By: Kristin Pekoll
Reporting challenges to ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) raises awareness of the harms of censorship. OIF tracks attempts to remove or restrict materials and services across the country. By reporting censorship incidents, librarians help identify trends in censorship cases and document responses and solutions to censorship. Since 1990, OIF has maintained a database on censorship challenges in libraries. This data is collected from two sources: media reports and reports submitted by individuals.
Now that 2017 has come to a close, we will begin processing all the reports to finalize the number of challenges from the past year and compile our annual list of frequently challenged books. The Top Ten Most Challenged Books and infographics created from the data we receive is published around the world, initiating thousands of conversations about censorship and equitable access in libraries and schools. While we know that many challenges are never reported, we strive to be as comprehensive as possible. We would greatly appreciate if you could send us any information on challenges in your library, state or region that you are aware of from 2017. The deadline for reporting 2017 challenges to OIF is Wednesday, January 31, 2018.
Even if you think we probably already know about the challenge, send it to us anyways. There may be more details we can add to our database. Many times the status is left unknown because the case was reported before there was a resolution, so updates are also encouraged.
Reporting censorship helps OIF provide better information and support to librarians and teachers facing intellectual freedom challenges.
Anyone may contact ALA with questions or to report a challenge to library or classroom resources via the online challenge reporting form. The person does not have to be a member of ALA or a librarian. As a professional association designed to support librarians and educators, we follow the lead of the people we are working with. In some situations, publicly aligning with outside advocates may not be the best course of action for a librarian in a tenuous environment. We will never reveal who contacts our office or why without the individual’s permission.
I’ve compiled a few of the most frequently asked questions to help you feel more secure reporting challenges.
What is a challenge?
A “challenge” is a direct request to a library, school or university to remove or restrict material or services due to content or appropriateness. Often these requests are submitted via a formal, written complaint or a reconsideration form. But any time a request or action impacts the rights of others in the community or institution to access the material or service, it falls within the definition of a challenge.
We do not track informal complaints or expressions of concern. However with the rise of social media posts expressing outrage toward an institution, we do track incidents where the public concern has attracted enough attention to warrant action by the library or governing body.
What is a ban?
A ban is the removal of materials or canceling of services because of complaints.
Why does ALA only report public cases?
Our concerns for your confidentiality and protecting your trust is paramount. We firmly believe that exposing censorship and shedding light on misuse of power is the best way to protect intellectual freedom, but we will not sacrifice librarians to make that happen. We understand there are situations where librarians fear losing their jobs or experience negative repercussions for speaking out. Working on the front lines can be challenging and we don’t want to add to the stress of that. If a case is public (reported in the media or listed in public documents), we may include the institution in reports, but we would keep confidential the support and interactions with a librarian who doesn’t wish to be included publicly.
ALA produces an annual field report that compiles the public cases. In 2016, ALA received 323 challenges, and 46 public cases were listed in the field report.
What information does ALA track?
We look for details that help us form a larger national picture of censorship. Who is censoring materials? Are challenge requests coming from parents, religious institutions, politicians, organized groups? What are their concerns? Are items being pulled because of racist language, profanity, or nudity? What issues are relevant in the materials and services that indicate there is a larger concern, despite the reason listed for the challenge? How many displays of LGBT materials are dismantled because of complaints? Are the majority of challenges happening in public libraries or academic institutions?
This information helps us strategize where to focus our resources. Because of the rise in authors being disinvited to speak based on complaints, ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee is developing an FAQ to provide guidance for libraries in similar situations.
What does OIF do with the reports?
Besides publishing the field report and analyzing trends, we compile non-confidential cases into a quarterly report for the Intellectual Freedom Committee. We answer questions from students about what books have been challenged and why. We draw attention to public challenges through social media, and celebrate banned author birthdays and popular censorship cases. And we publish updated editions of banned book resources guides like Banned Books: Defending Our Freedom to Read.
Any guesses for the Top Ten of 2017?
Jamie LaRue – I think 13 Reasons Why will be our top book challenge – and I suspect that many of the schools that pulled it aren’t talking about it. The concern over teen suicide is certainly real; silence probably isn’t the best response. I think our other 2017 trend is the rise of non-book challenges, among them a new campaign against a prominent library database, and library displays, usually associated with LGBT themes.
Deborah Caldwell Stone – If we weighted the power of a censor and the extreme legal lengths to ban a book, I’d say Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff but I doubt it will reach the Top Ten with frequency.
Kristin Pekoll – Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Ellie Diaz – With the rise of TV adaptions of popular books, I suspect the Top Ten will include a few novels that experienced a resurge in popularity (and criticism) after hitting the screens.
But ultimately we won’t know until we get all the reports in. And for that we need your help. Please report!