Data collection on banned and challenged books

You know when you are talking with someone and suddenly you wonder, “Wait, how did we get on this subject?” I like to be able to trace back to the original subject, as a kind of memory exercise. When the “conversation” isn’t with a person but is just you clicking from link to link on the Internet, the trail is a little easier to follow, thanks to tabs and the browser’s back button. Here was my path this morning:

All of the above links are worth reading, so I’ll only offer a very brief summary, and a few thoughts. The author of the 538 article, David Goldenberg, expressed frustration that (a) the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) would not hand over the raw data they collect on book challenges, and that (b) the quality of the data presented on the ALA’s site was not particularly granular or detailed and may not be statistically valid. For instance, a “challenge” might be a request to move a book from the children’s collection to the teen or adult collection, or it may be a demand that all copies of a book be removed from an entire library system. There’s a big difference between those two challenges.

In his reply to the 538 piece, Andy Woodworth delves into some of the issues behind challenge reporting and data collection. He writes that students in library school don’t learn they have an obligation to report challenges, that there may be external pressures not to report challenges, and that librarians simply may not know to report challenges. If they do report a challenge, though, there are more problems with the ALA-OIF itself: the amount of information required in the online challenge form is minimal, and the OIF does not have the budget or staff to chase down details or outcomes from the challenges that are reported. (The challenge form is also available as a PDF that can be printed, filled out, and faxed to the OIF. It’s certainly possible to find an e-mail address for someone at the OIF, but shouldn’t this be included as an option on the form?)

While I was in library school, I learned about the ALA’s Sample Request for Reconsideration of Library Resources, a form that can be adapted by any library and kept on hand in case of challenges. At both of the public libraries where I’ve worked, we have had this form ready to hand (though in my experience, challenges are exceedingly rare, at least at the adult reference desk; this is borne out by the ALA data – and many media reports – that show more challenges happen in school libraries than in public ones).

Should someone come to the reference desk with a challenge, I would be prepared with the reconsideration form. But what the form lacks, I noticed after reading Andy’s piece, is anything about reporting the challenge to the OIF. (On Twitter, Andy said he wrote it into the reconsideration policy at his library that “we reserve discretion to report challenges to the OIF.”) I don’t think it would hurt for library patrons to be aware of that, and it would remind library staff to take the extra step to report challenges when they do occur.

The granularity of the reporting, as Andy, David, and Jessamyn all pointed out, still leaves something to be desired. Every September, I put together a Banned Books Week display in the library and write about banned/challenged books and the freedom to read on the library blog. Every year, I’m frustrated by the ALA website, which, despite a redesign within the past five years, does not adhere to many of the web conventions and usability guidelines outlined in Useful, Usable, Desirable by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches (about which more soon). The information architecture is convoluted and fragmented – there’s information on the ALA main site and a separate Banned Books Week website – the presentation isn’t as clear and attractive as it could be, and despite the existence of both sites, neither usually has the quality of data I want to present to our library patrons.

Both of these problems – the information itself and the organization of information – are especially vexing because information and organization is what we do. Furthermore, intellectual freedom is a core value of the library profession; Article II of the ALA Code of Ethics is “We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.” We need to do better, and it shouldn’t be that hard. We need to:

  • Raise awareness among library staff that reporting challenges is important and that there are ways to do it confidentially.
  • Collect more detailed data when possible and present it in as granular a fashion as possible, noting if necessary that not all reported challenges include the same level of detail.

It’s not rocket science. What are we waiting for?

The Importance of School Libraries and School Librarians

Did your elementary, middle, and high school have a library? I attended four different schools in two states between kindergarten and twelfth grade, and each of the four had a library; each of the libraries had a librarian and books. (I wish I didn’t have to spell that out, but bear with me.) Innocently, I took the presence of these libraries for granted, and assumed all schools had them, but this is not the case. Just as “extras” like music and art programs have been cut in public schools, so have libraries.

I read two articles last month (via the essential Library Link of the Day) about school systems that lack libraries and/or librarians and/or an adequate number of books that students are able to check out. The first article, “Unequal Shelves in D.C. School Libraries Benefit Wealthier Students” (Washington Post, March 9, 2015), says that despite literacy being a high priority, the District dedicates no annual funding for school library collections. Later, the article links to a report that conclusively shows the positive impact school libraries have on students’ literacy: “A school library media program that provides up-to-date, accurate, and attractive resources, managed by a certified school library media specialist who collaborates with teachers to augment and enhance classroom instruction, results in increased test scores, particularly in reading….The most important elements of school library media programs have been the quality of staffing and the quality of collections.”

Many Pennsylvania schools are without libraries and/or librarians as well, according to the article “School Cuts Have Decimated Librarians” (, February 2, 2015), and in that state too, there is unequal access. University teacher and researcher Debra Kachel said, “The wealthy schools have great programs, librarians teaching kids, coaching them, developing a habit of reading with those kids. Librarians are teaching critical thinking skills, how to search the Internet, how to be safe on the Internet. If you invest in a school librarian, you invest in improving student learning.” Yet many other schools don’t have librarians and lack access to library resources, despite the fact that studies have shown that students who have access to a school library and librarian – “particularly students who live in poverty and students of color” – achieve more. Despite the evidence of their value, a school librarian commented, “Somehow, we struggle to get recognized as relevant to schools.”

This is one of those bang-your-head-against-a-wall* situations, where all the research points to one clear course of action, but rather than take that course of action, unproven alternatives are substituted instead. In this case, decision-makers will point to budget issues, but that seems short-sighted to me. You want to raise reading scores, literacy rates, and maybe even a generation of people who love reading? Fund libraries and librarians in schools.

*”If you really want to get to know someone, don’t see what they like, rather find out what really pisses them off.”

For more information, here are a few resources:

Manual for the Future of Librarianship

libraryandMy librarian friend Brita, who knows about everything before I do, recently wrote a blog post about her submissions to the Manual for the Future of Librarianship project (under the auspices of the ALA Center for the Future of Libraries, inspired by the Long Now Foundation’s Manual for Civilization). She inspired me to do the same, and I’m sharing my submissions here as well.

1. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd
itscomplicatedIt’s Complicated is a must-read for teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who disparages Millennials or “kids these days.” Researcher boyd unpicks the mindset that kids don’t care about privacy and shows how much of online life is “public by default, private through effort” instead of the other way around, making privacy difficult to obtain for those using social media. She makes the case that adults can best protect kids and teens by educating them about risks. boyd also addresses inequality and information literacy.

2. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
littlebrotherLittle Brother is a young adult novel, but adults can learn a lot from it too: it’s a fast-paced story set in San Francisco before, during, and after a terrorist attack blows up the Bay Bridge. Seventeen-year-old high school student and hacker Marcus Yallow (a.k.a. w1n5t0n) and his friends are swept up by the Department of Homeland Security as the DHS cracks down on the city, and Marcus’ new mission is to expose their abuse of power. Marcus is more tech-savvy than most people, but Doctorow explains everything in a way that is interesting (and paranoia-inducing). It’s easy to imagine this scenario coming to life, and it leads readers to consider the relationship between privacy, security, and freedom. The follow-up novel, Homeland, is also worth reading.

3. “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming” by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman in October 2013. Photo by Robin Mayes.

Neil Gaiman in October 2013. Photo by Robin Mayes.

British author Neil Gaiman writes across genres and for all ages, and he’s a passionate advocate for libraries. In October 2013, he gave a particularly strong and articulate lecture on the importance of fostering literacy through teaching children to read and making sure they have access to books they enjoy. He also spoke about the positive correlation between fiction and empathy, which has now been shown in a number of studies, and the importance of libraries: “libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication…Libraries really are the gates to the future.” [I wrote about this same speech at length soon after it was published online by The Guardian.]

(Failing to) Protect Patron Privacy


On October 6, Nate Hoffelder wrote a post on The Digital Reader: “Adobe is Spying on Users, Collecting Data on Their eBook Libraries.” (He has updated the post over the past couple days.) Why is this privacy-violating spying story any more deserving of attention than the multitude of others? For librarians and library users, it’s important because Adobe Digital Editions is the software that readers who borrow e-books from the library through Overdrive (as well as other platforms) are using. This software “authenticates” users, and this is necessary because the publishers require DRM (Digital Rights Management) to ensure that the one copy/one user model is in effect. (Essentially, DRM allows publishers to mimic the physical restrictions of print books – i.e. one person can read a book at a time – on e-books, which could technically be read simultaneously by any number of people. To learn more about DRM and e-books, see Cory Doctorow’s article “A Whip to Beat Us With” in Publishers Weekly; though now more than two years old, it is still accurate and relevant.)

So how did authentication become spying? Well, it turns out Adobe was collecting more information than was strictly necessary, and was sending this information back to its servers in clear text – that is, unencrypted. Sean Gallagher has been following this issue and documenting it in Ars Technica (“Adobe’s e-book reader sends your reading logs back to Adobe – in plain text“). According to that piece, the information Adobe says it collects includes the following: user ID, device ID, certified app ID, device IP address, duration for which the book was read, and percentage of the book that was read. Even if this is all they collect, it’s still plenty of information, and transmitted in plain text, it’s vulnerable to any other spying group that might be interested.

The plain text is really just the icing on this horrible, horrible cake. The core issue goes back much further and much deeper: as Andromeda Yelton wrote in an eloquent post on the matter, “about how we default to choosing access over privacy.” She points out that the ALA Code of Ethics states, “We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted,” and yet we have compromised this principle so that we are no longer technically able to uphold it.

Jason Griffey responded to Yelton’s piece, and part of his response is worth quoting in full:

“We need to decide whether we are angry at Adobe for failing technically (for not encrypting the information or otherwise anonymizing the data) or for failing ethically (for the collection of data about what someone is reading)….

…We need to insist that the providers of our digital information act in a way that upholds the ethical beliefs of our profession. It is possible, technically, to provide these services (digital downloads to multiple devices with reading position syncing) without sacrificing the privacy of the reader.”

Griffey linked to Galen Charlton’s post (“Verifying our tools; a role for ALA?“), which suggested several steps to take to tackle these issues in the short term and the long term. “We need to stop blindly trusting our tools,” he wrote, and start testing them. “Librarians…have a professional responsibility to protect our user’s reading history,” and the American Library Association could take the lead by testing library software, and providing institutional and legal support to others who do so.

Charlton, too, pointed back to DRM as the root of these troubles, and highlighted the tension between access and privacy that Yelton mentioned. “Accepting DRM has been a terrible dilemma for libraries – enabling and supporting, no matter how passively, tools for limiting access to information flies against our professional values.  On the other hand, without some degree of acquiescence to it, libraries would be even more limited in their ability to offer current books to their patrons.”

It’s a lousy situation. We shouldn’t have to trade privacy for access; people do too much of that already, giving personal information to private companies (remember, “if you’re not paying for a product, you are the product“), which in turn give or sell it to other companies, or turn it over to the government (or the government just scoops it up). In libraries, we still believe in privacy, and we should, as Griffey put it, “insist that the providers of our digital information act in a way that upholds the ethical beliefs of our profession.” It is possible.

10/12/14: The Swiss Army Librarian linked to another piece on this topic from Agnostic, Maybe, which is worth a read: “Say Yes No Maybe So to Privacy.”

10/14/14: The Waltham Public Library (MA) posted an excellent, clear Q&A about the implications for patrons, “Privacy Concerns About E-book Borrowing.” The Librarian in Black (a.k.a. Sarah Houghton, Director of the San Rafael Public Library in California), also wrote a piece: “Adobe Spies on eBook Readers, including Library Users.” The ALA response (and Adobe’s response to the ALA) can be found here: “Adobe Responds to ALA on egregious data breach,” and that links to LITA’s post “ADE in the Library Ebook Data Lifecycle.”

10/16/14: “Adobe Responds to ALA Concerns Over E-Book Privacy” in Publishers Weekly; Overdrive’s statement about adobe Digital Editions privacy concerns. On a semi-related note, Glenn Greenwald’s TED talk, “Why Privacy Matters,” is worth 20 minutes of your time.



“New Adult” Revisited, Or, Where are all the books about college?

It’s easy to find books about characters in high school. And it’s easy to find books about adult characters anywhere, doing anything. But there is a sparsely populated area between these two: books about characters who are transitioning from childhood/teenagerhood to adulthood. A few years ago, in response to a post on the Young Adult Review Network (YARN), I struggled to come up with a handful of titles that fit this category. YARN responded with additional titles (November 2011), but I don’t think anyone was satisfied that there were enough “new adult” books at the time.

fangirlinfinitemomentofusThe topic came up again at ALA 2013. I didn’t attend in person, but followed the coverage on blogs and Twitter; Hannah Gomez’s piece for YALSA’s The Hub provides a great recap, as well as a link to a resource list, which has been updated – a pleasant surprise! – since the conference. (There’s another good piece on The Hub about adult books with teen appeal, from August 2012. I’d add Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt to this list, and I’m not alone – it’s a 2013 Alex Award winner.) I was glad to see that a few of my recent favorites that fit snugly into the “new adult” category are on the reader’s advisory resource list, including Bunheads by Sophie Flack, The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando, and Just One Day and Just One Year by Gayle Forman; I’d also add How to Love by Katie Cotugno.

howtolovejustoneyearThe years after high school, whether they include college or not, and the first few years in the working world are a transitional time of great change and (hopefully) growth. It is strange that authors haven’t mined this emotion-rich area more. Perhaps these books fell into that gray area that is neither YA nor adult, and publishers weren’t sure how to market them, but if that’s the case, it’s a weak one: so many adults are openly reading YA lit now that these”crossover” books should appeal to both audiences, rather than being lost between them.


Lourdes at YARN made an important point about some of the books I suggested back in 2011: that they contained an element of nostalgia, and were told from an adult point of view in a present that looked back on the past, as opposed to being told from the point of view of a young adult in the present. The books I mentioned above fit this criteria much better, and I hope to discover and read more of these (suggestions are welcome in the comments).

However, as a reader, I like the adult-looking-back perspective; one example I can think of is Joshua Henkin’s Matrimony, which starts when its three main characters are in college. Maggie Shipstead’s forthcoming Astonish Me (April 2014) also begins when its main character is a young adult, and it follows her until her own son is a teenager. (I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who liked Bunheads.) Much of the action in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves takes place when the narrator is in college, though in the present she is middle-aged. Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters also deals with three young women who have been out in the world for a few years, but who don’t yet feel like (or, sometimes, act like) adults. All the Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian is also adult fiction, but its main character, Maral, grows from fourteen to twenty during WWII in Paris – perfect for “new adults” who like historical fiction, as Maral makes several difficult and important choices as she comes of age.

The titles in the paragraph above were gleaned from my own reading over the past several months, so clearly “new adults” exist in literature – they can just be hard to find. I’d love to see more books like Fangirl and Roomies, though. Again, if you have suggestions, let me know in the comments!

Note: There are many definitions of the “new adult” category (and many disagreements about whether it’s a genre or a marketing ploy, exciting or a hassle), but no consensus. Therefore, I’m using my preferred definition of “new adult”: books about characters who are in the 18-25-year-old range, told from their perspective (not necessarily first person, present tense, but not from an adult perspective looking back). 

Censorship and Invisibility

Barbara Jones, the president of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), has written an excellent piece over at the Huffington Post. Here’s a short excerpt, but I encourage you to read the whole article:

“I am deeply concerned about the current deluge of removals of classic books from the American literary canon. I thought that, as a society, we had reached a consensus that the literary canon should represent diverse segments of U.S. society. Multicultural literary works are not being included because of some need for “political correctness.” They are included because they are excellent and have been acknowledged as such by countless awards for literary merit. Though books that deal with controversial topics may make some readers uncomfortable, such literature offers a vehicle for true learning and understanding.”

(Emphasis added.)

readbannedbooks2013As Rebecca points out in another great article on the Robbins Library blog (“Freedom to Choose”), “There’s great value in discussion, and books are, by far, the safest route into many of these discussions.” With a few exceptions, the books that get people up in arms are novels, not nonfiction. This only proves that fiction is powerful; that it engages readers’ imagination and empathy, allowing them to experience a time, place, culture, or situation that they might not otherwise be exposed to – or, if they are exposed to it, they may be unprepared.

A little over a year ago, I wrote about the power and importance of fiction (“The Gleam in the Dark”), citing “Your Brain on Fiction” by Annie Murphy Paul from The New York Times and “Why Fiction is Good for You” by Jonathan Gottschall from the Boston Globe. Those pieces are worth a re-read now, during Banned Books Week, to remind us all about the value of stepping into someone else’s shoes, and the magical power fiction has to let us do that.



“Everyone has a different idea of what constitutes ‘appropriate content’”

There is lots of great Banned Books Week-related stuff on Twitter this week (#BannedBooksWeek), and today’s Library Link of the Day was an NPR segment from Tell Me More called “Could banning books actually encourage more readers?” (Answer: we hope so!) My favorite find via Twitter (so far, at least) is this post from Shoshana at the Brookline Booksmith. It was a good reminder that librarians aren’t the only ones fighting for intellectual freedom and defending everyone’s right to read; publishers and booksellers are in it with us. 

Shoshana wrote, “Everyone has a different idea of what constitutes ‘appropriate content.’ I’ve talked with a lot of parents about what’s right and what’s not right for their kids to read. Some parents want to avoid anything “scary.” Others ask about the The Hunger Games and relax as soon as they learn that although it’s about teenagers being forced to fight to the death, it doesn’t have any sexual content….What I love about the customers in our kids’ section, though, is that the question is pretty much always what’s appropriate for the particular kid in question, not what should be published or be on our shelves….People around here seem to get that what’s all wrong for one reader might be just right for another; even siblings have different levels of scariness tolerance or ability to understand difficult topics.”

She makes a great point: what is “appropriate” for one reader may not be appropriate for another (this is one of the reasons that putting ratings on books is a terrible idea). This is part of readers’ advisory, and it’s a great skill – as a bookseller or a librarian – to be able to talk with parents about what their kids are ready to read (or to talk directly with kids; I know an eight-year-old who didn’t feel ready to read Harry Potter when he was seven, but feels like he might be ready now).

Remember: Every reader his/her book, and every book its reader.