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Q & A: Researcher Analyzes When Libraries Keep Challenged Books

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Most research on efforts to ban school-library books has focused on why books were challenged and whether they eventually were removed from library shelves.

One researcher, Dianne McAfee Hopkins, chose a different tack. She decided to explore instead the factors that kept books in school libraries despite objections.

Ms. Hopkins, an assistant professor of library and information studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, surveyed librarians at 6,600 secondary schools and studied challenges to books that occurred at 739 of those school libraries.

The study, funded by the U.S. Education Department and Encyclopaedia Britannica, won the 1992 research award from the Association for Library and Information Science Education.

Ms. Hopkins spoke about her findings last week with Assistant Editor Debra Viadero.

Q. Where did most of the school-library-book challenges come from?

A. Sixty-four percent of challenges came from parents. In addition to that, challenges came from teachers and principals 20 percent of the time. Many people find that to be interesting, because they don't normally think of people involved in the schools challenging library materials.

There were other categories, but the other categories totaled only 16 percent.

Q. How frequently were books removed from school-library shelves?

A. We asked librarians to focus on their most recent challenge. ... The answer I'm going to give is not for everything challenged. In terms of outcome, 52.3 percent of materials that were challenged were retained, while 21.6 percent were restricted. And 26.1 percent of the challenges resulted in removal of materials.

Q. What factors were most important in determining whether challenged books were retained?

A. There were a number of factors that were important in retention. One had to do with the existence of a school-board approved material-selection policy.

But equally important was the use of the policy when material was challenged. It's not at all unusual to have a material-selection policy that outlines--and outlines well--what should occur when material is challenged and for the policy to not be used when material is challenged.

People completed a scale with 1 meaning the policy was not used at all and 6 meaning it was used fully. Thirty-seven percent of the respondents indicated the policy was not used at all, and 25.3 percent indicated it was used fully.

Another factor had to do with the internal support that was provided to the librarian during the challenge process. This had to do with the support of the principal and the support of teachers when something was challenged.

Another factor relating to retention was external support--the support received from people outside the district.

This was an interesting question, too. It gave us an opportunity to think about groups we do not normally think about--the state department of education, the state professional librarians' association, the state teachers' association, the local public library, librarians outside the district, and national organizations. These were the choices we gave them. But it was interesting that it was the "other'' category that made a big difference, and "other'' was all over the board. It could be publishers, other educators. Most didn't list the same thing. The fact that they got support--period--seemed to be important.

Also, material was likely to be retained when the challenge was initiated by someone who was not connected [to the] school, like parents.

Another finding was that librarians who exhibited a strong sense of an internal locus of control, and school librarians who were less likely to automatically accept the decision of an authority figure, reported fewer materials retained. ...

The other thing was, when a challenge was written, material was more likely to be retained. This was a particularly important one because most challenges were oral. When the challenge was oral, books were retained 49.1 percent of the time. ... Written challenges resulted in retention 61 percent of the time.

Q. Why did written challenges make a difference?

A. Written challenges were more likely to be retained because they [schools] were more likely to follow the policy in those cases. If a complaint is oral and only oral, it almost doesn't get into the cycle in terms of what is supposed to be done. ... I think that's an area educators need to be aware of.

Q. What books were challenged most often?

A. Over all, there were 739 challenges, and most of the time what was challenged was challenged once and only once. ...

We did have four titles that were challenged 10 times or more: Forever, by Judy Blume; Go Ask Alice, by an anonymous author; The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier; and Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel.

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