By: Valerie Nye
This past summer, patrons around the country challenged libraries about their subscriptions to Teen Vogue. The online article that caused the controversy was published on the Teen Vogue website and was about anal sex. The article was not published in the paper copies of the magazine, but patrons called on libraries to end Teen Vogue subscriptions because of its online content. A public library director, who wishes to remain anonymous, shares how she and her library staff worked through the challenge.
Val Nye: You experienced a challenge to Teen Vogue this year. Will you please explain the challenge at your library?
Library Director: Teen Vogue magazine was challenged by a library patron with a verbal request that we cancel the subscription. A Request for Reconsideration of Library Resources form was not filled out or given to the patron.
The patron referenced an article about anal sex as her reason for wanting the subscription cancelled. The article, “Anal Sex: What You Need to Know,” was added to the Teen Vogue website July 7, 2017. It does not appear in the print version of Teen Vogue, but is freely available without subscription on the Teen Vogue website.
VN: Was the person challenging Teen Vogue a community member or someone outside your area?
LD: A community member.
VN: How did you learn about the challenge?
LD: Per our branch manager, the patron saw a Facebook post regarding a recent Teen Vogue article about anal sex. The patron came to the library to look at the article, but the article was not found in the print edition of the magazine. Our branch manager sent the complaint to our periodicals collection development team leader (library specialist) and spoke with her via phone describing her conversation with the patron. After an initial review of the magazine, our library specialist called the patron and had a brief conversation with her and asked for more information. Our library specialist then contacted me as library director.
VN: At this point, has the challenge been resolved? If so, what was the resolution?
LD: We were able to resolve this challenge through dialogue with the patron and without the patron opting to file a formal Request for Reconsideration of Library Resources form. The library decided to retain Teen Vogue.
Our library specialist consulted with our youth services librarian regarding her opinion of the content in question and any concerns she might have had about having the title in the youth services teen collection.
Our library specialist called the patron for an initial contact and to ask for a little more information. She had a constructive conversation that helped her understand what the concerns were and explained that review of material takes a little time and that she would call her back the following week. Taken directly from our library specialist’s documentation of the follow-up conversation, the following items were addressed.
- She informed the patron that the library could not address the material she was concerned about because it is free and open access material available through the publisher’s website and not found in the library’s print subscription. The patron questioned this again (as she had in her first telephone conversation) as she believed that it exists in one of the print versions of the magazine.
- Given that the library could not address free and open access online material, the library specialist let the patron know that she understood her basic concern that Teen Vogue has mature content not appropriate for youth. Based on this concern, she let the patron know that we did a full review of the print version and researched the publisher and recent changes made to the magazine.
- They discussed the basics of the magazine and the library’s collection development guidelines.
- In 2016 and forward, editorial content of Teen Vogue has shifted significantly from strictly fashion and pop culture to a wide range of social issues. Both the digital and print editions, while still a fashion and pop culture magazine heavy with advertisements, are now offering sex education as well as social commentary on many topics that may be considered controversial. Recognizing that the print edition of Teen Vogue now contains sex education and other content that may be considered controversial, the library specialist addressed this by letting the patron know that it was part of our mission to provide access to a wide range of information. Points made:
- the library provides sex education material in the children’s, teen’s and adult collections;
- the library does not monitor the use of material in any collection by any patron;
- children and teens of any age are free to access material throughout the library;
- it is the parent or guardians role to decide whether any given material is appropriate or not appropriate for their children;
- we encourage parents to take an active role in guiding their children when accessing library material;
- we encourage parents to monitor their children’s usage of digital/online material.
- The library specialist informed the patron that she had discussed Teen Vogue with the head of the youth services department and with the library director and provided both names. She offered that if the patron would like to discuss her concerns further, the library director would be happy to speak with her.
- The patron did request that the library specialist contact her next year when the magazine collection is under yearly review for renewal decisions to let her know if usage increases or decreases for Teen Vogue and whether the magazine will be renewed or cancelled at that time.
- Overall, the patron was interested in and thankful for the information provided. The tone of the conversation was supportive, understanding and retained a sense of partnership — meaning the patron was supportive of the library and the library was supportive of her concerns and we were partnering to better understand together the issues and how to proceed. She did not seem angry or frustrated by the library’s decision to retain Teen Vogue in the collection.
VN: I believe you mentioned that you worked with other administrators/departments in the city to work through the challenge. Can you talk a bit about that?
LD: Yes, I notified my immediate supervisor about the challenge and my concerns. Because the article garnered opposition from a variety of groups and there was a wide-spread campaign (#pullteenvogue) to cancel subscriptions and pull the magazine from stores and libraries, I was concerned about the possibility of the challenge developing into a social media controversy and/or legal matter around freedom of information rights. I carefully reviewed the American Library Association’s (ALA) recommendations for responding to challenges and concerns around library resources as well as our relevant library policies/procedures and administrative codes. Our existing library procedures largely follow ALA recommendations concerning challenged materials. I prepared a short document for my supervisor summarizing the challenge; background on the #pullteenvogue campaign; and our library’s policies, procedures, and professional values that guide our actions. This information was shared with our county information officer and I believe our attorney’s as well.
VN: Do you plan to update any policies based on the challenge? If so, can you talk a bit about that?
LD: Yes. Our policies are a bit vague about who should follow up with the patron initially when a verbal complaint is made. This is confusing for staff. We are considering referring all complaints to the library director initially rather than to the person responsible for the selection of the specific material.
VN: What advice do you have for libraries who are facing a similar challenge?
LD: Open dialogue with the patron. Listen to and acknowledging patron concerns without agreeing with the patron about the material or content in question.
Research the concern thoroughly. Our library specialist responded thoughtfully to the patron, and asked questions to determine what the specific concerns were. In addition, before contacting me, the library specialist researched the Teen Vogue article that appeared on the website and provided me with the context of the challenge including the #pullteenvogue campaign. Our library specialist’s excellent research, provided the information I needed to address the concern with confidence.
Prepare for the conversation. Since our library specialist seemed to have good rapport with the library patron during their first conversation and was willing to follow up, I decided to let her continue the dialogue with the patron. Before she called the patron, we prepared together for the conversation and the points that needed to be conveyed. We also discussed how to proceed if the patron became angry, confrontational, or wanted to pursue a formal written reconsideration process.
Make sure that library staff are trained in how to respond to complaints about materials. They need to be able to acknowledge a patron’s concerns without giving personal opinions or appearing to agree with the patron.
Thoroughly document the challenge and follow up actions taken.
VN: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions and sharing your story. I think your detailed descriptions of the issues and the way you and your staff prepared to work with the patron are invaluable.
P.S. Since the controversy, Teen Vogue’s publisher Condé Nast has announced that the magazine will stop publishing in print in 2018 and will only be available electronically.
Valerie Nye is the library director at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She has been active in local and national library organizations; recently serving on ALA Council, the New Mexico Library Association, and the New Mexico Consortium of Academic Libraries. Val has cowritten or coedited four books, including True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries published by ALA Editions in 2012. True Stories is a compilation of essays written by librarians who have experienced challenges to remove material held in their libraries’ collections. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In her time away from the library she enjoys road trips in convertibles and kayaking.