Imagine a library patron approaching you with an item and challenging its inclusion in the collection. What do you do? It’s very important that you know your library’s process for handling a challenge before you are confronted with this. For example, you may be required to escalate the complaint to a supervisor, give the complainant a complaint form to fill out, or an email address to contact. 

  • It is good practice for every library to have a procedure for reviewing challenged material. Approach your supervisor or manager and ask them about the process for handling a complaint about an item. If your library doesn’t have a process, it’s time to create one! 
  • See the resources below for forms you can use as a template, adapted from Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa National Library of New Zealand’s Services to Schools. 


Having a procedure in place for complaints reassures the community that their opinions and concerns are valued, and their voice is being heard. Good communication is key, and having these procedures written into policy gives the community an outlet to express themselves. Libraries stand for key democratic principles, and one of these is hearing and acknowledging the voices of local citizens.

Complaints processes also empower staff with a pathway to know how to handle these situations and follow the necessary steps in the case of confrontation. Handling a complaint well, that is fair and consistent, is likely to prevent escalation. 

Most importantly, all staff should be aware of what to do when faced with a complaint.

As a rough guide, you should have the following covered in your process for challenges:

  • A formal channel for the complainant to make the complaint, such as a form to fill out or an email address to contact.
  • A designated team, or staff members, who handle complaints. Have escalation points for complaints of a certain severity, sensitivity, or magnitude. 
  • A process in place to review the complaint.
    • e.g. Look at how the item/event/display aligns with your collection policies, other procedures, or organisational strategy.
    • Have some templates on hand to use for ease and consistency.
      • e.g. We are committed to freedom of access of information and will not suppress or remove material simply because it gives offence to some people. This means that sometimes we, as an institution, make available books that individuals and/or some communities find offensive or misleading. We rely on, and follow, the judgments of the Classification Office Te Mana Whakaatu as to whether controversial material should be restricted or banned. Anyone is free to lodge a complaint with the Office. 
  • Prepare a formal response to send back to the complainant. The response should demonstrate:
    • That the individual item/display/event in question has been formally assessed.
    • What decision the library has made in response to the complaint
    • The reason/s for the decision being made
    • Other options available to the complainant, e.g. Te Mana Whakaatu The Classification Office. 
  • Have a place to keep track of complaints. Something like an excel spreadsheet will suffice.


Different types of libraries have different governance structures. For example, public libraries in Aotearoa are generally run by local and district councils, whereas an academic library is typically run by a tertiary institution it is part of. School libraries are governed by school boards of trustees.

The governance of your organisation will impact the library’s strategic direction which can influence what collection policies say. It is useful to know your governance structure if challenged. Sometimes, it may be appropriate to escalate a challenge to the broader organisation instead.

Link your collection policy with the strategy of your governing body. This could be your council's long-term plan, or the school or universities strategic directions. Aligning the library’s policies in this way gives collection decisions support, justification, and validity. It can be useful to point to this connection when decisions are challenged. 

For example, the Auckland Libraries Collection Development Policy is committed to mātauranga Māori as principle 5.2, linking to Auckland Council’s Auckland Plan 2050’s outcome of Māori Identity and Wellbeing.


LIANZA has a statement on freedom of information, and other international statements can also be useful. Have these in a readily accessible place so you can consult them if needed.

Here are some examples of responses you can have ready in case someone challenges an item in your collection. Some of these are taken from Unite Against Book Bans and Auckland Libraries Collection Policy.

  • We try to have an inclusive collection which represents the diversity of our community. As such we hold a variety of different viewpoints and topics, respecting people’s right of freedom of information. 
  • We do not remove books from our collection on the basis of causing offence or being morally objectionable.
  • We trust individuals to make their own decisions about what they read and believe.
  • We recognise that there will be disagreements over certain content. However, we don’t make individual decisions for other readers about what is appropriate.
  • Our collections team assesses and places material into age-appropriate collections. Parents and caregivers are responsible for their child’s selection and viewing of library materials.
  • If you believe an item should be restricted or banned, you can contact the Te Mana Whakaatu Classification Office. 
  • If you’d like to make a complaint about this item, you can [insert complaints procedure: fill out this form, contact this email.]


A group or individual challenging a resource in the library can be a challenging experience. This could be one person or a group of people, either in person or virtually, by email, phone, or social media messaging or comments. The challenger may be aggressive and provocative, and their complaint may challenge our own personal morals and opinions. Undoubtedly, they will challenge our principles of freedom of access to information! We may feel ourselves becoming defensive, angry, afraid, unsure, or any other range of reactions. 

As professional librarians, it is our responsibility to handle these complaints in a fair and respectful manner. It is counterproductive to become defensive or react according to your own personal morals and opinions. This negates the efforts of the library to encourage user involvement and sets a double standard. 

Remember that the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights (article 19) states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. It is helpful to remember that people trying to challenge or ban items usually have good intentions. They are often trying to protect people and children from harm. As such, a challenge should be handled politely and respectfully, even if it challenges your own morals and beliefs. 


  • Listen calmly and politely. Give the person time to air their complaint. It may not be necessary to address the complaint there and then; this is what your library's complaint procedure is for. 
  • Often a person simply wants an opportunity to express their concerns and opinions. By listening courteously, and making the person feel heard and acknowledged, the complaint may not go any further. In this instance, ensure you still inform your supervisor of the incident and make note of it in your complaints register. 
  • Understand what it is the person/group wants. Are they content to have aired their grievances? Or would they like to make a complaint? Ask them directly, “Would you like to make a complaint about an item in the collection?” 
  • If you feel up for it, you can try and help the person understand why we have diversity in a library’s collection and resources. You can use a statement you already prepared on library principles standing for intellectual freedom and a diversity of material. If you feel capable, you may explain how and why library materials are selected, and that library’s do not censor or remove materials on the basis of having caused offence.
  • It’s best to avoid debating the item's merits, as this may escalate into more conflict. Rather, promote the principles of having a diverse collection, or freedom of access to information.
  • If they would like to make a complaint, you can activate your complaints procedure. Explain to the person what the process will entail. Set expectations by outlining what you can and can’t do. For instance, that you can’t remove an item from the collection there and then, but you can enable them to make a formal complaint. 
  • Lastly: record the incident! Let your manager or collections librarians know that a collection item has been challenged. 

If the person is behaving aggressively, or you do not feel safe or comfortable, you do not need to continue engaging with the challenger. Remove yourself from the situation and engage your supervisor or security to take over if necessary. Everyone has the right to feel safe in their place of work. Your library will have guidelines of acceptable behaviour which can be referred to.

Does your library or governing organisation offer de-escalation or conflict awareness training? These can guide you in the appropriate actions to take if conflict is arising with a patron at the library and help develop your skills in dealing with such situations. 


Social media platforms are among the most visible and public platforms for library events and challenges. 

Social media comments and messages can be challenging to receive as they can be relentless, undermining and very negative. Staff monitoring social media should be well-trained and supported to handle these situations. It is advisable to have a social media moderation policy in place which determines how libraries are managing these platforms.

A recent example of this is from Kāpiti Coast District Libraries where, after a number of negative comments about Rainbow Storytime sessions, they removed the event and stopped all comments being made. Here’s a link to the Kapiti Coast District Council’s social media terms of use

KCDC social media for challenged libraries

Libraries and organisations should feel empowered to remove comments that are abusive, threatening, racist, sexist, homophobic, or other reasons that are misaligned with the library's values. Your organisation may already have a media or social media moderation policy and messages to cover this type of challenge; if not, it’s time to create one.  The key message for managing social media commentary is to be prepared! 

A social media policy, or moderation policy, is a collection of guidelines for everyone who uses your organisation’s social media accounts, both staff and the public. A moderation policy operates as a social contract outlining the expectations of people's behaviour on the platform. It explains the consequences of breaching those expectations and clearly outlines what actions the library will take under certain circumstances. This makes it easier for staff who are moderating social media to know how to respond. 

Your social media moderation policy should include:

  • Roles and responsibilities (who will post what?).
  • What kinds of content you share.
  • The voice and tone you aspire to, what sort of language you are using.
  • Preparation for posting if you anticipate that the most might be inflammatory to some people.
  • Templated responses.
  • How to handle conflicts on social media.
  • How you handle data and privacy.
  • A roster of staff to keep an eye on comments on posts.
  • Staff should be well-trained in what to look out for in comments, and know what actions to take depending on the content of the comment.
  • A place to keep a record of all the comments you are moderating. 

Your policy should contain a guide on what language you are looking for in the comments that will meet certain degrees of moderation criteria, and which actions to take accordingly.

Have a think about the following kind of things:

  • Do you respond to a probing question
  • Do you ignore something that is disagreeable
  • Do you hide or delete something that is offensive?
  • Do you escalate something that is threatening
  • Do you have criteria to ban someone? 

Comments on social media that require moderation may be of an offensive, aggressive, or threatening nature. As such, it’s important to ensure staff are well-supported in this role. Your social media moderation policy could also be linked to the health, safety, and wellbeing plan for your staff. This plan could involve:

  • Actions to take if things are escalating: escalation points involve managers or leads who will take over or be notified of certain kinds of communication or if things are escalating. 
  • Templated responses: this keeps things fair and consistent, and de-personalises the handling process for staff. 
  • What reporting is required?
  • Follow up if staff are negatively impacted.

Keep records of comments that are removed, hidden, or moderated, and users who are banned. This will come in handy if the person contacts your organisation or the media to inquire why. 

Helpful content in a policy include:

  • We welcome feedback and encourage robust community conversations on our social media pages. We’re committed to fostering an environment where everyone can feel safe, valued and respected. We will not tolerate harmful or offensive communications; this includes abusive or harassing posts and comments posted to our pages. 
  • We reserve the right to delete or moderate these comments, and ban accounts or refer them under the Harmful Digital Communications legislation. Comments containing offensive language will automatically be hidden.  


People may also challenge posters, events or displays in the library. Prepare a sample statement to include with displays.

Libraries are also grappling with the issue of disinformation distributed through their services. Libraries may accept flyers and notices from their community, but when the content is potentially harmful, they must make a judgement call. As with other challenges, it is useful to have a process for your staff to follow about community information and notice boards.


If news media are interested in any incident or local response to challenges, they may want to talk to librarians. Most organisations have a media policy advising who can talk to media, so make sure you know the policy and who to refer media enquiries to. If you have a media and communications team or person, work with them to explain the context and write responses for the media.

If you think your event, display, or collection item will elicit a negative public response, keep your media staff in the loop and brief them with the information they need to respond in advance. They’ll need a statement, explanation on why it’s happening, key spokespeople, and any policy/strategy to back up why.  


It is best practice for your library to have some form of register for reporting complaints. All official complaints should be handled as part of the process outlined in policy documents. However, it is still valuable to have a register of sorts where you can note informal complaints. This can be instances where a person has spoken to a staff member, made a comment on social media, or sent a message or email challenging the validity of an item in the collection, without taking up the offer to go through the official complaints channel. Having a list of this is also a way to keep track of trends in censorship challenges.

  • Ask if your library, or the library association your library is aligned with keeps a register of book challenges. 

An example is the American Library Association (ALA) who keep a register of challenges coded by the following categories:

  • Materials Challenge (books, movies, magazines, digital content)
  • Internet-Related Challenge (filtering, access, use policies)
  • Library Service (meeting rooms, programs, displays, exhibits, author visits)
  • Patron Privacy or Confidentiality Issue (circ. records, PII)
  • Hate Crime (defacement of library property to target a specific group; use of swastikas or other symbols of intimidation)
  • Threats or Harassment to Staff (online, by phone, by email, or in-person)
  • Legislative Concerns (including executive orders and A.G. opinions)
  • Other (including 1st Amendment audits and student publications).
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