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Amid push to ban books, library commissioners brush up on the basics

Tuesday, March 1, 2022 by Willow Higgins

With efforts to take books off library shelves ramping up in some parts of Texas, Austin’s Library Commission took the timely step of reviewing the city’s policies to see how our public collections are protected. The commission and the Austin Public Library executive team have come together to staunchly support the freedom to read, a core tenet of APL’s policies and procedures protected by the First Amendment. 

Matt Krause, a Texas state representative representing the Fort Worth area, recently put more than 800 books on a watchlist and Gov. Greg Abbott expressed concern about books that contain LGBTQ sexual content. In this atmosphere, Library Commissioner Courtney Rosenthal asked for a presentation on the reconsideration process libraries use to take material out of circulation.

A form in the city’s public library system – called a Request for Reconsideration of Library Materials – allows library users to ask library staff to reevaluate the material in question or to remove it from the shelves completely. The form is rarely used, APL Director Roosevelt Weeks said, and when it is used, library staff members have to agree that the material is inappropriately placed before something is relocated to another section or taken off the shelves. APL’s policy is to leave decisions about what children may read up to their parents.

Austin’s policy is fairly standard procedure – the American Library Association offers a sample form that is similar to APL’s. Slaven Lee, the customer access division manager at APL, explained that people who use the form must personally engage with the work they are requesting for reconsideration and have a dialogue with library staff about their concerns. Without having read, listened to or watched the full piece, they don’t have strong grounds for a case, Lee said. 

“We would like to see the person who submitted the form be willing to have a dialogue so we can understand what’s behind the request,” Weeks affirmed.

When a request for reconsideration form is submitted, library staffers are judicious about how they proceed. The local library staff members have the first discussion with the person submitting the form before passing that information along to the selection material manager or to Weeks, who will then work with colleagues to make a determination.

Weeks said he has only seen a reconsideration form cross his path once in his time with APL.

Purchasing books for the library is both an art and a science, Lee said. Those in charge of the library selection process work hard to make sure materials are well-reviewed and vetted for accuracy before they’re purchased. Library staff also look at what other community libraries are buying to get suggestions for material that is likely to be of interest to Austin library users.

“I just want to commend you on this excellent policy,” Commissioner Mark Smith said. “We are in perilous times, and I appreciate you having this framework to respond to that. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw an uptick in this kind of activity in the library since we’re seeing lots of it in the news right now.”

“If we don’t have something in our collection that offends somebody at least once, then we aren’t doing it right. Our materials are going to offend somebody at some point in time,” Weeks said. Weeks presented a mission statement last December against book banning and in support of the freedom to read.

Following Rosenthal’s suggestion and with Weeks’ support, the commission concluded last week’s meeting by creating a working group dedicated to the freedom to read. The motion to create the working group passed and the group will step in in case APL, the AISD library system or other local school districts need support from the commission in resisting book banning.

“Make no mistake about it – libraries are under attack,” Weeks said. “Making a strong statement from the Library Commission would help, not hinder, the work that (we do to support the freedom to read). So we welcome that.”

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