SJCPL Response to Book Challenges

For background, please see:

I worked for 15 years at SJCPL. This issue felt close to home for me.

This is the statement read by Dawn Mathews, Director of Branch Services at SJCPL at the meeting. I think it is powerful and I wanted to share.

The first amendment to the Constitution protects our freedom to read, to listen, to write, to speak and to protest about our beliefs and opinions with protection from retaliation.

Our Public Libraries are a symbol of freedom of speech and are fundamental to our democracy. This freedom can’t be taken lightly. 

There are some countries where authors and journalists are threatened or imprisoned for what they write or say. And citizens don’t have free access to read what they’d like  and their access to the Internet is highly restricted.An informed public is important for a healthy democracy. Public Libraries have a mission to provide free access to books and information for all people.

This includes access for all ages. Minors are also protected by their own first amendment rights. Public Libraries are important for the next generation of thoughtful readers and responsible citizens.

A parent or caregiver always has the first and most important role in teaching and guiding their child. It is the parent or caregiver responsibility to decide what their child can read and what programs or experiences their child may participate in.

We are obligated to include materials offering different viewpoints. And some of these materials may be controversial or offensive to some members of the public. It is ok if an individual disagrees with a library book or program and decides not to select that book or attend that program. 

In fact, each of us in this room has books in the Library we personally don’t agree with. While I’m sure we’d each have good intentions, if one by one we removed books according to our personal values, there wouldn’t be anything left. Our shelves would be bare.

Here are some diverse titles you will find in our collection …

I’d like to share the criteria we use for selecting books

The library’s Collection Development Policy serves as a guide for the selection of materials. We use five major guidelines: 

1: The American Library Association statements including the Library Bill of Rights,Freedom to Read, and Diversity in Collection Development.

2: The needs and demands of people and community organizations.

3: The merit of the work as a whole, not by selected or random passages. 

4: The obligation to reflect within the collection differing points of view on controversial subjects, and 

5: the existing collection, budget and services. 

You might wonder how we decide the location of books in the library

We rely on our professional Collection Development and Technical Services Librarians to determine the appropriate location for each title added to the collection. They classify a book based on author and publisher information for the intended audience, professional reviews of the title, and shared data on where other libraries have placed the book. 

Our Librarians have undergone rigorous schooling and preparation to decide the best place to put every title in our collection for our community of readers to easily access them.

We do not typically remove books from a children or teen area, because that denies access and is censorship. For example, if we move a teen title to the adult section, that teen or parent/caregiver will more than likely never find it. 

You may not want your child or teen to check out a title that does not follow your personal values, but there are many other parents in the community who would want that book on the shelf in the teen area for their child or teen if they choose to read it.

We leave it up to the parents or caregivers to know what is best for their child or teen.


If someone disagrees with a title or where we have placed it, we have a reconsideration of material form. The library reconsideration committee takes these appeals very seriously. 

The public library plays an important role in our democracy. We are used by a diverse community, and provide services and a collection that meets the needs of every individual and family in our community. 

I’d like to close by sharing a quote from the former US  Poet  Laureate Rita Dove and I might add, it is her birthday today!

The library is an arena of possibility, opening both a window into the soul

and a door onto the world.

Thank you

Image: Main Library, SJCPL.

9 thoughts on “SJCPL Response to Book Challenges

  1. Emily Mizokami

    Thank you for sharing this @michael. What a refreshing reminder while we are all focusing on Blog Post #2. Thank you for reminding me why I am doing all of this in the first place. As a parent I did not censor what my kids read, although when I picked up my daughter’s copy of Slash, the Autobiography, I debated whether I made the right choice for my seventh grader. She is now a twenty-two year old college graduate who tells me now that his tales of debauchery as a sober author helped her understand the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse. I know that sounds a little Tipper Gorish of me but it is her real response. My daughter also read Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin and It’s So Easy and Other Lies while in the seventh grade (checked out from her local library) and she is a well-rounded beautiful angel with a degree in politics and is studying for the LSATs and will be attending law school next fall.

  2. Arianna Scott

    Thank you for sharing @michael. I am against censorship of any kind, but I also believe in appropriate time and place – e.g., there are books I read as a teen that definitely belong in the teen section (“Go Ask Alice”, for instance), and not the children’s book section for ages 0-10. Ultimately, though, it is truly “up to the parents or caregivers to know what is best for their child or teen”- parents/caregivers are primarily responsible for their children, and thus the authority rests with them with regard to matters concerning said children. Being a mother myself, I am careful about the types of books my kindergartener is allowed to read, but I also go based off of his interests and maturity level, and his home library contains a large variety of books spanning a number of different topics. My own dad used to vet my books from the library, but at a certain age he stopped, because he knew that a) nothing was going to stop me (LOL) and b) I wasn’t about to go haring off to do something irresponsible after reading a book that dealt with drugs, alcoholism, abuse, etc. (thus, I demonstrated enough maturity to be left to my own devices in the library or bookstore!).

    With regard to the statement “…if we move a teen title to the adult section, that teen or parent/caregiver will more than likely never find it”, I tend to disagree. The library makes their catalogs publicly available for anyone to search (on site and online – not to mention the librarians on site who can assist during business hours), and there are plenty of titles in every section of the library that people may never find because there are too many books out there for everyone to be informed of all of them.

    I am also skeptical of the idea that moving a book from one part of the library to another is censorship – because it’s not censoring the book in the truest sense of the word (as other countries do). The book may be in a different section, but it is still available. Plus, part of the enjoyment in browsing is stumbling upon a title you might never have heard of before!

    Having said all of this, I’ve always thought of the library as a repository for the vast collection of written (or equivalent) records of the human experience. It’s not complete without the controversial!

    (All quoted material is from the article shared above.)

    1. Michael Stephens Post author

      @wordlywoman Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that it is not really censorship to move the book. One of the books in question – This Book is Gay — was written for YA in a no nonsense manner. I listened to the Audible version when these challenges started ramping up. I think it could really benefit a young person questioning if they are gay or not and wondering what it all means. Perhaps a struggling teen might find it in the teen section or as you say via the catalog if moved. (I am of the mind it should stay in teen/YA).

      Yay for the controversial! What is the old saying: the library should have something to offend everyone!

      1. Arianna Scott

        Thank you @michael! I haven’t read This Book is Gay myself, but from the sound of it teen/YA seems like the right section for it. I’m of the mind that the teen section should have a more “liberal” (in the free-to-think sense) collection anyway, because teenagers are already going through such a turbulent and transitional time in their lives, and need space to explore different ideas, experiences and stories. The library is a safe place in which to do this – @emmizo I’m thinking of your daughter in this respect, whose reading choices in childhood/adolescence appear to have been somewhat similar in subject matter to mine!

        I love this saying that the library should have something to offend everyone! A Google search ( indicates that librarian Jo Godwin is its originator: “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.”

  3. Philip Busacco

    Hello Arianna,

    This was a great response, especially emphasizing that:

    “I am also skeptical of the idea that moving a book from one part of the library to another is censorship – because it’s not censoring the book in the truest sense of the word (as other countries do). The book may be in a different section, but it is still available”.

    I am not a parent, but I am very much against censorship. That being said, the library is a public institution that serves the whole community (inclusiveness). If these institutions want to continue to serve, they must reach a fair resolution. I do not mean excluding books or making the material unavailable. What I mean is an informed decision based on each community’s needs.

    This whole situation reminds me of the Parental Advisory stickers that were put on music CDs. That idea backfired. It turns out that banning /restriction equals curiosity. Instead of warning the parents, it just made the music more popular. It seems at one point every CD had a warning sticker. I speculated some bands started specifically adding curse words into their music to get the sticker hoping to increase sales.

    1. Arianna Scott

      Hi @philipbusacco, thanks very much! I also agree with you about how the library is a public institution that serves the entire community – it is a symbol of free speech, press, etc., but individuals within the community also have those same First Amendment rights. Compromise may indeed be the most viable option; most of the time, there is no single solution that can fully satisfy everyone.

      I remember those Parental Advisory stickers! Those did not deter me at all…though I did have to listen to them on the sly when my dad wasn’t looking. I used to ask friends if I could burn their CDs of albums that I knew my dad would flip out over (LOL)! Banning or restricting something definitely heightens curiosity around it – and with books especially, if people want to read them–people will find them!

  4. Mellie

    I’ve always been incredibly uncomfortable with the Health Alternative section of my library, I believe it could pose an actual risk to people’s lives. I live in a different area than where I grew up so I can’t say for sure about this area, but I know when I was in school as a kid, media literacy was never a particularly great focus, especially not in the context of a field so wide and specific as medical health. Physical well-being is something that can and will be entirely different person to person, and without a medical professional you trust there to guide you, taking advice from a book you found could very well put your life at risk. I feel like its presence on the shelves poses more of a danger to people with less means to actually go to a doctor and end up stumbling through recovery blindly. I’ll admit I feel really gross every time I’m shelving in that section.
    However, I also recall a post I read sometime in high school when gay marriage was nationally legalized and there were several more aggressive pushes to censor lgbtqia+ materials. They spoke about how in the recent past all lgbt materials were locked up in restricted sections of academic libraries that you needed to apply and give reasoning for even wanting to access these texts. It made any person seeking information about it a possible target, even if they themselves were not part of the community. It made studies on the mental health and supporting the community almost impossible to do which the lack of gave less credibility to pushes for rights and legal protections. And it certainly made the process of self-discovery incredibly dangerous. The post made the claim that I still agree with today that information professionals have the obligation to provide accessible information even if and especially if there are people who believe it should be censored.
    I had a sociology professor in my undergrad, a black man, who had lost his voice as a young adult and had to relearn how to speak, his speech therapist was a white man however so he ended up losing his AAVE accent. And although it had caused him some strife from people in his community not recognizing him as part of their community by his voice alone(he conducted a lot of his interviews over phone), he used it to his advantage. He infiltrated a large group of white nationalists because he found the path to reaching that mindset interesting and worth studying. His studies have allowed people to arm themselves with the knowledge of warning signs and dog whistles to protect themselves and their loved ones. He never would have been able to help people if that information was restricted to him.
    I try to keep these thoughts in mind when I begrudgingly shelve in the health section. I may not personally know who the alternative health section might help, but at the very least I know it is physical evidence that can be used to track and challenge misinformation.

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