Become Challenge-Ready

Panelists suggest strategies to help libraries prepare for book challenges

June 26, 2023

Becky Calzada wearing a blue blouse, glasses and holding right hand in air as she speaks into microphone
Becky Calzada, district library coordinator at Leander (Tex.) Independent School District Photo: Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries

Conflict mediation and preparedness.

By working on these two areas, libraries can better prepare for potential materials challenges at their institutions, according to panelists on “Is Your Library Challenge-Ready?” a June 26 program at the American Library Association’s 2023 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Chicago.

“We can’t just hope it doesn’t happen and not be prepared for it,” said panelist Val Edwards, library teacher leader at Madison (Wis.) Metropolitan School District (MMSD), to the majority school and public library workers in attendance.

MMDS has 25,000 students with 53 schools and 48 libraries and librarians. And given its size, it’s important to “ensure we’re moving as a cohesive unit in the same direction,” said Maegan Heindel, the district’s library services coordinator.

To do that, Heindel suggested reviewing state statutes, your district’s vision and goals, current board policies, and department procedures. She also suggested drawing from existing expertise, such as ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, state library associations, state library consultants, local book and reading associations, and colleagues at other types of libraries.

“When we do the work that we do, it’s not in isolation,” said panelist Becky Calzada, district library coordinator at Leander (Tex.) Independent School District (LISD).

Calzada’s district of 43,000, which encompasses about 44 schools, has seen its fair number of battles, including in 2021, when the county initially withheld CARES Act funding from LISD and one other school district because of reading materials available to students that the county deemed “X-rated.”

“We already should be working together as colleagues in our library ecosystem,” Calzada said, encouraging school, public, and academic librarian collaboration. “We want to support each other,” she said. “This is tough work, and we need people we can talk to and bounce ideas off of.”

The importance of identifying leaders in the community—whether in your district or outside—who can provide support at public meetings “can’t be overstated,” Edwards said.

Prep your team

To prepare teams, Heindel recommended reviewing selection and reconsideration policies, establishing regular intervals for team review and sharing, and providing basic information with building administration and teachers. “Keep pointing back to policy,” she said.

The three panelists also advised running scenarios to support staff. This can be a good way, Edwards said, to assure them that the expectation is not necessarily to have an immediate answer or resolve a challenge right away.

“The more you can slow-roll getting to the challenge and have a conversation,” the better, she said.

In forming partnerships with parents, for example, Edwards suggested that libraries may want to provide alternatives like “clean lit,” or a list of titles that some parents may want to consider for their children instead. This can show a good-faith effort to work with parents regarding any concerns.

In conflict mediation, Edwards said, “everything comes back to power, reputation, or relationship.” And by thinking in these terms, it can help library workers understand where a parent or patron may be coming from and then follow a process that the library has in place to better respond to individual challenges.

This preparation is also helpful if an organized national group challenges your library, she said. It’s a reminder that “we’re a team that’s under attack, not an individual. It’s formidable.”

Plan for clear communication

If your library is receiving the same queries again and again, it’s time to put together a sheet of frequently asked questions, Calzada said. For example, maybe you’re often asked, “How does your library select books?” Or “What is a graphic novel?”

She suggested looking at these “probletunities” and seeking to address them. A link to the FAQ can be given out to administrators and to patrons at point-of-need. “Ultimately our goal should be about building transparency and building trust.”

When a parent comes in emotionally charged, Calzada said, “listening is so important, asking questions, seeking to understand.”

In practicing role-playing scenarios, she suggested having librarians build those scenarios or pull from existing ones. “It helps to build confidence in people” and allows others to lend their expertise to assist colleagues.

All three panelists encouraged attendees to check in on the people they work with and to not allow one incident to erase all the good work the library and staff members do.

Said Calzada: “We need to lock arms and stand strong together.”

For more information, the panelists provided this resource guide:


Pictured: Erin MacFarlane wearing an orange jacket and has yellow hair speaks into microphone as Becky Calzada, wearing glasses with dark hair and a yellow shirt, listens

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