Navigating Waves of Censorship: Resources for Public and School Libraries

Book covers including Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, 33 Snowfish by Adam Rapp, Maus by art Spiegelman, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Something Happened in Our Town by Donald Moses and Marianne Celano, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson
Books that have been banned or challenged in the recent wave of school and public library censorship attempts

We’ve all seen the recent headlines highlighting a startling rise in censorship: legislation banning teachers from discussing racism, lists of books to pull from school and public libraries, and politicians threatening to withhold library funding. Most of the challenges target books featuring Black characters and history, queer characters and history, and cover topics like anti-racism and sexuality.

It sounds like something out of a dystopian novel, but these recent challenges form just one of many waves of censorship that have occurred in recent history. These often rise out of anxiety over societal shifts – this current wave seems to be motivated by the growth of the Black Lives Matter movements and rising awareness of the systemic racism and homophobia that are woven into American society.

Many smart people have written more eloquently than I can about the links between censorship, racism, homophobia, and why this all matters so much. Young adult authors focus on the damage that book bans do to LGBTIA+ youth who are seeing their stories delegitimized by community institutions. Teachers showcase how reading books about characters whose experiences differ from our own can help us develop empathy. Author and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Jason Reynolds, discusses the importance of children’s literature and the cost of removing books from school libraries. Intellectual freedom researcher Emily Knox covers the history of challenges to “diverse” books and gives recommendations for protecting access to these resources. One school librarian highlights the importance of providing materials that tell the stories of both the struggles and the joys of minorities in the U.S.

Thinking about waves of censorship provides the important perspective that this wave will end. It doesn’t make it less scary for those involved, or minimize the damage it will do, or mean that it will end without the hard work of those of us who care about free access to information. It’s likely that before this wave ends, these challenges and censorship will affect your library or community in some way. The good news? There are fantastic resources available to help the Colorado library community minimize these effects. Let’s dive in!

Foundational documents 

When challenges arise in your community, the first lines of defense are the documents that make up the foundation of library practices. These include the Library Bill of Rights and its various interpretations, as well as the Freedom to Read Statement. These documents outline the basic principles that govern all libraries and are specifically related to intellectual freedom. It’s also important to know what criticism exists of these documents – just like the U.S. Constitution, the Library Bill of Rights reflects the era in which it was written and should be treated as an important guide that can still be adjusted to fit into our modern communities where necessary. These foundational documents are extremely useful to point to when you’re asked why your policies and procedures include intellectual freedom principles in the first place.

Written policies and procedures 

Speaking of policies and procedures, these documents should be an established part of your library organization before challenges come your way. Written policies and procedures can include material selection, program development, library exhibits, and other services. They work best when created with the input of library staff at all levels, are formally adopted by your library’s governing body, and are periodically revised to meet the needs of changing communities. Policies and procedures should be easily findable on the library’s website and in branches. This process ensures that the entire library ecosystem is on the same page and places you in a proactive position to address library challenges.

You don’t have to start from scratch on these policies – go out and look for similar (and dissimilar) library systems and see how their policies are written. Take what works for your community and use that as a starting point. Remember that policies and procedures are meant to be malleable documents that go through many rounds of revisions before being adopted and should be periodically revisited, so be prepared to revise ruthlessly!

If your library has existing policies and procedures, now is a great time to refamiliarize yourself with them and make sure that they adequately address the new landscape of library challenges. What happens if the challenge comes from a board member or trustee? Is there a plan in place if the challenge gets media attention? How do you address a legislator or city council member who brings a challenge or complaint? Feel free to get in touch with CAL’s Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) at to take a confidential look at your policies/procedures to see if there are any gaps or red flags.

Policy Development Resources: 

Educational materials

Once you have solid policies in place, regular training of staff, volunteers, and trustees will ensure that everyone understands library policies and procedures, as well as how they uphold intellectual freedom principles through their work. While this sounds like yet another task to add to your ever-growing to-do lists, there is no reason to develop new training courses – library associations have already developed a wealth of training materials:

  • Training outlines from CAL-IFC are freely available and can be easily adapted to fit any type of staff education, from a 30-minute morning meeting to an all-day staff retreat.
  • ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom has many recorded webinars and training on their YouTube channel.
  • It’s an unfortunate reality that conversations with patrons about library challenges can be heated. Library workers can prepare to deal with those interactions by practicing ahead of time and creating “scripts” to follow in difficult conversations. WebJunction has a free, self-paced course with tips for how to manage angry patrons in these situations.

Education can also happen at the community level. Outside of the library world, most members of the public don’t understand the role that library workers play in protecting the public’s right to information. Incorporating intellectual freedom principles into existing library programming can help build up a community of library advocates that we can call on to speak on the behalf of library workers when censorship shows up in our institutions.

Reconsideration requests 

Reconsideration procedures can exist on their own or as a part of a larger intellectual freedom or collection development procedure. The procedure is designed to treat reconsideration requests from patrons in a standardized way, so that each request is treated seriously and fairly. The process typically begins by asking the patron to fill out a formal reconsideration request, which is a written form collecting details about the item, program, display, etc. that is being challenged. It can be easy to be dismissive of reconsideration requests, but it’s important to empower library patrons to provide input about their library’s services. Most of the time, it can spark a sincere conversation about intellectual freedom and the library’s role in providing access to all kinds of information. In some cases, the reconsideration request is being made in bad faith from someone who is more intent on agitating than engaging. In these cases, library management and board members need to be prepared to use their written policies and procedures to defend the library’s collection, services, or workers.

Reconsideration Request Examples

An informed board (and information about your board)

Typically, the library board deals with library governance – establishing mission and vision statements, determining policies and procedures, and hiring a library director. Through these governance duties, library boards are responsible for delivering the best possible library services for the community that the library serves. It’s essential that board members understand their responsibilities before taking on the role, and are knowledgeable about their community’s culture, as well as marginalized communities that could be better served by the library.

Unfortunately, not all library board members are interested in serving their communities and some even seem to be actively working against their library’s best interests. In these cases, it’s crucial to understand board processes to minimize their ability to sabotage library services. Even if you have a fantastic board, make it a priority to attend your library’s board meetings to see what issues they’re discussing and lend your expertise to their decision-making (leadership: give library workers the time to do this!). Be aware of how board members obtain their positions – in Colorado, many are political appointees, which provides some insight about their motivations as a board member.

Another key role of library board members is to represent and advocate for the needs of their community. Think about your library board: does it accurately represent your library’s service population? Who is missing? How are your election or appointment processes preventing people from underrepresented groups from becoming board members?

Resources for Board Policy and Guidance 

Conclusion – We’ve got this!

It’s a tough time to be working in libraries for various reasons, and the increase in censorship is just one to add to the list. While stressors like COVID and public funding may feel far outside of our control, the recent censorship attempts tend to follow a similar playbook each time, which means that library workers can prepare for what’s likely to come. Make sure your policies are prepped, stay informed on the evolving censorship situation using the resources below, and you’ll be ready to face any challenge! We’re all in this together.

Challenge Resources 

Stay Informed 

  • Intellectual Freedom News from ALA-OIF

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  • CAL-IFC Email List

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  • CO Freedom of Information Coalition Newsletter

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