Preparing for Pushback

Strategies for handling challenges to library programs

January 21, 2024

From left: Amanda Sand Vazquez, Sukrit Goswami, and Betsy Gomez present at "Be Prepared: Program Challenges at Your Public Library," a January 21 session at the American Library Association's 2024 LibLearnX conference in Baltimore. Photo: Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries

Challenges to programs and events make up a small but growing number of attempts to restrict intellectual freedom in libraries, according to Sukrit Goswami, president of the Freedom to Read Foundation and director at Haverford Township (Pa.) Free Library. But unfortunately, he said, the data being collected on program challenges is limited and doesn’t paint the most accurate picture.

Goswami presented at “Be Prepared: Program Challenges at Your Public Library,” a January 21 session at the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2024 LibLearnX conference in Baltimore. He was joined by Amanda Sand Vazquez, director of Dubuque County (Iowa) Library District and president of the Intellectual Freedom Round Table (IFRT), and Betsy Gomez, assistant director of communications and public outreach for ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Presenters shared best practices and strategies for navigating program challenges at their institutions.

“A lot of libraries don’t tell their library associations at the national or state level what they’re suffering from,” said Goswami. He encouraged librarians in the audience to report when their programs or other nonbook-related offerings at the library get challenged by members of the public. He said it’s important to report these cases, because “if we have these statistics, we can talk to our politicians about what’s going on and what support we need.”

Sand Vazquez discussed how program challenges present a different kind of obstacle for librarians, because they typically demand immediate attention and take place in a shorter time frame. Depending on your library’s policies, the book review process can take weeks or months, whereas program challenges “can be extremely time-bound and time-sensitive,” she said.

“If you have a formal challenge to a program happening next week and you need to have your board make a decision, or whatever your policy says,” she said, “you will probably be trying to make that decision before the program happens to make sure you have the rationale in place in time for the program, if you can.”

Goswami emphasized the value of keeping commissioners, trustees, and others in leadership updated on censorship issues by hosting regular trainings or meetings. Proactively providing them with resources on the current state of book bans can help them become better advocates for the library, he said.

“Train your [trustees and commissioners] now so there’s a balance of information, especially for new members who are joining the board,” Goswami said. 

For staff, it’s key to train them on ensuring the library has a unified voice when responding to challenges of all kinds, Goswami added. He suggested designating one spokesperson to respond to all inquiries and requests, or providing staff with a scripted response for when they encounter pushback head-on. 

Gomez advised librarians to form relationships in the community, so that they can receive support when needed. She likened this idea to how firefighters are a trusted resource in responding to potentially dangerous situations.

“It’s essential to partner with local organizations,” Gomez said. “Everybody needs to see a plan [of safety]. Sometimes it’s just a matter of sharing it with everybody.”


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