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Most libraries celebrate Banned Books Week  in September every year and talk about the importance of access and intellectual freedom at that time. Books that are challenged are featured in displays and programming. Unfortunately, book and library material challenges are not extinct. Challenges happen in many forms at nearly all libraries every year. It is important for library team members to review library policy on handling informal and formal complaints. Today could be the day a patron emails, calls, posts on social media or complains while you are at the desk. Be prepared.

Material challenges are submitted at differing levels of severity: informal complaints at the service desk, complaints that are elevated to discussions with directors, formal complaints submitted to the board, complaints via email or publicly on social media, and other scenarios. Each complaint is unique and requires a thoughtful and thorough response.

Below are resources and exercises you can use in preparation for handling material complaints.

Refresh Your Knowledge and Consult Library Policy

  1. Consult the Library Bill of Rights from the American Library Association.
  2. Review the Library Collection Development Policy for your library, print copies for your work stations, and review the policy with your team.
  3. Review your library’s collection development and inclusive services policies with your team.
  4. Review your library’s complaint policy and procedures.
  5. Practice handling complaints with scenarios from the Cooperative Children Book Center (CCBC).
  6. Browse professional intellectual freedom resources (listed below).  

When a Challenge is Presented

  1. Take a deep breath and exhale.
  2. Listen and acknowledge the complainant’s point of view.
  3. Evaluate the complaint.
    • Is the complaint informal? Example: A library user mentions dislike and or disapproval of an item, program, or service to a service desk team member.
    • Is the complaint formal? Example: A library user complains and is not satisfied after a discussion with a library team member or the library director and requests to submit their complaint to the library board.
    • Is the complaint public?
      • Example: A library user complains on social media regarding an item, program, or service.
      • Example: A library user submits an opinion letter which is published in the local newspaper.
  4. Acknowledge the submission of the informal complaint or formal complaint.
  5. Determine how the complaint should be addressed according to your library’s policy.
  6. If you will be responding to the complaint, take time to reflect, evaluate the material personally, and seek out professional reviews. If you will not be responding to the complaint, let the library user know the appropriate library team member will be in contact with them shortly.
  7. All complaints should be documented.
  8. Notify the CCBC and the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom even if complaints are resolved locally.

Professional Resources
The CCBC headquarters are in Madison, Wisconsin. The CCBC team members are your state experts and support team. The CCBC specializes in intellectual freedom and provides excellent resources on preparing for challenges, handling challenges, resolving challenges, and supporting librarians through challenges. Reach out to the CCBC, even if a challenge is resolved locally.

CCBC Children’s Cooperative Book Center

American Library Association 

Professional Book Reviews

Challenges in Wisconsin News

Office for Intellectual Freedom. Intellectual Freedom Manual.  Magi, Trina, editor: Martin Garnar, assistant editor. American Library Association, 9th ed.

You can find this and all editions of Boost! on the Digital Lites page by selecting “Boost” in the “Categories” control on the right side.

Submitted & Updated by Anne Hamland Aug 2021