Addressing Challenges to Books by Problematic Authors Q&A – A Summary

Censorship, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Library Bill of Rights

A common concern among librarians and other information professionals is how to handle materials written by individuals wrapped up in some type of controversy, whether that be political statements they have made publicly, crimes or misconduct that they have been accused of, or where they have donated or invested their money. The Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC)  provided guidelines on how to handle these materials in a Q&A titled “Addressing Challenges to Books by Problematic Authors”. They define a problematic author as:  

a term used to refer to the actions of a person that violate some form of ethical, moral, cultural, or legal standard… In this use, problematic can include, but is not limited to, elements of sexism, racism, classism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, colorism, ethno-nationalism, and other marginalizations. For the purposes of this document, a problematic author is one who has committed problematic actions outside their writing.

They also acknowledge that the term problematic is subjective and, “what one person in a group feels is a problematic statement or view, another in that same group may feel is appropriate and reasonable.” They also write, “Like challenged books, challenged authors are subject to the court of public opinion. The public is vast and varied. Therefore, the best defense here is a well-crafted collection development policy.” A good collection development policy should include information about retention cycles, hold ratios, and specific criteria for the circumstances under which materials will be removed from the collection that are not based on individual opinions. 

Many times throughout the Q&A the IFC cites a section of Article I of the Library Bill of Rights that states: “Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.” Meaning that when it comes to collection development and weeding the value of the work must be assessed independently of the values or actions of the author. They also warn against any label of materials by problematic authors stating that “Libraries don’t have the authority or ability to make a determination about the appropriateness of the author’s background. As a result, they don’t have the authority to create a label.” Such labeling could deter users from engaging with the material, which would be creating a barrier to access and go against intellectual freedom best practices. 

A question that was on the lips of many library and information professionals a little less than a year ago when the publishers of Dr. Seuss’s books decided to stop the publication of six titles because of racist and culturally insensitive imagery, is whether libraries need to remove titles that have been pulled from publication by publishers. The IFC says no, stating that, “It’s the role of library workers—not publishers or authors—to critically evaluate and maintain existing collections in accordance with the library’s collection development policy.” Even if a publisher asks for items to be removed from a library’s collection, it is up to the library and the people involved in collection maintenance, guided by their institution’s policy, whether or not they choose to remove the materials.   

When preparing for possible pushback regarding your library owning materials by a problematic author the IFC reminds library professionals 

Selection and use of library resources does not mean endorsement of views expressed in those materials. It also does not mean an endorsement of the actions or views of their creator. The existence of a particular viewpoint or author in the collection is a reflection of the library’s policy of intellectual freedom. It is not an endorsement of that particular point of view or person.

It is also important to have all public facing workers at your library, even those who are not librarians, to know your reconsideration policy and be trained in how to respond to user’s concerns. For more information about this and other intellectual freedom issues, check out the Intellectual Freedom Manual, 10th Edition.

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