Lost, Stolen or Censored?

Censorship, Challenge Reporting

By: Kristin Pekoll, Office for Intellectual Freedom

If a person sets fire to library materials, we know that is censorship. We’ve seen the pictures from Germany of the thousands of books burned by Nazis. At the core, burning books denies access to information and ideas that is constitutionally protected by our First Amendment. I argue that when a person hides materials, defaces materials or steals materials from the library, they are also denying access to ideas and information that is constitutionally protected by our First Amendment. When the intent is clearly to suppress ideas thought to be objectionable or offensive, it is censorship.

ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom tracks censorship. While we try to offer definitions for what censorship looks like to help librarians know when to report it, people can be spectacularly creative with how they express their displeasure and indignation.

  • Facebook post expressing outrage and disgust
  • Principal directive to ban a book from the library collection
  • District disinvites an author from visiting the school
  • Superintendent removes book from school curriculum
  • Local politician demands to delete library tweets
  • Dean requests relocation of controversial display
  • Faculty relocates controversial material to a university vault
  • Cataloger refuses to process new books

Individual requests to remove library resources or cancel services is just one example of the reports we receive. This year, we’re talking about more of the outliers. I don’t believe that they are as uncommon as we’ve assumed. I just think they don’t get reported and documented for us to talk about.

Redacted bookIs this censorship?

What about when labels are strategically placed over images? What about when patrons check out books and never return them because of what they think is offensive content? What about when materials are intentionally defaced and destroyed? What about when someone takes materials off a library display and hides them? What about blacking out profanity on the page? What about when materials are stolen?

At the Wentworth Library (Minnesota), books about the holocaust are being defaced. “Sometimes books were so badly defaced they had to be thrown away.” Someone is removing access to these materials because of their personal beliefs. Librarians encourage users to follow a standard policy so everyone’s opinions can be heard without destroying materials that the entire community contributed to. But sometimes they act outside of legal parameters. It’s still censorship.

We’ve only seen it in the news a handful of times; at the Evanston Public Library (Illinois), University of Texas, or Baker County Public Library (Oregon). But what about the times that haven’t made the news.

Stories from the Field

I asked a large group of librarians about their experiences to get a general idea of how often this happens. It was an informal request on social media, so nothing scientific, and I would have loved to follow up with more questions but I opted for brevity. Of the 100 comments posted, here are some of their responses.

“My library claim to fame was finding a secret cache of 75 books hidden underneath our shelving. Of that 75, 55 were about witchcraft and many were showing up as “on shelf” on my report.” -Lauren S.

“We have someone who regularly hides LGBT books behind other books. Examples of titles we’ve found hidden are “This Book is Gay,” “LGBT Stats,” and “The Gender Expansive Child.” No one has actually complained about any materials, but someone is waging their own silent war.” -Tina D.

“I grew up with a LIBRARIAN who hid materials. Any fiction that had “objectionable” content was placed on the tip-top shelf, presumably out of reach of children. Novels with sex in them, witchcraft stuff, all kinds of sci-fi, same-sex content… all collected onto one high shelf.” -Sarah J.

“During the election, someone kept hiding our books on Hillary Clinton.” Katie H.

“The library could not keep any book about Jim Thorpe on the shelves. Some patron (we assumed it was just one) would routinely find any new book about him at any of the branches, deface all photos of him and mark out his name throughout.” -Karl S.

“At my previous library we had someone who would rip the covers off of particularly steamy romance paperbacks.” -Tony L.

“On several occasions an unknown patron took all of the children’s nonfiction 200s and shoved them into the 398s. I think maybe all religion offended them or something? Either way, it happened several times and we never found out who it was.” -Ashlie B.

“Someone, over time, took dozens of books – mostly on LGBT-related topics – from our collection and put them *above the drop ceiling of the public men’s room*. We discovered them (around 2004 or so?) when IT was running new cable up there. our building was new in 1996, to give you an idea. We don’t know if the motive was keeping these titles from others to save their souls or for self-reference or both. We never caught the perpetrator.” Louise A.

“The covers of our magazines will often “lose” covers if any nudity is portrayed.” -Angela B.

“We have a children’s nonfiction book on Humanism on display that a parent keeps hiding – we usually find it with our beginner readers but they’ve recently begun shoving it in with our picture books. (I’m assuming because we’d discovered their original hiding place.)” -Kelli C.

“I learned of an instance of an organized group of patrons continually placing holds on a certain item (Madonna’s sex book) to keep it out of circulation.” -Jenny D.

Report Censorship

You tell me.

Are these situations censorship? If it happened in your library, would you think to report it to ALA? Hiding books or defacing books isn’t a traditional definition of a challenged book but when the same book or the same types of books are targeted again and again, it qualifies. It may not be the same as filling out a reconsideration form and going through the process of a review committee, but access to the materials is denied all the same. And we want to know about it.

My hope is that we’ll continue to have these conversations about the different ways we identify censorship in our libraries and schools. And I would encourage you to please, please, please, report the censorship if it happens in your library.


  • The most difficult of the self-appointed moral guardians are the passive/aggressive ones described here.

  • A few years ago, I wanted to read “The Missionary Position” by Christopher Hitchens. All 3 copies in the Hawaii State Public Library System had been conspicuously “lost’. So I bought my own copy and read it, but I hesitate to donate it to the HSPLS because I suspect it will get “lost” pretty quickly. Now that I’m writing this, it seems like the experiment alone will be worth however little I paid for that great book.

  • I had a former supervisor, who asked why Where’s Waldo was on my Banned Book Week display, so I told her and she made me check to make sure the copies we had were the edited ones. She said “what are you going to tell the Director if someone complains?” “That it is Banned Book Week, and that there are a lot more naked people in the non-fiction section.”

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