March 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

ALA Addresses its Challenged Book List After Questioning by FiveThirtyEight

ALAChallengedBooksWheelExactly how many books are challenged—and banned—in schools and libraries across the country every year? We may never know.

The American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) releases its Frequently Challenged Books list annually, identifying the “top ten most frequently challenged books…” on its site.

How that list is determined was the subject of a pointed story on the site FiveThirtyEight. In the June 22 post, journalist David Goldenberg calls out ALA for not disclosing how the challenged books list is tabulated when he asked for its data sources.

“To not release [the data] implies they have an agenda for the books they place on [the list],” says Carolyn Jo Starkey, a school librarian at Shades Valley High School in Irondale, AL, and an ALA member. “I would be interested in seeing where their data is coming from.”

OIF has been compiling information on challenged books since 1990, with statistics on why a book was challenged, who initiated the challenge, and the institution that received the challenge. OIF tabulates this information, which the organization defines as “…documented requests to remove materials from schools or libraries,” according to the site. These lists are “not scientifically compiled,” reads the site. “Rather, it is a snapshot of the reports we receive every day.”

Still, this list is largely viewed as the definitive one on challenged books and is used in reporting by the Los Angeles Times, CNN, USA Today and School Library Journal. Schools and public libraries rely on the list as well, “trusting what [ALA] is saying,” according to one children’s librarian in a Wisconsin public library, who asked to go unnamed. And some librarians field questions from patrons who ask “…about a banned book and on occasion asking why it’s part of the collection,” says Scooter Hayes, youth services librarian at New Hanover County Public Library in Wilmington, NC. ALA’s list is clearly the predominant one of its kind, referred to by the library community and the general public. But is it, in fact, definitive as FiveThirtyEight asked in its story?

ALA says, no.

How the Challenged Books List is Determined

Kristin Pekoll, assistant director of OIF, says that the information ALA gathers on challenged books is from media accounts and people reporting challenges to the organization, either by by phone, email and through its website. They know they don’t hear about every challenge, she says, and they don’t believe the list includes every challenge to a book made over the year. Instead, it’s more like a “random sampling,” says Pekoll, adding that the organization has considered changing the way the list is presented, but did not offer details on how they could revamp it.

“We have had so many discussions about that in our office,” she says, about ALA referring to the list definitively as a “top ten.” “But a lot of this is how it’s been done for a long time and the list is branded this way.”

Whether the list derives from actual data or, as Pekoll says, a random sampling of collected information, that information remains useful, says Isaac Gilman, an ALA member and faculty librarian at Pacific University in Hillsborough, OR. It’s all in the way it’s reported—and should be released.

“Other information—like health records or education records—that is not created for the purpose of research (and carries with it an expectation of privacy) is still used for research very fruitfully,” writes Gilman by email. “And if the quality of the information in the database is of concern, then those who choose to conduct research (or report) based on it should be held accountable for the conclusions that they draw based on that data—but that isn’t a reason to withhold the data from them entirely.”

Transparency is expected today by readers and researchers, says Peter Hart, communication director for the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). “We are in an age where you do want to show people your work, and people want to know how you arrive at those numbers,” he says.

A Tool for Raising Awareness

But Pekoll believes people are missing the forest for the trees here. Acknowledging that the list is not definitive, Pekoll says that it’s actually intended to be a tool to raise awareness about censorship. The goal is to make people aware that the freedom to read whatever someone chooses to read is constantly being challenged. The placement of a specific book at the top spot? That’s less important, she says.

“It’s funny because there are people who put so much emphasis on that Number 1 spot to that ranking,” she says. “I just talked to a father today about The Giver (Houghton Mifflin, 1993). Four parents in his son’s class complained and want it taken out of the fifth grade curriculum. I don’t see The Giver in that Top 10. But it’s just as important a book as the Number 1 spot.”

Then why create a Number 1 at all? Or, as some members have asked, why not release the information used to generate the frequently challenged books list? Pekoll says, releasing all of the information puts librarians and others who report the information at risk of potentially losing their jobs—and the organization will not break that confidentiality. Sometimes librarians won’t even give her their name over the phone, she says. Beyond what ALA already releases, additional details could jeopardize its members at if made public, she adds.

“Hypothetically, let’s say that a book has been challenged six times with five reported from the media,” she says. “And someone knows the sixth is actually in Kansas. We don’t want someone deducing which library in Kansas went thorough the challenge or who might have talked to us.”

Protecting Confidentiality

Gilman says he understands that sharing all of ALA’s data on challenges could have a chilling effect on reports to OIF. But, he believes there should be a way to make that information available without making it identifiable. He also adds that as an academic librarian—one who encourages his own community to share research and data so it can be replicated and confirmed by others—it’s disheartening to him that his own group is not being as transparent as well.

“My area of librarianship is focused on open access and open data,” he says. “It’s hard for me to ask others in a professional organization to do something if my own professional organization isn’t doing that.”

Yet Wendy Stephens, ALA member and library media specialist at Cullman (AL) High School, says that challenges can be “such a political hot potato.” She understands why ALA is not making all the information around challenges public, she says. “I know that school librarians are probably less willing to talk with OIF or put themselves in that situation.”

And NCAC’s Hart adds that librarians are often pressured informally —which would not be reported in many cases. Yet those, less-official protests can have an affect. “That’s pressure applied another way,” he says. “And sends a message.”

And that is what OIF wants—to present “…how prevalent challenges are in our country,” rather than “definitive statistics,” says Pekoll. As to drawing back the curtain and revealing their information? That’s just never going to happen, she says. She notes that ALA is not a government or public agency, but a professional organization that has a responsibility to the librarian who may have taken a risk reporting a challenge—and not to those who want to see those details such as FiveThirtyEight.

“And when you have to weigh the transparency against the protection of confidentiality, we value the confidentiality more,” she says. “And we can’t gave both.”

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at

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  1. There’s been a lot of talk about what constitutes irony. For me, it’s ironic that those fussing about censorship are censoring their data so others can’t see how representative that data is or is not.
    A lesser irony is that librarians have to censor all the time: there’s not enough room for all the books people donate. Some of those donations are in such poor shape they couldn’t be put on the shelf; such censorship would often be reasonable. Some books we have plenty of copies. Some books we remove because they haven’t been checked out in years. Some are censored because there’s just not room. But some are censored for ‘political’ reasons. And some are part of the ‘lack of room’ removals because some higher authority (e. g., the state, major contributors) provides or requires the purchase of other books (so back to ‘political’ reasons). leaving space problems requiring removal of ‘older’ books.
    These reasons are not necessarily a negative – I agree that weeding is a necessary part of librarianship and part of the process of reading the shelves includes such weeding. But just because we think it’s necessary doesn’t change the fact that it is a form of censorship.
    We should be more transparent about the pros and cons of censorship. Are we censoring the data (as in this case, possibly) to protect people, or to encourage reporting, or to keep people from knowing it’s just made up information. Different members of the public will choose different choices. Being more transparent could help people see more of the facts, thereby leading to more informed selecting of those choices. Are we censoring books because of their content or because of space considerations. For some people, the first is reasonable, but for many it wouldn’t be. But on the latter, there are people who might be more likely to buy-in on our next building project if they had any idea of how many books are sold off in the book sale not so much to raise funds (admittedly a necessary and important function), but often a matter of space constraints.