Dear Library Trustees | Editorial

Book challenges are here; here’s how to respond.

Book challenges are here; here’s how to respond

Meredith Schwartz head shotThese are rapidly changing, complex, and contentious times for library boards, so I felt it was important to reach out to you directly. Many of you have already faced challenges you couldn’t have anticipated when you took your seat on the board. Navigating the COVID pandemic has been a tough intersection of competing needs for public (and staff) safety and service. Local boards had to wrestle with a pervasive problem, with high stakes and passionate advocates on both sides.

Unfortunately, library boards are in another such situation now, though it may not yet have come to your town. The issue is challenges to books—almost entirely those by and about LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC people.

There have been challenges to library materials as long as there have been public libraries. But there are new twists in what’s going on now. First, there are a lot more challenges. Second, while traditionally what to do with a challenged book has been decided by library staff in accordance with the collection management policy, current challenges are going over the heads of the librarians trained to do this work—not only to boards, but to state legislators, governors, police, and prosecutors.

Centralizing some library materials decision-making for an entire state—as has been proposed in various forms in Indiana, Iowa and Idaho, among others—takes power from local boards who better know community needs. EveryLibrary is tracking concerning bills in 20 states. (See These take different tacks, including threatening to jail librarians. The chilling effect of making librarians afraid not just for their jobs, but for their freedom if they buy a book someone else doesn’t like, will drive good people out of librarianship, dissuade potential new librarians from entering the field—and deprive community members of critical resources they may not be able to access anywhere but the library.

Third, while challenges are brought by local constituents, they’re part of an organized movement across the U.S., funded by major right-wing donors, as the Guardian reported on January 24. (See That doesn’t mean local challengers aren’t sincere. But it brings partisan politics into a historically nonpartisan organization. Regardless of your beliefs, do you want the state deciding what goes in your town library? Do you want your library board election run on party lines?

This national book banning movement also means that when you decide these issues, challenges brought to you have been influenced by what’s happened elsewhere—and your decisions will have repercussions for libraries across the country, as well as your community.

So I urge you, if you haven’t already, to learn more about what’s happening—if possible, before challenges are brought locally. Ask your director, state library association, and state library. Ask United For Libraries, the national organization for library trustees. You don’t have to be
a member to watch its webinars on this topic
(, though membership provides access to additional valuable resources. Reach out to your local school board, which has likely been grappling with these issues too. And reach out to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, which can both provide you with confidential support and document your situation to keep the whole field informed.

I also urge you to resist the urge to evaluate books yourselves. It’s the board’s job to make policy, not to implement it. The staff who do should be charged to read challenged books in their entirety. It’s easy and misleading to cherry-pick pieces of a work that sound outrageous.

Finally, I urge you to trust your staff. Community oversight is important. But volunteer board members don’t have time to keep up with the evolving profession the way librarians must. We’re already seeing long-term directors of high-performing libraries leave their posts because they aren’t supported by their boards on these issues. And we know there are more staff at every level leaving than make the news. I know good officials want to solve the problems that constituents bring them. But to serve the whole community, not just the vocal few, please keep in mind: A board decision that placates angry citizens in the short term may cause quiet but critical harm over the long haul.

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Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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