Massachusetts Public Library Trustees Handbook
As with any public service, libraries receive complaints and expressions of concern. One of the librarian's responsibilities is to handle these complaints in a respectful and fair manner. The complaints that librarians often worry about the most are those dealing with library resources or free access policies. The key to successfully handling these complaints is to be sure the library staff and the governing authorities are all knowledgeable about the complaint procedures and their implementation. As normal operating procedure each library should:
Maintain a materials selection policy. It should be in written form and approved by the appropriate governing authority. It should apply to all library materials equally.
Maintain a library service policy. This should cover registration policies, programming and services in the library that involve access issues.
Maintain a clearly defined method for handling complaints. The complaint must be filed in writing and the complainant must be identified before action is taken. A decision should be deferred until the board has had the opportunity to fully consider possible actions. The process should be followed, whether the complaint originates internally or externally. (A sample form is included at the end of this chapter.)
Maintain in-service training. Conduct periodic in-service training to acquaint staff, administration and the trustee board with the materials selection policy, library service policy, and procedures for handling complaints.
Maintain lines of communication with civic, religious, educational and political bodies of the community. Library board and staff participation in local civic organizations and presentations to these organizations should emphasize the library's selection process and intellectual freedom principles.
Maintain a vigorous public information program on behalf of intellectual freedom . Newspapers, radio, and television should be informed of policies governing resource selection and use, and of any special activities pertaining to intellectual freedom.
Maintain familiarity with any local municipal and state legislation pertaining to intellectual freedom and First Amendment rights.
Following these practices will not preclude receiving complaints, but should provide a base from which to operate when concerns are expressed. When a complaint is made, follow one or more of the steps listed below:
Listen calmly and courteously to the complaint. Remember the person has a right to express a concern. Use of good communication skills helps many people understand the need for diversity in library collections and the use of library resources. In the event the person is not satisfied, advise the complainant of the library policy and procedures for handling library resource statements of concern. If a person does fill out a form about their concern, make sure a prompt written reply related to the concern is sent.
It is essential to notify the administration and the library board of the complaint. Present full, written information giving the nature of the complaint and identifying the source.
When appropriate, seek the support of the local media. Freedom to read and freedom of the press go hand in hand.
When appropriate, inform local civic organizations of the facts and enlist their support. Meet negative pressure with positive pressure.
Assert the principles of the ALA Library Bill of Rights as a professional responsibility. Laws governing obscenity, subversive material, and other questionable matter are subject to interpretation by courts. Library materials found to meet the standards set in the materials selection policy should not be removed from public access until after an adversary hearing resulting in a final judicial determination.
Contact the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom and the Massachusetts Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee to inform them of the complaint and to enlist their support and the assistance of other agencies.
The principles and procedures discussed above apply to all kinds of resource related complaints or attempts to censor and are supported by groups such as the National Education Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the American Library Association. While the practices provide positive means for preparing for and processing complaints, they serve the more general purpose of supporting the ALA Library Bill of Rights, particularly Article III which states: "Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment."
Sample policies and guidelines for dealing with complaints are available through your regional library system, the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, and the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom. These sample policies are posted on the ALA website at http://www.ala.org. The Massachusetts Library Association also has an active Intellectual Freedom Committee and its Handbook on Intellectual Freedom should be available in your library.