I almost got to do my first book challenge not too long ago. How exciting!
But it was only an almost.
*Minor details changed/omitted to protect privacy.
A gentleman approached the desk and very politely asked to talk to somebody about the appropriateness of a certain book for our library. I’ve listened to patron complaints before, but usually it is just that -- complaint, not an actual challenge. Most folks just want someone to listen to their concerns, to tell them that they’ve been heard and that their opinion matters (and it does matter, even if I don’t personally agree with it). But that’s it -- hardly anyone wants to take it to the level of formal challenges and board reviews. But this guy that I’m talking about, he knew what was up. He fully expected to be able to file a formal challenge.
He went on to explain that his son brought the book home, and that he was very glad that he makes a habit of reading his son’s selections before the youngster does because this particular book appeared to be marketed to teens but it was in fact entirely inappropriate for that age group and maybe for everyone because it was sexist and racist and generally promoted a bad attitude towards other people and the language was terrible. According to this patron, anyway.
I’m not going to mention the name of the book, because that doesn't really matter, but I was curious and looked up the reviews for it on Goodreads and Amazon. The reviews are not good. Most folks apparently agree with this particular patron.
Does that mean that this book doesn’t belong in our library?
And it wasn’t just this book. The patron went on to complain that we shouldn’t carry books like this in the library. Like... what, exactly? About this topic? About this topic for this particular age group? Books that are mis-marketed to teens? Books with this sort of language? Books that are sexist or racist or otherwise promote bad attitudes?
I’m not going to get into the whole book banning/censorship mud pit. It’s complicated, for one thing, and also many other more articulate librarians than I have written plenty on the subject already.
So why was this only an almost... ?
Turns out the book wasn't actually checked out from the library. His son had bought the thing from our semi-annual Friends of the Library book sale. It wasn't even a discard, just some random unwanted donation in good enough condition that the Friends folks thought they could make a few bucks off of it.
Let’s get this straight: he gave his son some money, set him loose at the book sale, let him buy whatever, reviewed his purchases after getting home with them, and THEN came back to the library to complain about it. I guess he didn't really understand the concept of a library book sale?
He wasn't happy when I told him that there was no way to file a formal challenge since the book was not actually a library item. And even if it was, he’d only be able to challenge that particular item -- there’s no way (at this library) to file a formal complaint about a vague “type” of item, like books with subjectively vulgar language or whatever. He even brought up the fact that he’s some sort of professor, as though it would make a difference. I guess he wanted me to say, “Oh, you’re a professor, well then that changes things! Of course I’ll do whatever you say, just please don’t fail me sir!”... when in reality, I was thinking something more along the lines of “Huh, well, if you’re such an intellectual maybe you should understand how libraries work by now.”
But I shouldn't be so snippy. He was just an overly concerned parent, doing what overly concerned parents tend to do (which is to assume that others are also going to be overly concerned, and to be upset when they aren't). He was trying to do right by his kid, which is more than I can say for some parents that frequent our sacred institution.
So that was exciting. An almost-challenge.
Below are some ALA resources regarding book challenges:
About Banned & Challenged Books
Support for Dealing with Challenges
Frequently Challenged Books