinds of materials” is not exactly a way keep your job. If you have to get grilled or run a gauntlet because you ordered something certain people do not like (some LGBT items in my case), you start to wonder after a while how much do you want to fight to bring the items into the collection. As idealist and gung ho as I can be about things like freedom of expression and reading, losing my job over it (which in the very red, close minded community of Backwater Rural County where I live is a real danger) may not be worth it.

    On the other hand, since I already have that reputation. . . .but that could be a separate comment.

  2. Librarienne in Bloom Says:

    I’ve experienced a “hiding’ of materials, but it has had to do with our periodicals. Covers have been ripped off of magazines before they are even put on to the shelf because the processing staff member feels the cover is too racy. We’ve moved magazines from the children’s section to the young adult section because parents didn’t like the advertisements.

    Before these decisions are made by the directorial staff, there is not any sort of conversation or action. It seems to me that some libraries are so quick to avoid a challenge that they censor what’s put out on our shelves before something can become an issue. As an MLIS student who currently works in Youth Services, I feel like what I’ve seen in practice is almost in direct conflict with what I’ve been taught in school. In this shakey job market, however, I have to agree with Dances with Books…I’m not ready to give up my income just yet.

    I would be curious to know how many of the reported challenges (for the aforementioned survey) have been in Youth Services versus Adult Services.

  3. Jen Hinderer Says:

    I am one of the librarians that did not report a book challenge to the OIF: I don’t think any of the challenges here have ever been reported, and it sounds like there have been several over the past 10 years. It never crossed my mind to report to the ALA, not because of any fear of stigma or judgment but probably more because there is no perceived benefit to doing so nor do I feel encouraged to do so. In the most recent case here the challenge was due to the scholarship of the author and hence the veracity of his conclusions, not anything inflammatory or provocative. I’m satisfied that our internal process worked well and my staff welcomed the intellectual exercise: at no time did contacting the OIF even come up in our discussions. Which probably should be troubling to that organization, and may reveal something about our engagement with our national organization. We left the book on the shelf an simply added a note at the back of the book suggesting other reading a person might pursue about the book, with citations to articles both defending and denigrating the author’s research. I don’t know how the rest of the library world would perceive our solution, nor am I concerned about that: but maybe you are correct and some librarians do fear the judgment of their colleagues from other states and communities.

    A second reaction to your post and the conversation about challenged books: I wish there was a better word than “challenged”, it evokes an image of a duel to the death with swords or pistols not a conversation about the values of intellectual freedom and the hard work we all do to provide access to materials that inform and enrich the lives of our patrons.

  4. Library Lady Says:

    I work at a public library and we have a patron who used to take our “new book” designations off any liberal-leaning titles so that they were incorrectly shelved among older titles. She hoped to “hide” them so that others could not check them out and/or so that they would be made missing and eventually deleted from the collection. Of course, she didn’t realize that although they were marked as new titles, we would also check in other possible areas of the library for these titles. This same patron checks out the maximum allowed (40 titles) several times a week-all that adhere to her personal belief systems-knowing that as we weed the collection, we look at the number of circulations for the past few years. It is her own crusade to keep what she thinks of as “good” books on the shelf while making “bad” books difficult to find. After a LONG period of time we were able to catch her moving titles and she has been spoken to. And so it goes…

  5. Sarah Houghton-Jan Says:

    Thank you to everyone who has so far shared their stories. Keep them coming!

  6. Paula L. Says:

    I did report a formal challenge to ALA’s OIF and heard crickets. Nothing. No response to my email, fax, or phone call. The next time a challenge happens I will be less likely to contact ALA.

  7. Links of interest: March 11th, 2011 « A Modern Hypatia Says:

    [...] at Librarian in Black, has a fascinating if distressing post talking about the results of a survey around book challenges. I find it distressing, but not precisely surprising that there are more challenges than get [...]

  8. Adrianne Says:

    I’d say it’s largely what others have mentioned – why would you feel a need to report to the ALA? Also – I work for a large metropolitan public library, so the challenges are often more “why do you have this right-wing dreck here, aren’t you supposed to be promoting knowledge?” than “why do you have something liberal here, I don’t want people reading that!”… and there’s much less of a formal challenge procedure than other places might have, in that someone will ask, “why do you have this book that I think you shouldn’t have” and we’ll just tell them, not file all sorts of forms and make reports and panic “aack someone wants to ban books they must be repressive right-wingers!” as it appears others do…. Some people are just attention-seekers, and if you don’t give them attention – if you don’t make a huge fuss and bring it to the local news station and city council and all that – they’ll direct their complaints elsewhere. Of course, there are also so many rational challenges (hentai really belongs in the adult section, and just because it has pictures doesn’t mean it’s a “picture book” to go in the baby section (come on catalogers, please! Maus???)) that reporting to ALA when you’ve found out that you have fools in the cataloging department seems rather embarrassing…

  9. Emilia Rosa Says:

    I notice the lack of one very important question: How many books were EFFECTIVELLY removed? Withouth this data, the use of “Removals” is moot. Also, who are the respondents? Are they librarians or only “work” in the library? This is a very important information. (Maybe I missed all these answers?)

  10. Emilia Rosa Says:

    Sorry about this second message, but why should librarians—who work for their patrons—”report” to the ALA? The ALA is a private organization and has no right to request such data from public organizations; the ALA does not pay for these libraries to exist—patrons do. I believe it is actually illegal to “report” to the ALA and maybe soon some patrons will realize it and start acting on their rights. Librarians should start concentrating on patrons, not the ALA.

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