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ALA 2013: How a Book is Saved

2013 July 15
by B. A. Binns
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P1020523On Saturday, June 29, a panel of librarians presented a session on book challenges at ALA 2013. Their message was that most challenges were from parents and involved material for children and young adults.


  • Emily Knox, assistant professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Kristin Pekoll, young adult librarian at the West Bend Community Library
  • Suellen Reimers, co-president of the Helen Matthes Library Board
  • Nanette Perez, Program Officer, ALA

What Motivates People to Challenge Library Material
Emily Knox began by discussing the motivation for challenges. She explained that most challengers are frequent library patrons. They go to libraries, check out material, and understand the value of a library to their community. While some adult books are challenged, most challenges involve books for children and young adults. The commonality between the majority of challenges is that they come from parents who see their role as that of boundary protector. A few general themes seen from challengers include:

  • I take care of my kids, but other parents might not, so libraries, as society agents, must protect them and keep questionable material away from them.
  • Society is fragile and might crumble without protection
  • Innocence in children much be protected

What Gets Challenged
Challenges come from both the left and right. What is controversial is different for different people so there is no way to have a controversy-free collection. Some of the most challenged books include:

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (racist language)
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (sexual content)
  • Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey (uncomfortable reading this out loud to my kids)

A diverse collection is more likely to be challenged. Many challengers do not know library procedures or consider them inadequate. They often feel librarians have too much power in determining what books are presented. They feel that text is what it is and that children will interpret material only one way, and that children don’t have skills to interpret material in ways that are not harmful. For example, if a book mentions drug use, they fear kids will read it and then want to do drugs.

The good news is that parents who initiate the challenges understand the power of books and the importance of libraries. Reading is important to them. They believe books can change lives. The bad news is that they believe books can lead to bad moral character. Many are concerned about the world. They want to make the world better but they feel powerless to make changes in many arenas of their lives. They think watching out for young minds and the content of library books is one thing they can do to make a difference.

While discussing some of the challenges their libraries have faced over the last few years, Kristin Pekoll and Suellen Reimers reinforced the message that challengers often feel kids can’t be trusted to make decisions, that what they read can influence them to do bad things. Challenges they discussed covered everything from the physical distance between the young adult and children’s book areas, to the listing of LGBT themed books for teens on a library website, to individual (and sometimes award-winning) books.

Final Thoughts

All challenges should be reported to ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom where statistics are being kept. And when a challenge is issued, remain calm and smile.

— B.A. Binns, currently reading The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time by Mark Haddon and listening to The Count Of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

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5 Responses
  1. July 15, 2013

    I wonder if there are ways to help parents feel less powerless about making a difference. I can understand why they might feel better if they can get rid of a library book that they see as harmful. Most of us want to help make the world a better place.

    • July 15, 2013

      Sometimes it comes down to discussing with parents. Some don’t know the thought that went into book selection. Just agreeing to talk with them, and providing some reasons why the book was chosen for inclusion, and that we are trying to have books in the collection for all patrons, not just some, often helps them understand and retract their challenge.

  2. Maria Hanrahan permalink
    July 16, 2013

    I’m completely fine with parents restricting their child’s exposure to a book they find objectionable. But when a parent thinks they have the right to decide what is OK or not OK for OTHER children, they have stepped over the line. When the big book challenge happened in West Bend, I was the main opponent to the challenger’s campaign to remove/label/restrict materials. My children were about 8 and 10 years old at the time, and I knew that it was MY job to decide what they could or couldn’t view/check out from the library, not some other parent’s job or the library’s responsibility. I just don’t get why some parents can’t grasp the concept of using the tools and policies of the library (child can’t get a library card on their own, parents and children can visit the library together and parents can monitor and/or research materials, etc.)….there are things in the library that I don’t want my kids to read (Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh), but that doesn’t give me the right to deny others’ access to that material.

    (Kristin Pekoll rocks!)

  3. David permalink
    July 20, 2013

    I attended this session and was disappointed that none of the panelists came from a school library. More challenges take place in school libraries than anywhere else, and having gone through multiple book challenges in my own school library, it is often much tougher to defend a challenge in a school library setting than in a public library.
    The research presented by Emily was interesting, and Kristen’s story was interesting, too. But the other two panelists added little to the session and one of them could easily have been replaced by a school librarian.

    • July 20, 2013

      David, I felt some of the same. I went hoping to hear something about schools. I had a personal experience with challenges when a high school near me would not allow my book Pull, a YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, on their shelves out of fear of a challenge. They had faced challenges in the past, and watched their administration back down and order books removed rather than fight parents. They decided not to risk another book with controversial subject matter such as kids dealing with the aftermath of domestic violence.

      I thought it especially ironic because I used some of that school’s students as models for some of the kids in the book. I was actually asked to provide backup information on how they could defend the book if (when) the challenge occurred, but in the end they decided not to risk it after being overruled in the past. What that brought up to me is that if the school board is not with the school librarians, they have an near impossible task with challenges, because parents, even the parents of kids on the verge of adulthood, will challenge books.

      Unfortunately I doubt the decision not to risk being challenged is reported to the OIF.

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