Common Sense Has Nothing to Do with Censorship

Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship

By: Pat Peters

When I became a librarian years ago, I thought that I would be fully prepared for any challenge that might come my way. As I selected materials for my collection, I would sometimes think about the reasonable challenges I might expect for a given item. Sometimes it was easy. Other libraries had received challenges for similar items, and I was pretty good at extrapolating. We were ready at my library!

And then some really strange complaints hit us totally out of left field.

A couple of examples:

In a public library setting, a mom brought a complaint against Carl Deuker’s On the Devil’s Court, in which a high school senior strikes his own bargain with the devil (we’re not sure if it’s real or imaginary) to finish out the basketball season on top. The mom asserted that reading this book was the reason her daughter had been institutionalized for mental illness. After some conversation with the mom, it became clear that she was looking for somewhere to lay blame for her daughter’s situation. She was shaken; she was embarrassed; she was completely out of answers for her child. So the library became her scapegoat.
RESULT: Due to a breakdown of staff training, the mom filed a formal complaint, so library staff were obligated to follow the prescribed procedure of forming a committee, making recommendations, and communicating the final decision to the parent and to the Library Board. The book was retained in the teen fiction section.


In a private school setting, two sets of parents brought complaints against Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time after it was made an all-class read for the eighth-grade English class. The parents charged that the book encouraged occult practices, since one of the characters, Mrs. Which, dresses as a witch and another is called “The Happy Medium.” The parents believed that any discussion of occult-related topics was not appropriate for their children.
RESULT: This was a small private school, so the headmaster immediately made the decision to support the parents and instructed that the two students be given an optional book to read while the rest of the class was discussing A Wrinkle in Time. In addition, he told the teacher to choose a different book for the following year’s all-class read. As the school librarian, I went to the headmaster in support of the book and the teacher. I talked about the facts that both instances of “occult practices” were just funny asides and that the overarching theme of the book is that good conquers evil. However, the headmaster insisted that these parents were paying a great deal of money to give their students the kind of education they expected without the children having to be subjected to things the parents didn’t want. There was no formal process in place and, therefore, no appeal. The headmaster was the one and only decision-maker.

These two examples demonstrate that there is no possible way to know ahead of time what challenges will come or from whom they will come. The only way to be prepared to meet library materials challenges head-on is:

  1. to have policies and procedures in place related to collection development and how to deal with challenges,
  2. to train all staff on how those policies operate, and
  3. to follow those policies and procedures in all of our work.

As we all know, attempts to censor library materials are never pleasant and we can’t possibly know who or where they will come from, but we can be ready to deal with them when they arise.

Patricia PetersPat Peters is director of the Decatur Public Library in Decatur, Texas. In her spare time, she is an adjunct professor of Library Science for Texas Woman’s University, having taught both graduate and undergraduate Children’s Literature and Youth Programming. Pat is the 2016-17 chair of the Texas Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee. Pat and her husband Jeff live in Denton, Texas. Pat can sometimes be found @PatriciaP628.

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