On Data and Confidentiality

Banned and Challenged Books, Challenge Reporting, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Office for Intellectual Freedom

This week a freelance journalist questioned ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom’s reputation and professionalism, because he was denied access to OIF’s proprietary database of challenge information.   It appears that his goal was to confirm his conclusion that And Tango Makes Three is the “most challenged book in America” and he believed that OIF should provide him access to its proprietary database to corroborate his belief.

It should be understood at the outset that it is OIF policy to not provide access to the raw data in the challenge database to any person, for a number of reasons.   Probably most important is the fact that the database is compiled from news items and challenge reports voluntarily submitted by librarians and teachers, sometimes in confidence.  We’re acutely aware that the data we compile doesn’t have the statistical validity demanded by social scientists and researchers, because OIF doesn’t  proactively seek information through questionnaires, phone surveys, and the like, does not attempt statistical sampling or related techniques, and does not track the progress or eventual outcome of each censorship attempt.

In some cases we get numerous details about the challenger, the nature of the complaint, the backstory, and the current status of the book. And in some cases we get very little. Sometimes we receive information during the challenge event, sometimes many years later. These factors affect the total number of challenged books for any given year and how we inform the public about challenges.

And we know for a fact that we do not hear of every challenge.  One telling example:  in 2012, journalism students working with University of Missouri Professor Charles Davis served every public school district in Missouri with a FOIA request for records of challenges as a class project, and learned that there were 51 challenges to books in Missouri schools between 2008 and 2012.  When we compared their results to the information in our database, only 6, or 12%, of those challenges had been previously reported to OIF.

anonymous In a nutshell, it would be impossible to determine with any amount of confidence “the most challenged book in America” from the database. It’s why we limit our discussion about challenges to the limited time frame of one year, and make sure that we include a disclaimer that notes that the most challenged book list for a particular year only reflects a snapshot of activities based on voluntary reports concerning documented requests to remove materials from schools or libraries.

More important is our promise of confidentiality; the database includes identifiable details provided to us in confidence by the librarians and teachers who come to us for help and we are simply not confident that we can safely anonymize the data so that their privacy is preserved.

Because the office does get many requests for raw data, the office has developed a statement to be given out to those who make such requests. The article quoted selectively from that statement; here it is in its entirety:

Thank you for your inquiry to the Office for Intellectual Freedom. We compile information from news reports, individuals, libraries, schools, and other organizations about challenges to materials. OIF does not always track the progress or eventual outcome of each censorship attempt reported to it nor can it assure that data items are consistent across each report.  In addition, not every challenge is reported to OIF.

 As a result, the information that we maintain is a snapshot of requests to remove or restrict books from libraries and classrooms and is not a complete or exhaustive source of data on such activities.  OIF maintains the database for internal staff use, as a means of encouraging libraries to report challenges, and to create awareness of the importance of protecting and celebrating the freedom to read.  Because the censorship database does not have the statistical validity demanded by many social scientists and researchers and may be vulnerable to misinterpretation and misuse, we must deny any request asking OIF to share raw data.

We have always been clear in our press statements about what is added to the database.  Recorded challenges are documented requests to remove materials from schools or libraries or to restrict other library users’ access to those materials.

As we remind requestors, any discussion of challenges in a particular year can only be a snapshot of a particular time frame.   Fifteen years ago, the Harry Potter series was frequently challenged; then Tango became a target of censors; and now Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian often appears on our most frequently challenged book list.   Our goal is not to focus on the numbers, but to educate the community that censorship is still a very serious problem.   The fact is, parents and community members have sought to remove And Tango Makes Three from libraries and schools, with the intent of denying others the right to read that book.   In some cases, the challengers succeed in doing so.

Our responsibility, as a professional organization, is to our members and the librarians we serve and support. We promise professionalism, assistance, and most of all confidentiality. We are not obliged to journalists who claim we owe them a duty of transparency and unrestricted access based solely on their curiosity about a particular book.   If anyone truly wants to find out what is the “most challenged book in America,” they can follow the lead of the Mizzou journalism students or the example of researchers in Massachusetts and conduct their own research and compile their own data.

We are not sorry that we protect the professionals who fight for the freedom to read and the First Amendment. We will not be changing our policy.


  • “We are not sorry that we protect the professionals who fight for the freedom to read and the First Amendment. We will not be changing our policy.”

    Why do you consistently refuse to have a dialog with people who disagree with you?

  • Actually, I believe it’s a valid question to be answered, and it’s perfectly reasonable to do so without violating anyone’s confidentiality. For example, crime statistics are released every year, stating the types of crimes and the general statistical information of both victims and criminals. In what way would answering a question such as “how often…” violate anyone’s confidentiality?

    If anything, claiming confidentiality about the information behind the lists while using the lists to promote awareness is rather disingenuous. How do we, the general public, know if there are, in fact, dozens of incidents, or only one? It’s a far different thing if there’s only one or two for each book on that list, as opposed to one or two dozen. Not to mention the different types of challenges that may be made for each book.

    I am vehemently opposed to censorship. However, I’m also vehemently opposed to self-aggrandizing organizations and bureaucrats who seek to puff themselves and their causes up in the public eye but do so by lies and misleading propaganda. There’s no need to reveal your sources, but at the very least stop hindering people who are asking for the resources you proudly advertise as having. Preventing the dissemination of that information is as bad as the censorship you claim to oppose.

  • Not gonna lie: I found the refusal to apologize mildly arousing.

    Out of curiosity, what personally identifiable information is automatically attached to reports? For example, does it log IP addresses? I’m wondering if there’s a way you can rework the form if that’s the case. Even though I fully trust you to protect the data (and to be delightfully sassy in the process), I wonder if submission rates would increase if you could clearly state the measures taken to protect anonymity.

  • First, I wish to comment that I have every respect for the ALA and believe its motivation and activities to be well motivated and aimed at promoting a healthy occupational field and supporting its membership. At the same time, I believe that such organisations are susceptible to control or direction by individuals and groups who have particular agendas and who, whilst claiming to represent the collective view, may not necessarily do so or, at the very least, may be from as inclusive as one might hope.

    ***”We are not sorry that we protect the professionals who fight for the freedom to read and the First Amendment. We will not be changing our policy.” — On the surface, this seems a reasonable & supportable statement. On closer examination and thought, it seems much less so. Its last sentence is, unfortunately, redolent of a closed-minded, reactionary mindset.

    The arguments within the article are weak, at best. There is *no* issue of privacy or breach of confidence in releasing the gross number of objections received by the OIF regarding a specific title. I respect and agree that the Association must be responsible with information provided to it but this question need not compromise it in any way.

    On my reading of this situation, the claim that “… it would be impossible to determine with any amount of confidence ‘the most challenged book in America’ from the database.” is a straw man argument. It doesn’t appear to me that the OIF figure was the only basis on which the journalist intended to make such a claim. Presumably, your database information was simply one source of information to be taken into account in determining the infamous status that is at issue.

    On your own assertion, you provide a two-paragraph statement to those requesting raw data that explains your position and purported reasons for refusal. In effect, this statement constitutes what could be a disclaimer that could accompany the release of any information. As any librarian knows, once we’ve supplied information to a client we have no control over how they use that data. The extent of our control is to protect the anonymity of our patron’s personal information and loans/search information and to ensure that any copyright or other legal requirements are notified to and agreed to by the patron prior to the release of the information.

    Sadly, there are not a few librarians who actively censor or participate in censorship promotion as complainants. No doubt that group would support your position but I would suggest that most “professional” librarians would support the free flow of information and expect the OIF to do so, too.

    In conclusion, it seems to me that what you have supplied as justification for your stance does not stand any reasonable scrutiny. I would even go so far as to say that it represents a stance that is at odds with what one would expect of the OIF and if this article truly represents your position, I would question whether the Office has reason to continue.

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