Researching Book Challenges

A book and fire

This semester for my Research in Library Science course at Emporia State University, I chose to focus my semester-long research project on book challenges in public libraries. I will wrap up the project in the next couple of weeks by submitting a research proposal, a poster, and a short video presentation. I chose to submit a proposal over a report because given the chance to perform actual, primary source research, perhaps as an independent study next semester, I would take this opportunity to collect data on the experiences that practicing librarians are navigating today.

I posed the question: what education and training around library values would be the most beneficial to public library workers to respond to book challenges? I chose this topic due to my personal experience navigating a challenge in our rural public library system earlier this past Spring, and because book challenges have seen a dramatic increase in the last year alone – 729 book challenges in 2021 compared to 156 in 2020 and 377 challenges in 2019, according to the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom. It came as no surprise to me that there was a plethora of literature to review – in scholarly research, from ALA and other library professional organizations, coverage in literacy focused news sites like BookRiot, and mainstream news outlets

Some takeaways from my research process include:

It was essential for me to chunk semester-long projects into regular, manageable deadlines. Pretty early on I began to feel that familiar sense of overwhelm that accompanies long-term projects. Our professor scheduled occasional assignments for components of the paper, but it wasn’t until I sat down and created a firm outline and deadlines associated with each section, that I was able to make substantial progress.

My writing progress also depended on blocking large stretches of time for myself to take a deep dive into the research process. For several hours, I would focus on nothing besides this project and give myself the space to read and examine sources closely, write annotations, follow other sources the initial one recommended, and then match up the author’s arguments and findings with my corresponding research question. 

My professor and classmates reminded me of the cyclical nature of research, and I did in fact feel like I would jump from one rabbit hole to the other. I had to reign myself in with this project because of the amount of information out there. Giving myself permission to not use sources that didn’t fit my project was a good strategy, albeit difficult for me since I had already spent that time locating and reading it. I wanted to use them all, but knew I couldn’t.

I also had important takeaways from the content itself and I know that this project helped me grow as a library professional. I sought out this project as a way to educate myself on the public library landscape at large, locating some best practices and resources I can easily reference in the future. What I achieved beyond this, was a feeling that through educating myself about book challenges, I can be less afraid of them.

I noticed that so much of the language around book challenges coming from library organizations paint this process in a cautionary way. The cover page and headline for the ALA’s “American Libraries” Magazine for its most recent edition is “The Burden of Book Challenges.” Others spoke about the emotional toll a challenge can take on them, their staff, and their community. Reading examples from actual challenges, I can see how this is the case. Unlike past challenges, what librarians are currently experiencing are challenges coming from organized groups using the process to make a political statement, and their challenge or a series of challenges, do eat up valuable resources – monetarily and with staff time.

Despite this, I left the project feeling a sense of hope and unity among librarians and now see the book challenge process as an opportunity to defend against censorship and share our values about the library’s mission to safeguard open and equal access to information. Through this research project, I educated myself enough to not fear this inevitable process. As information professionals, we have a responsibility to embrace opportunities to have conversations about intellectual freedom, the library’s policies and processes around collection development and the reconsideration process, and what we stand for

Image by:  Dariusz Sankowski, Pixabay

Taylor Worsham is from Gunnison, Colorado and is currently pursuing her MLS from Emporia State University’s distance program. After studying communication and political science for her undergrad at Western Colorado University, she worked briefly in marketing communications before finding her true calling in working in public libraries. Her current position as an adult services coordinator for Gunnison County Libraries focuses on public relations, programming, collection development, and circulation. In the future she hopes to expand her career to include more outreach and leadership duties. Outside of work and school, Taylor enjoys spending as much time outside as possible, traveling, photography, and reading contemporary fiction.

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