You might have heard that there has been a lot of controversy at the Hamilton East Public Library (HEPL) that has reached national attention. HEPL is the Noblesville and Fishers public libraries. Specifically, there was a policy update that was rewritten at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars that has moved thousands of books out of the teen and children sections of the libraries.
It is interesting to step back and consider just how severe the problem was that lead to this change in policy that resulted in thousands of books being moved.
Request for Reconsideration (RfR)
Let’s start by stating that the public libraries serve the public – the entire public. This means there is a wide variety of books to serve all ages and demographics. It should not be surprising that there will be books that some people don’t like and possibly even books that offend people. That’s the “public” part of being a public library.
What happens if there is a book that offends a person?
Simply put, if you believe a book or material at the library is offensive, shelved in the wrong section, or simply something you have a concern with, you can fill out a Request for Reconsideration (RfR) form. You can find this form currently at https://www.hepl.lib.in.us/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/Request-for-Reconsideration-rev-012023.pdf. The library is updating their website, so this page might move, but the form should be linked to the library site.
Within this form you can identify what the material is that you have a concern with. This includes information such as title, author, edition, and more. You can also indicate if you read, viewed, or listened to the entire work, and whether it was seen in person in an exhibit or display. The key element is describing the concern regarding the material, display, exhibit, or program including specific pages, sections, or illustrations that are of concern. Finally, the form also asks how the resource came to your attention.
This past year the library board updated the process for reviewing the RfRs. It is now done by a committee that includes library, community, and board members. Granted, the board reserves the right to override the committee recommendation, which they recently did with the book “Why? A Conversation on Race” where the committee said the book passed the collection policy for being allowed in the children’s section, but the board voted to move it regardless.
This RfR process is different from the collection policy review that has been happening over the last eight months. More specifically, the review over the last eight months has been done as a result of an update to the collection policy that changed how teen and juvenile books are shelved from the standard national approach to a policy defined by the HEPL board majority. This new policy defined criteria around sexual situations, violence, profanity, racism, and more that would require books normally considered teen/children books to be moved to the adult section of the library. This process required each book in the teen and juvenile sections to be reviewed for placement.
A Look at the Numbers
It is worth noting that the official way to challenge a book that you believe has an issue is to fill out an RfR. Talking to a county council member, talking to a board member, speaking at a board meeting, or complaining to your neighbor does nothing towards reviewing or addressing whether a book or other item that should be moved. It is by filling out the RfR that a book gets officially reviewed and considered for relocation in the library. As such, if you talked to a librarian about a book that you have an issue with, they will direct you to this form.
The collection policy change by the board, however, stepped outside of this normal challenged process and required the librarians to review all books in the children’s section. While this collection policy was paused in the last HEPL board meeting, up until that point the total number of items relocated to the General Collection (aka., the adult section) was 3,653 at a cost of over $60,400 (not counting legal fees).
That is worth repeating — 3,653 items were moved at a cost of over $60,000 (not counting legal fees).
This action was the result of concerns for books in the teen section. As such, you likely expect that there was a plethora of RfR forms filled out prior to the board taking this action.
The numbers, however, might surprise you.
As of the writing of this article, there has been one book challenged in 2023. This challenge was for the book, The Fault in Our Stars, and asked for it to be moved out of the adult section and to be returned to the teen section. As such, there are no RfRs for moving any books out of the children’s section from 2023. Three separate people filled out RfRs to move this book back to the teen section.
With 2023 having no requests to move books out of the children’s section, you might assume that 2022 was therefore a huge year for RfRs since the policy was discussed and changed during 2022 and early 2023. The answer for 2022 as to the number of books challenged is only five. Only four RfRs were written in 2022, which challenged five books. The challenges were:
- 2/2022 Maiden and Princess—retained in J Picture Book (on the same form as Tale of the Shadow King)
- 2/2022 Tale of the Shadow King—retained in J Picture Book (on the same form as Maiden and Princess)
- 5/2022 The Loudest Bark—retained in J Picture Book
- 10/2022 Making a Baby – relocated to the General non-fiction collection
- 12/2022 Why? – relocated to the Parent/Teacher Resource collection
The biggest year for RfRs was 2021, where there were only 11 RfRs, which came from just three people. The books challenged in 2021 were:
- 2/2021 Abe (DVD)—relocated from J DVD to general DVD collection
- 9/2021 Berlin Boxing Club—retained in YA Fic (sorted into High School collection as part of the TZ reconfiguration in 2022)
- 9/2021 Call me Max—retained in J Picture Book
- 9/2021 Crank—retained in YA Fic (sorted into High School collection as part of the TZ reconfiguration in 2022, relocated to General Fiction in 2023)
- 9/2021 Drawn to Sex—relocated to general non-fiction collection
- 9/2021 Glass Castle—retained in YA non-fiction (relocated to General non-fiction as part of the TZ reconfiguration in 2022)
- 9/2021 L8R G8R—retained in YA Fic (sorted into High School collection as part of the TZ reconfiguration in 2022, relocated to General Fiction in 2023)
- 9/2021 Sex Plus—retained in YA non-fiction (relocated to General non-fiction as part of the TZ reconfiguration in 2022)
- 9/2021 Sloppy Firsts—retained in YA Fic (This is an older title, and we do not appear to have a print copy of this currently. If the title is replaced or reordered, it would be located in the High School collection.)
- 9/2021 Sparkle Boy—retained in J Picture Book
- 12/2021 Let’s Talk About It—retained in YA non-fiction (relocated to General non-fiction as part of the TZ reconfiguration in 2022)
- 12/2021 Quick and Easy Guide to Consent—retained in YA non-fiction (relocated to General non-fiction as part of the TZ reconfiguration in 2022)
Going back farther, 2020 had no RfRs, zero. 2019 had three (targeting only one book, and one painting that was displayed), 2018 had two, and 2017 had one:
- 1/2017 Secret Pizza Party—retained in J Picture Book
- 1/2018 My Mom is Having a Baby—retained in J non-fiction
- 5/2018 My Dog Jack is Fat—retained in J Picture Book
- 3/2019 La Luna (painting in Ignite gallery display)—retained in place through exhibit end (2 forms from two patrons received at the same time)
- 8/2019 Zondervan Teen Study Bible—older edition, replaced with updated version from same publisher and shelved in Teen non-fiction
In total, from 2017 to 2023, nearly seven years, there have only been 22 items challenged out of the tens of thousands of books that the library has.
To summarize, 21 books and 1 painting have received challenges across nearly seven years. Only five books were challenged last year, yet the HEPL board put in place a policy that resulted in over 3,600 books being moved at a cost of over $60,000. This is why HEPL is getting negative press.
Should books be challenged?
Yes, books should be challenged if a person disagrees with the shelving. The person should be aware, however, that the public library serves the entire community, so just because one person finds it offensive doesn’t mean that the community as a whole agrees. Teen use profanity. Some teen books wll have references to LGBTQ+ that are not considered pornographic on their own. For older teens there are some levels of sexuality that the majority of our society finds acceptable, just as was argued at a recent board meeting for the book The Fault in Our Stars. Having said that, there are some books that have pushed the edges and in looking at the RfRs that have been submitted, some were moved as a result.
The key takeaway, however, is that if you have a concern with a book, the first step is to fill out an RFR form. It isn’t to rewrite policies and make a national spectacle of our libraries while bringing negative attention to our city. It is worth repeating, that even with all the noise, there have been no RfRs for moving books from the children’s sections in 2023, yet the HEPL board was working to spend between $100,000 and $300,000 to address the issue.
Some of the Data
The list of books provided above came from the HEPL library site. The spending also came from the site including the following:
What is the cost so far?
The following are costs spent reviewing or editing teen materials:
- Collection Development Assistant (temporary positions) – $21,319
- Non-temporary staff – $36,544
- Material costs – $2,597
- Total – $60,460
Costs associated with staff time moving materials, completing shelving adjustments, etc. are not factored in. This is strictly expense associated with the retrospective review and reprocessing/editing materials.
If you think these numbers are surprising, you should take a look at the legal fees the library has spent the last 12 months. They appear to be at least quadruple what the average has been in the past.
Let’s Talk About It – One Last Comment
The book most mentioned and most shared on social media regarding this issue is the book Let’s Talk About It. One board member mentions this book so often that he was asked to stop bringing it up in the last HEPL board meeting. If you look at the lists above, you will see that this book was challenged in December of 2021. While it was retained with the youth non-fiction books, all of the youth non-fiction books were moved to the adult section in 2022, thus removing it from the teen and children’s sections. In other words, the book that continues to get shared in 2023 as being an issue, was moved in 2022.
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Updated to fix typos.