Controversial books in the library

The issue of censorship and what we allow on our library shelves will be an on-going and difficult issue for many librarians and teachers.

The School Library Journal released their Controverisal Books Survey earlier this year and although the information gathered was from schools in the US, it raises some interesting issues for all school libraries. The survey sampled 574 randomly selected school librarians from elementary, middle and high schools and focused on all kinds of controversial content.

Some of the key findings include:

  • More than 90% of elementary and middle school librarians have not purchased a book due to subject matter that is controversial such as sexual content or profanity. This number drops to 73% for high school librarians.
  • Approximately one third of librarians feel they need to weigh up the effect of controversial subject matter more often than they did just 1 or 2 years ago.
  • Sexual content and profanity/vulgar language were the most often cited offensive topics.
  • The 3 main reasons for not purchasing a book were: not age appropriate, possible reaction from parents or based on the guidelines from their school.
  • More than 4 in 10 librarians have personally experienced a book challenge and 80-90% of these came from parents. Teachers and school administrators only accounted for 12% or less.
  • One-quarter of librarians stated that a previous book challenge did affect their book buying decisions in the future.
  • The use of content labels has increased over the past 8 years with approximately one third of elementary/ middle schools using them and 11% of high schools using them.

Clearly, controversial material in children’s and YA literature is a difficult issue and one the school library is going to continue to grapple with. There are 2 sides to the censorship debate. By protecting our children from difficult or controversial content we don’t expose them to concepts they are not ready for. Or conversely, by allowing children to explore these difficult issues in fiction they can do so safely and explore the issues in this diverse and complex world. Vida Juozaitis states:

“School libraries should be a place where students find literature and information that is considered by some to be dangerous and subversive, because what challenges the status quo can help students grapple with very difficult questions and issues…"


So how do we, as librarians or teachers ensure we make sound book purchasing decisions without restricting the freedom of access for our students, while not being branded a moral corrupter of our youth and bringing the wrath of  parents upon us.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Ensure you have an up-to-date Collection Guiding Statement. This statement should reflect any guidelines particular for your school and the community you serve.
  • Use a Challenged Resources form for any situation where a book is questioned.  An example is available on our website and can be modified to suit your school.  Having this form ‘at the ready’ can often take the heat out of awkward conversations.
  • You can’t read every book you purchase so make good use of a wide variety of reviews.  Common Sense Media can be very useful but use as many sources as you can.
  • Don’t feel you are on your own.  Discuss books you have some doubt about with your fellow school colleagues and leaders and use your professional learning networks for more information.
  • If your research or networks give you pause to re-think a book – read it yourself.  As library staff we should always be reading the controversial ones with explicit material – yay!
  • Use alerts on your library management system for any content you would like to restrict or raise awareness about at the issue desk.   Use stickers or labelling very subtlety – you don’t want to raise a big flag about a book or make a reader feel bad reading it as it has a very obvious ‘warning’ label.  Labelling a book controversial because of certain content could perpetuate stereotypes or discrimination.
  • Ask yourself hard questions.  Are you considering not purchasing because it challenges your own views or values or through fear of potential backlash from a parent?   Make sure your decision is based on sound judgement and not restricting the rights of the reader.
  • Educate your students.  Don’t shy away from discussing that some books have challenging and confronting content – make sure they know it’s OK to put a book down any time if they are reading something that makes them uncomfortable.

Finally, Mary Jo Heller and Aarene Storms state this about sexual content in books.  You can read this statement and instead of the word ‘sex’, replace it with any other controversial topic such as violence or profanity.

“It is not the inclusion or absence of sex in a book that will keep it from a school library audience. It is, rather, whether or not the sex is an integral part of the story.  If you take it out, would the story need to change too, or is this choice consistent with the protagonist? We avoid books featuring sex-for-the-sake-of-sex for the school library; instead, we choose books

with a story to tell.”


Further information and references:

Collection Guiding Statement, Services to Schools

Common Sense Media – Book Reviews

School Library Journal (2016) Controversial Books Survey. School Library Journal. Retrieved from

Heller, M. J., & Storms, A. (2015). Sex in the Library. Teacher Librarian, 42(3), 22.

Jacobson, L. (2016). Unnatural Selection. (cover story). School Library Journal, 62(10), 20

Juozaitis, V. (2006). Sex and Censorship in School Libraries.  School Libraries In Canada (1710835), 26(2), 43.

By Cathy Kennedy

Cathy is a facilitator (National Capability) with Services to Schools.

Post a Comment

(will not be published) * indicates required field

Be the first to comment.