March 18, 2018

Office of Intellectual Freedom Reaches Out for Help as Challenges Slip Through the Cracks | ALA Midwinter 2014

At the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter conference in Philadelphia, the organization’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) stated that the number of challenges to books in school and public libraries is on the rise. Some 464 challenges were reported to OIF officials in 2012, a steep rise from the 328 recorded in 2011 and 2010’s total of 346 reported challenges.

Even more disheartening was the reminder that the challenges reported to OIF capture just a small portion of the number of actual challenges made across the nation every year. A number of studies suggest that portion is even smaller than the OIF once thought.

ALA has previously estimated the challenges reported to them as capturing 20-25 percent of actual challenges. But according to studies presented by Barbara Jones, executive director of the OIF, and deputy director Deborah Caldwell-Stone, even that may be an overestimate. A 2011 study by the Oregon State Library showed that of the state’s 28 recorded challenges, only five, or 18 percent, had been reported to the OIF. In Texas, the situation was even more grim—the Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which does an annual report on challenged and banned books in the state, found that 67 formal challenges had been filed in the Lone Star State in 2012, and only two had been reported to the OIF—a dismal reporting rate of just three percent.

A student exercise by the University of Missouri’s Missouri School of Journalism in filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with local governments showed that the under-reporting wasn’t just a one-year issue, either—between 2008 and 2012, just six of Missouri’s 51 book challenges had made the OIF’s radar, a reporting rate of 12 percent.

Another organization tracking book challenges, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), reports that some of that growing wave of challenges may be coming from an unexpected source. “One trend that may account in part for the increase is many more challenges in AP classes,” NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin told Library Journal.  Perhaps because these classes are intended to grapple with college-level material, they’re becoming a hotbed for challenged titles like The Color Purple.

Working with academic and nonprofit institutions like the University of Missouri and ACLU could be the future of challenge tracking for the OIF. The office simply doesn’t have enough staff to be proactive in tracking challenges themselves, Jones told Library Journal. “We see the trend rising, but we know we’re not fully capturing it,” said Jones. “We’re trying to partner with academic institutions to do FOIA requests in their states to see how the situation really looks.”

As the OIF reaches out to new partners to help improve its sense of how many books are being challenged, Jones pointed out that the office is seeing some evidence of another type of censorship that is even harder to track: Internet filtering. While the OIF is looking into ways to keep tabs on filtering technology, which is difficult to quantify, anecdotal evidence suggests to Jones and her colleagues that filtering is on the rise in both public and school libraries. Running in the background and often without the knowledge of computer users, filtering can be a much more insidious brand of censorship. “There’s stuff missing that [users] may never know they’re missing,” said Jones. “That puts them at a real disadvantage.”

The update closed on a look at legal matters of concern to the OIF, including changes to state privacy laws that can affect the way third parties like ebook vendors are allowed to handle patron information. Attendees also heard the latest developments in the case surrounding Arizona’s ethnic studies law, in which the Freedom to Read Foundation, a non-profit housed with the OIF and affiliated with it, filed an amicus curiae brief at the end of 2013.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.