NHLA Intellectual Freedom Manual (continued)

Sample Letter to Complainant From a Public Library

The sample letter below provides a model for wording an effective response to a complainant regarding materials, programs, or exhibits in your library. Select the appropriate word or phrase from those in parentheses. Sentences or phrases appearing in brackets should be replaced with your library's mission and policy statements.

Dear _________ :

The Trustees of the Deweyville Public Library have discussed your concerns about the book (video, program, exhibit ...) (Title) .

As you may know, the library has written policies which provide criteria for selecting materials to add to the collection and for planning programs, exhibits, etc. [Materials must have received favorable reviews in professional library journals to be included in the collection, although high demand items may be considered for purchase even if reviews are unavailable or less than favorable.] [Programs and exhibits are based on community interest in the topic, credentials of the presenter ... ] In a diverse community such as ours, it sometimes happens that materials or programs of great interest to some patrons are considered by others to be objectionable. The library's mission is [to provide for the information needs and interests of all our residents.]

The Trustees examined the material about which you are concerned and read the reviews available at the time of publication [read a description of the program, received requests for a program on the topic, examined the credentials of the presenter ... ] They concluded that the item meets the selection criteria as stated in the policies, is therefore appropriate for the library, and should be kept in the collection.

We appreciate your interest in the library. If you have any suggestions about alternative programs, or materials you would like to see added to the collection, please let us know.


Chair, Board of Trustees


How Not to Handle a Complaint: #3,

by Rebecca Rule

"If you think this novel is bad," you tell the patron, "you should read Catcher in the Rye-it's much worse. Or The Red Pony--much worse. Anything by Danielle Steel, of course, it goes without saying--those books with Fabio on the cover--sex, sex, sex--much much much worse. The Godfather--Puzo means well but gets carried away. Does America need to know that much about the Mafia? Gulliver's Travels--the unabridged version--subversive politics. And that Roald Dahl, another Englishman--the children love him-- but James and the Giant Peach, I'm sorry but it's perverse. The Color Purple, you know what that's about! And Rebecca Rule, The Best Revenge, we're talking twisted. Most of the Nancy Drews are harmless, but that Mystery of the Old Clock," you cluck disapprovingly. "It's all a matter of taste, of course, but goings-on in the Old Testament, all that begetting and begetting. Please!"

"Are all these books in the library?"

"Oh, yes--I think so. If you have any trouble finding them, let me know."

"I'll need a sheaf of complaint forms."

"Of course."



Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Off:
How To Deal With the After-Effects of a Formal Challenge

by Ann K. Symons
President, American Library Association

Like most school librarians, I've worked in the same school for many years. I joined the Juneau School District as librarian in 1972; 25 years later I'm still there. Amazingly, we went over 20 years without a formal challenge to any material held by the district's school libraries -- until 1993.

That year, our librarians went through an experience that I hope you never have to. Reading and continuing education can prepare you intellectually for a challenge (and, fortunately, we were prepared), but nothing can prepare you for the emotional toll of an event which consumes a community -- a formal challenge with intense media coverage and emotional public hearings. Recovering from a challenge, I believe, leaves librarians, library users, and the broader community stronger than they were before the turmoil.

In 1993, a group of parents in the Juneau (AK) School District organized as the Parents for Responsible Education to challenge the addition of Daddy's Roommate to the district's elementary libraries. We followed our reconsideration policy to the letter, and, fortunately, months later our School Board voted to retain the book. With their decision, the members of the Juneau School Board sent a message to the community that this book was educationally suitable and that bigotry and intolerance were unacceptable in our schools.

Their decision was a victory and, for us, it was also a relief We had survived a battle which included local and state-wide television news coverage, front-page newspaper stories, hate letters, and other nightmares. For all involved it was like going to hell and back. It consumed our lives and it became all-important.

We heeded all the professional advice: we followed our procedures, we spoke with one voice, we worked with ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom and local First Amendment advocates, and we were uncompromising in our principles. Eventually the challenge ends and its time to pick up the pieces.

After the last board member has voted you will either be elated or depressed. Because, unfortunately, this probably won't be the last censorship battle you ever face, you should use the experience to your longer-term advantage. You may have gathered piles of documents and other useful information -- figure out a way to use them. Make sure that you sit down almost immediately and make a list of what factors made this challenge either a success or a failure, Some factors you may have had control over and others not.

The first item on the to-do list is to write thank-you notes to everybody who helped you in any way during the censorship challenge. Next, make a list of everything that didn't work with your policy and figure out how to bring new policy before your governing body so that next time (yes, next time) the process will be smoother. On your long-term list to think about are ways you can make a broader contribution to intellectual freedom. Serving on your state association's intellectual freedom committee, making sure that Banned Books Week is celebrated in your community, and giving workshops and in-service programs for colleagues are just a few of the ways you can participate professionally. Don't let this be the end of your involvement with intellectual freedom.

On a more personal basis, I encourage those of you who have just gone through a challenge to think about what you personally learned from the experience. I learned first, that a real-life censorship challenge is not the same as learning about censorship in library school or being supportive of intellectual freedom during one's professional career. You must decide where you "really" stand on intellectual freedom, how hard you are going to work to ensure a successful outcome, and you will find out who your "friends" are. There are many positive aspects to a censorship challenge, including the opportunity to educate a community and a generation of high school students. It was an experience I hadn't bargained for, wouldn't wish on anybody, and wouldn't trade away for the world.

Just as you will, I picked myself up, dusted myself off--and went on to write a book with my colleague Charles Harmon. The two most enduring outcomes of my experience on the front lines are the concrete statement our School Board's decision made in my own community and our book, Protecting the Right to Read: A How To Do It Manual for School and Public Librarians.

The book is a lasting contribution to the profession on intellectual freedom. The community's acceptance of the Board's affirmation of the right to read may not always be as lasting. Who is on the governing board of your library or school board is one of the most important factors in any challenge. When your local elections come around make sure that you think about asking the League of Women Voters and the Friends of the Public Library to put on a forum to ask each of the candidates their views on intellectual freedom. We did and it worked for us! All of the "Daddy's Roommate" candidates lost!

Never be afraid to ask for help -- and always let your community know what's going on.


All Assistance Gratefully Acknowledged

When the challenge has been met and the complaint resolved, be sure to thank all those who helped:

Send letters of appreciation to everyone. If your supporters are willing to be recognized, publicly acknowledge them at a meeting of the governing body, in a news release, or at a celebration.

Last, but definitely not least, be good to yourself. Eat, drink, nap, exercise, shop, read a book, watch a movie, listen to some tunes. Relax and do whatever makes you happy. You have earned it, and you will be getting in shape to face the next challenge.


Now That You Have Their Attention

The library has been big news throughout "the situation", and the attention of the media and the community has been focused on you. Now that everything has been resolved, the community needs to hear a positive re- statement of the library's mission, programs, and services, and the principles of intellectual freedom. You have a narrow window of opportunity to pull a public relations coup and get the word out. Remember, the most difficult part of successful publicity is getting people's attention. You have it now, so make the most of it.

Act fast. If more than a week goes by you will have lost your chance with the media. The library will be "old news".

Contact each of the editors and reporters with whom you have been dealing (you should be on a first-name basis by now!) and ask them to print a follow-up story or interview.

Decide what you want to say, and phrase it in the most positive terms. If you decide to refer to the "recent unpleasantness", explain the whys and wherefores of the library's position but be careful not to blame anyone for the incident. If it has caused you to make major changes in policy, this is a good opportunity to explain these to the community.

Use your explanation of the library's viewpoint as a starting point to talk about other library services.

You may decide that the community has heard enough about the challenge and its resolution. In that case, stress the benefits provided to the community by a library collection developed under the principles of intellectual freedom and how the library is protecting their right to know.

Contact community organizations and offer to speak at their next meeting. Use the opportunity to explain the services provided to the community by the library. Be prepared to listen to their concerns and respond appropriately.


Attitude Adjustment

Once everything is settled in some way, the work is not over. The library must not only continue to reach out to the community, but take some time to look inward as well. Have members of the staff withdrawn? Have the rest started gossiping or griping to each other or to patrons? Your once well-adjusted staff may be feeling the effects of stress even after the complainant has gone home.

A staff meeting (or several) is a must in the time following a challenge. All staff members should have the opportunity to talk about their view of the process, how they feel about the outcome, and their vision of the future. The library staff morale will benefit from the renewed sense of unity.

Outside of a formal meeting, the staff will need to feel supported by the director and the governing body. Take the time to tell individuals how their actions or attitudes made a difference.

If the process didn't work as planned, make sure that appropriate policies or procedures are reworked and clearly explained to all staff members. Give the people on the front lines the written support they need to feel confident when dealing with the public.

Find ways to make everyone feel good about intellectual freedom again. It is time to return to a positive way of thinking. Rather than focusing on censorship, focus on the right to read and access information. If appropriate, get staff members involved in a public relations campaign or programming for the community. It may be time for an intellectual freedom workshop for the staff - make it fun and creative to get everyone excited about their role in providing library service.

Think about having a staff get-together outside of work. Give everyone a chance to remember how much you like one another - talk about anything but work. Play croquet and have a cookout, or get silly over a game of PictionaryTm; whatever it takes to break the tension and get people laughing.


Recordkeeping in the Aftermath

All along you have been keeping records. Now is the time to clean up that file, evaluate what you have, and add any additional paperwork you think might be relevant.

Your file should include such items as:

Keep this file confidential, and keep it as part of your permanent records. It may be useful down the line if you have to face another incident. It will help jog your memory of who your allies were, how the media portrayed the situation, etc.


Evaluating the Process

The "situation" is finally over, and the participants would like to forget the entire process. Now is the time to evaluate the policies and procedures that were followed and methods of communication that were used. Evaluation should be positive, sensitive, include both staff and the governing body, and not focus on personalities.




Once your evaluation of the policies, procedures, and methods of communication is complete, you will have the information you need to repair any inadequacies.


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