A Board's Guide to Book Bans and Challenges in Public Libraries


Why Are We Discussing This Now?

Between 2021 and 2022, there has been a significant increase in the number of book challenges from parents, activists, school board officials, and lawmakers around the country. There have been efforts in different states to file criminal charges against school librarians for purchasing certain titles.

Book challenges are not new, school boards debate these issues on a regular basis, what is unusual is the frequency and intensity at which these challenges are happening. There is also a highly charged political component to many challenges, one side or the other is fueling legislation. In some cases, entire book lists focused on promoting diversity and inclusion have been slated to be banned by certain groups.

A concern shared by authors and librarians alike is that removing books from libraries will make it harder for students to talk about difficult situations. Banning authors and subject matter stigmatizes certain conversations and encourages negative feelings about groups of people.

Book selection is a practice that needs to be done with great care and intention.

Banned Books Introduction

Banning vs. Challenge

  • Challenge: An attempt to remove or restrict materials, based on content.
  • Banning: The removal of materials based on content.
…Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. Due to the commitment of librarians, teachers, parents, students and other concerned citizens, most challenges are unsuccessful and most materials are retained in the school curriculum or library collection. Source: ALA Banned Book FAQ

Topics of Most Book Challenges

Books can be challenged for any reason that an individual or group deems valid. Popular topics cited in book challenges include race, LGBTQIA+, transgender, sexuality, language, violence, witchcraft, religion, and politics. According to the American Library Association
Often challenges are motivated by a desire to protect children from “inappropriate” sexual content or “offensive” language. The following were the top three reasons cited for challenging materials as reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom:
  1. the material was considered to be "sexually explicit"
  2. the material contained "offensive language"
  3. the materials was "unsuited to any age group"

Challenges by Institution

According to ALA's 2019 data, a majority of book challenges happened in Public Libraries.
  • 66% - Public Libraries
  • 19% - School Libraries
  • 12% - Schools
  • 2% - Academia
  • 1% - Special/prison libraries

New information will likely come out of the current wave of book challenges.

Challenges by Group

According to ALA's past data on book challenges, library patrons and parents secure the largest percentage of groups that challenge books. Administration and religious groups are next, followed by a low percentage of librarians/teachers, elected officials, and students. As mentioned above, lawmakers and political affiliates are now entering the fray.

Public Libraries and Book Challenges


As with any situation, the first step to navigating a book challenge in your library is to have a policy. The American Library Association has the Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, & Academic Libraries that can guide a library through the process of developing its own policy.

The highlights of ALA's policy development include:
  • Ensures that the selection of materials reflects the institution’s philosophy, mission, guiding principles, or other foundational documents
  • Provides a framework for the consistent selection and acquisition of library resources in all formats using a standard set of criteria
  • Avoids haphazard patterns of acquisition that will result in waste or overlap of content
  • States who is responsible for the selection and the parameters under which the individual(s) work, but allows for the professional judgment
  • Ensures a diversity of viewpoints on all topics, including those that may be considered controversial
  • Identifies cooperative collection development arrangements such as resource sharing including interlibrary loans, agreements to purchase or lease e-content, and resource retention commitments (for example, archival materials, government documents, local author materials)
  • Provides standards for collection maintenance and the removal of library resources that are out-of-date, inaccurate or no longer reflect the consensus of the field, in poor condition, rarely used, in an obsolete format, no longer fit the needs of library patrons, or have excess copies
  • Supplies guidelines for the consideration of gifts and donations
  • Establishes a process by which individuals may share their concerns about library resources in a discussion with a librarian or, if their concerns are unresolved, invoke a formal reconsideration process
  • Affirms the importance of intellectual freedom, referencing key documents such as the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Library Bill of Rights, and the Freedom to Read Statement

The System has drafted a selection policy to guide purchases for the OWWL2Go collection, professional collections, and other materials. You are welcome to use it as a model template for your own policy.

Selection and Reconsideration Policy Draft.docx

Responses to Challenged Books

Policy will determine the process at which a library responds to a challenged book. In ALA's information as well as the sample provided above, the procedure is fairly straightforward.
  1. A patron discusses the issues with a library representative;
  2. If they would like, they may complete a "reconsideration of material form;"
  3. This form is then taken to the appropriate review committee; then
  4. A determination is written on the reason for the actions taken.
The main goal is to document the process as well as the determination in a way that supports the library's mission, policy, and intentions.

Board Discussion Around Challenged Books

It is entirely possible that your board may consist of individuals who are against certain titles in the library. This should not be neglected nor discourage a conversation around the library's collection. It would serve your board well to keep in mind that any conversation about a book, no matter the reason, should be had with the library's best interest at the core of the conversation. Personal politics, beliefs, and opinions should not guide a library's decision to keep or remove a title. It is also good to keep in mind that it is the role of the board to approve the collection budget, not individual purchases. This is up to the Library Director in their effort to carry out the library's policies.

A few points to keep in mind:
  • Stating a committee in your policy will help a challenged book conversation follow the correct procedure.
  • If a book is challenged in your school district, you can be proactive in evaluating the material ahead of time at your public library.
  • The board oversees the governance, while the director oversees the management of day-to-day operations; collection development falls into day-to-day operations.
  • If there is concern a book challenging contingent will make an appearance at your board meeting, be sure your Public Comment Policy is up to date.
  • Do not let popular opinion, personal opinion, or any other opinion sway a decision that should be made with the best interest of the library in mind.

Statements of Support

The Freedom to Read Statement by the American Library Association offers a strong argument to preserve the ability to disseminate ideas and information even in the event of a challenge or ban.

ALA Statement on Book Censorship opposes widespread efforts to censor books in U.S. schools and libraries.

ALA's Library Bill of Rights affirms that all libraries are forums for information and ideas, and that the following basic policies should guide their services.

NYLA Position Statement on the Defense of Intellectual Freedom shows our state-wide advocacy organization in support of Intellectual Freedom and the opposition to the restriction, removal, and/or censorship of books.
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