June 2023 | Volume XLI, Issue 2 »

De-escalation: A Crucial Tool in Libraries for Promoting Intellectual Freedom

June 1, 2023
Steven Ward, Forsyth Public Library

What else can your library do to respond to the growing threat of material challenges? In talking with dozens of directors, board members, and frontline staff from around the state during meetings, conferences, and presentations on this subject, as well as learning more through independent research and reviewing hundreds of policies, I have found that the response to material challenges is quite varied, and a lot of questions remain. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to how a library might respond, proven de-escalation techniques help give library directors, staff, and board members the tools they need to formulate an appropriate response. This includes having effective board-approved policies and procedures in place to help guide library processes, providing training to help library staff and board members be prepared for the difficult conversations they might face, and advocacy efforts to help ensure that public opinion and support rightfully remains on the side of libraries. No matter your library type or size, preparation is the key to de-escalating material challenges.

Intellectual Freedom is the foundation of the library profession, and with recent trends that attempt to threaten our cause, and in some cases, our very existence, the debate over material challenges and censorship in libraries is shaping up to be the defining issue of our time. We, as librarians, stand on strong legal footing, as the principles of Intellectual Freedom are also rooted in Democracy, the U.S. Constitution, and the First Amendment. As public institutions, the First Amendment also protects the rights of those who wish to engage us about our collections, which is why we should always welcome these conversations, no matter how difficult. Libraries are also historically open and transparent, and we have absolutely nothing to hide. By attempting to de-escalate material challenges through open dialogue, we can help ensure that the focus remains on what matters most in our libraries: Intellectual Freedom and access for ALL!

According to the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom, 2022 was a record year for book challenges, with 1,269 reported demands to censor library books and resources, including 2,571 unique titles. By comparison, a total of 729 challenges were reported in 2021, including 1,858 unique titles. In Illinois specifically, 56 challenges were reported in 2022, and as of April 1, 2023, 17 challenges have already been recorded. Unfortunately, these numbers are just a snapshot of what is actually taking place in libraries around the country, as material  hallenges often go unreported. This fact underscores the importance of reporting all official challenges to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. One thing that is clear when analyzing the data; this fight is far from over.

In order to properly de-escalate material challenges in your library, it is crucial to have effective board-approved policies and procedures in place that clearly outline the challenge process from beginning to end. A Collection Development Policy is a great start, but also consider adding a Request for Reconsideration section and form, and officially adopting the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, Freedom to Read Statement, and Freedom to View Statement as appendices, if you haven’t already. These policies and statements will help guide your processes, from purchasing, to weeding, to defending your collection when challenges arise. When writing or updating collection policy, it is strongly recommended that you include language that speaks to anti-censorship, that explains that the choice of library materials by library users is an individual matter, and that clearly defines the parent’s responsibility to monitor and supervise their own children’s reading.

Because material challenges present a number of legal and ethical dilemmas for libraries, it should never be as simple as filling out a basic form and expecting an immediate response. This process should require a real commitment from the patron, and questions listed on the Request for Reconsideration form should reflect this. Many libraries outline multiple steps before a form is provided, including having conversations with dedicated staff. It is possible that the patron may just simply want to be heard, or they might have legitimate questions about your collection that are not related to censorship. Trained library staff can often help steer the patron in different directions, including the possibility of going home with a different book.

If the patron’s goal is to petition to have an item removed from your library’s collection, carefully consider your next steps, including but not limited to: providing copies of all collection documents along with the Request for Reconsideration form, notifying your board, forming a committee to review the request (do not act alone), providing written notification of the committee’s decision, and giving the patron the opportunity to petition your board if they are not satisfied. If conversations over library materials escalate, and anger or aggression is present in the patron, applying de-escalation techniques can help you maintain proper control of the situation. While this is easier said than done, especially when emotions are running high on both sides, it is crucial that we always remain calm, remember to breathe, be mindful of our body language and facial expressions, maintain a soft tone of voice, and don’t attempt to try and change the patron’s mind.

Speaking more specifically about de-escalation techniques, the LOWLINE model, which was developed in the healthcare field, offers effective strategies that apply to all fields, including libraries. The New South Wales Health Department does a great job of summarizing the LOWLINE de-escalation model in the following, easy to understand terms:

  • Listen to what the issue is and the person’s concerns.
  • Offer reflective comments to show that you have heard what their concerns are.
  • Wait until the person has released their frustration and explained how they are feeling.
  • Look and maintain appropriate eye contact to connect with the person.
  • Incline your head slightly, to show you are listening and give you a non-threatening posture.
  • Nod to confirm that you are listening and have understood.
  • Express empathy to show you have understood.

Engaging in active listening, offering reflective comments, letting the patron speak and vent uninterrupted, maintaining appropriate eye contact to show that you are listening, and expressing empathy and understanding should, in most cases, defuse the situation. (Lowry 5-6) Keeping the conversation focused on access, rather than trying to defend content, is another strategy that can be used to help de-escalate. It is important to always remember that if you make every effort to treat the patron with respect and they resort to name calling and are being abusive, you have every right to ask them to leave. This is another example where policy, namely a Patron Conduct policy, can be used to de-escalate.

Dealing with confrontation is difficult for most, but a lot can be accomplished with proper training and education. Meet periodically with your staff, colleagues, and board members to discuss the importance of Intellectual Freedom and access, and the critical role of libraries in our communities. Instead of waiting until a challenge takes place, get out in front of this issue, and begin having these conversations now. Creating internal documents or scripts with talking points that outline steps that your staff should take when confronted can also be quite helpful. It is often frontline staff that take the brunt of a patron’s frustrations, so equip them with the knowledge and tools they need to succeed. Role playing scenarios is another great way to improve confidence with de-escalation techniques. Finally, the most important aspect of any situation where emotions are running high, is safety, so also look to reinforce elements of your library’s emergency plan as a part of staff and board training.

Advocacy is another form of de-escalation, and yet another way to get out in front of this issue. Look for opportunities to speak to elected officials on the local, state, and federal level to make sure they understand and appreciate the importance of libraries in a free society. If they cannot make this clear and obvious distinction, hold them accountable at the ballot box. Also consider serving on committees within your library system and professional organizations, where you can make a difference on a larger scale. Highlight annual holidays and events that celebrate libraries and diversity through your library displays, programs, and newsletters. Visibility is another major component of advocacy, so attend community events and look to join community organizations when and where possible.

The key to de-escalating material challenges is preparation, and while libraries have done a phenomenal job in their response, there is always more that we can do to help prepare our staff and board members for what might come next. Pay close attention to HB2789 and the impact that this bill might have on some libraries in our state. Libraries are great partners, and as you all know, there is so much support among our colleagues in the field. There is also tremendous support within our library systems, from the Illinois State Library, and from the professional organizations that we are all a part of. When times are tough, just remember that we are all in this together!


American Library Association (ALA). “American Library Association Reports Record Number of Demands to Censor Library Books and Materials in 2022.” March 22, 2023. https://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2023/03/recordbook-bans-2022 

Lowry, et al. (2016) “De-escalating Anger: A New Model for Practice.” Nursing Times; 112: online issue 4, 4-7. 

New South Wales (NSW) Health. “How Can I De-escalate a Situation When Someone Is Angry or Agitated.” Accessed April 7, 2023. https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/mentalhealth/psychosocial/strategies/Pages/managing-anger.aspx 

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