The Art of the Challenge

Academic Freedom, Artwork & Illustrations, General Interest

By: Valerie Nye

Paint brushes with paint on themChallenges to books occasionally occur in academic libraries, but artwork is a more frequent target of challenges in academic libraries. I recently interviewed John Harer, an associate professor of library science at East Carolina University. In the 1990s he was working at Texas A&M when students launched a complaint about a piece of artwork that was hanging near the entrance of the library. In the case below, the artwork in question was in the library’s permanent collection of art.

VN:  Briefly tell me about the incident.

Black and white paper doll dressJH: The formal complaint came from the student chapter of NOW (National Organization for Women). The student paper had published an article at the time about the growing slave trade in Africa and the Middle East (this was prior to the news on the rise of sex trafficking slave trade we have been reading about lately). The picture was one of several 19th century paintings the library owned and had displayed all over the library. This one depicted a slave girl being sold by two Arab men. The student NOW chapter argued that it was demeaning to women in light of the rise in the slave trade. A separate action was taken by someone who made a paper dress and then taped it on to the painting to cover the bare breasts of the slave girl portrayed, but that wasn’t a formal event or tied to the formal complaint. Since the painting was on a wall just as you entered the library, the dean had the painting moved to the periodical room.

VN:  How did the student NOW chapter file the formal complaint?

JH:  They met with the dean of the library.

VN:  Did the library have a process for the students to file a complaint?

JH:  The library did not have a formal complaint process. I don’t think the library staff had ever thought about it. And with this dean, she was such an authoritarian that she wanted to do these things all be herself anyway.

VN:  Did the library Dean share any of her thinking about moving the painting with the library staff? ​

JH:  She may have with her assistant deans, but she wasn’t one to share what her decision was in any official way.

VN:  Was another painting put in its place?

JH: The library owned several 19th century paintings, so the dean just shuffled the paintings around, placing the slave trader painting with the one that it replaced in the periodical room. I don’t remember what the theme of the switched painting was. It was not controversial.

VN: What did the librarians think of the moved painting?

JH: The response from the librarians was positive, though some casually mentioned it seemed to be a wishy-washy response. This feeling was not strongly held, more what you would hear in informal conversations as “griping.” I did not hear any blowback or even comments from students or university faculty. The student chapter of NOW did not complain about the shift, at least that I know of (if they did, it was with the dean and she did not share).

VN:  Thank you for sharing your story.

Blank Canvas in Old Wooden FrameFor academic libraries confronting similar situations, the American Association of University Professors Policy Documents and Reports may provide some guidance in the “Academic Freedom and Artistic Expression” section. The opening section of the chapter states, “Attempts to curtail artistic presentations at academic institutions on grounds that the works are offensive to some members of the campus community and of the general public occur with disturbing frequency … We believe that, ‘essential as freedom is for the relation and judgment of facts, it is even more indispensable to the imagination.’”

For information on protecting artwork in your library that is part of an exhibit, visit the Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights in relation to Exhibit Spaces and Bulletin Boards.

If you would like to share a story about how your library has dealt with controversial art, or if you would like to share an effective policy your library has used for complaints about art, please contact me at


Valerie NyeValerie 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 on lakes.


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