The First 30 Seconds: Helping Front Line Staff Respond to Challenges

 By: Julie Arter
Columbus Metropolitan Library- Whetstone Branch

As quoted in “12 Ways Libraries Are Good for the Country,” children’s librarian Dorothy Broderick contends that every library in the country ought to have a sign on the door reading, “This library has something offensive to everyone. If you are not offended by something we own, please complain.” Unfortunately, library employees are far more likely to encounter complaints and challenges from customers that are offended by materials in the collection than those that are not. Our actions in the first 30 seconds of these encounters can defuse the situation and prevent the issue from going further.

ALA defines five types of challenges that library staff may encounter:

  1. Expression of Concern: An inquiry that has judgmental overtones.
  2. Oral Complaint: An oral challenge to the presence and/or appropriateness of the material in question.
  3. Written Complaint: A formal, written complaint filed with the institution, challenging the presence and/or appropriateness of specific material.
  4. Public attack: A publicly disseminated statement challenging the value of the material, presented to the media and/or others outside the institutional organization in order to gain public support for further action.
  5. Censorship: A change in the access status of material based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives. Such changes include exclusion, restriction, removal, and age/grade level changes.

If staff can handle the first three types of challenges effectively, the chance of having to deal with a public attack or censorship is minimized. The following tips can help.

  • Don’t panic. Remember that you have the support of your library’s selection policy, board of trustees, director, OLC, ALA, ACLU, Freedom to Read Foundation, Library Bill of Rights and the 1st Amendment of the Constitution.
  • Greet the patron with a smile. Calmly communicate your willingness to hear his concern and let him know that you take him seriously.
  • Speak to the patron on even terms by moving from behind the desk and inviting him to a table. If you feel safe, move to a private area.
  • Listen without interrupting.  Many people just want to be heard. They may not even want anything done and haven’t even thought beyond expressing their feelings. Ask questions when appropriate and don’t offer personal opinions.
  • Acknowledge their concern. Use phrases such as, “I understand that you are upset,” and, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention.” This way you are not admitting fault, just recognizing the patron’s feelings.
  • Remember that the customer has a right to express his complaint and a right to his opinion.
  • Use open verbal and body language. Be professional but also approachable and friendly. The tone of your voice is important – use it to express your feelings of concern, empathy, and enthusiasm about the library. If you are asked a question that you don’t have the authority to answer, don’t be afraid to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t answer that, but let me find out who can.”
  • Know your materials selection policy well and make sure it is up to date. Be able to state what is in your policy and know the criteria for including materials in the collection.
  • Explain the library’s position in a clear, easily understandable way and avoid acronyms and “library speak.” Speak in neutral terms – avoid “I” statements. Use “the library” or “the staff.”

Finally, try not to be dragged into a verbal tug-of-war. Beware of manipulation. Complaints often use statements such as “isn’t it true that…” If someone makes a false statement, answer gently but firmly, “That is incorrect.” Restate the library’s policy on materials selection and stay positive about the library’s role. If the patron is still upset, offer to let him speak to someone else. Know your chain of command.

If all else fails, be prepared to facilitate an official challenge. Prepare a written record of the request and keep accurate, factual records of all written and oral communications. Have “Request for Reconsideration” forms readily available and make sure all staff knows where they can be found. Be prepared to explain your library’s challenge procedure, including who will make the decisions and approximately when. Make it clear to the customer that disputed materials will not be removed until the appeals process is complete.

Following these tips can help to ensure that your library’s staff is well prepared and feels empowered to deal with issues of access and intellectual freedom. Although challenges can be stressful, our actions can help to resolve the situation before it escalates to a public attack on the library or an act of censorship.

If you would like “The First 30 Seconds” presented to your staff, Friends of the Library, or Board of Trustees, please contact a member of the OLC Intellectual Freedom Committee.

Helpful Links:

ALA Intellectual Freedom Statements and Policies

 Challenge Support

 ALA- Banned Books Week

 Libraries and the Internet Toolkit

 Sample Library Policies (from Webjunction)

More Sample Library Policies (from the Mid-Hudson Library System- Poughkeepsie, NY)


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