Skip to content

Developing & Maintaining Collections in Challenging Times: A Public Service Perspective

When working with the public, the occasional negative comment regarding the collection just comes with the territory. Every branch serves a different demographic, so what may be a smash hit at one branch may not have as high of circulation at another. Sometimes, this can mutate into direct jabs at populations represented in books. Public service staff need to keep an objective approach while still advocating for diverse collections, so as a librarian, it’s important for me to keep an open mind. While comments from the public are not the same as formal challenges that go to our collection development librarians, having conversations advocating for the validity of a title can defuse the situation before it evolves into a formal complaint.

Let’s think about an example of this at work: a parent comes in and mentions to me that they’re uncomfortable about a book on a children’s display that features same-sex parents. Whether or not I agree with the perspective, I have to make sure the patron feels heard but also educate them on why we need titles like this on our shelves. I could handle this by explaining that it’s important for children to have exposure to all sorts of family dynamics, and that for children who do have same-sex parents, it could help them feel seen. This isn’t going to cause this person to have a full 180 in their way of thinking, but it’ll give them the rationale for why the title is on the shelf.

As a teen librarian, age-appropriateness is also an issue I’m often confronted with. I can’t police who checks out what material, and neither can other staff. However, an adult may have an issue with their teenager checking out a manga from the teen collection that has some violent scenes. While I could make general comments like “oh, it’s not that bad” to calm their anxieties, it would actually make more sense for me to show that parent the rating on the back of the manga—whether it’s all ages, teen, or older teen may help them understand why it was placed in a certain location in the collection. Mature titles would be shelved with adult graphic novels, so explaining why something is shelved in the teen collection with the specific age rating may be more effective than trying to advocate for its subject matter.

Polarizing topics like politics and religion are usually under scrutiny from the public as well, and it’s not uncommon for people to make comments about their own beliefs when checking out these kinds of materials. They may even express offense to certain groups’ teachings being featured in library collections. At the end of the day, library workers must navigate their workday as unbiased and nonpartisan. If patrons are challenging a particular religious or political alignment in their language, I’m not going to engage with the subject as it can escalate the situation: it would go against the objective perspective I’d need to bring to the desk when working with the public. I can explain that it’s important to have all sides represented on our shelves, but beyond that, it may end up teetering into subjective territory and the patron may interpret it as an invitation to discuss the topic further. I love a good debate as much as the next person, but when I’m at work, I am simply an impartial source of information.

The takeaway from these potential scenarios is that library staff have to foster a warm, neutral, and informative approach to these informal complaints. Libraries are collaborative places, and because of this, I need to take insight from people in the community and the people behind the desk with me to fully implement the work I do here. Library staff are here to listen, but we are also here to be empathetic to people from all walks of life, whether we agree with them or not. For both staff and patrons, it’s important to navigate these conversations with tact, objectivity, and respect.


Preliminary data from the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom shows that from January 1 to August 31 of 2023, there had been 33 attempts to restrict access to books in the state of Pennsylvania, with 126 titles total being challenged. We should view this as cause for concern, as the year is not even over yet. Across the country, nearly half of the challenges brought forward (49%) for in public libraries—up from 16% this time last year. Public libraries are havens for all people, and this huge influx of challenges shows just how important it is to make information accessible to all people. Libraries are being targeted for being hubs of inclusivity and access.

While these are nuanced conversations, it certainly showcases that a library collection must prioritize people where they are. In this way, there will be books on our shelves that won’t feel right to everybody. In outlining the idea that a book’s place in our collection was not decided on due to any ideology, CLP highlights not that “challenging” conversations are avoided, but rather that our shelves are meant to facilitate conversations as much as possible, between or among staff and customers as well as within readers themselves.

In valuing access and learning, the library strives to have as many books as possible on a topic, allowing customers to interact with an appropriate thrust of the information that they need.

When challenges occur, what may seem like a contentious situation can actually allow for better understanding of what a library collection really should be — one that serves the widest possible section of the community and the people we see each day, and keeps the concept of access to materials that facilitate learning at the forefront of all of our decisions.

As we honor 2023’s Banned Books Week, there is recognition that recognizing the core concept of the freedom to read happens every day and often in what seems fairly humdrum: checking out a book that you personally chose from a shelf full of other options. Challenges and banned books highlight the threat to this overall freedom. These conversations, though, also provide the chance to celebrate.

Books. For the People. Always.

site logo

What would you like to find?