Photo illustration by Julia Garrison

Many West Virginians rely on libraries as a central resource hub: with printing services, genealogy, extracurricular activities and — of course — books. The way libraries add new material to their collection might seem mundane, but libraries in West Virginia follow a unique protocol for the selection of books and other items. 

How do public libraries across West Virginia decide what books are in their collections? 

Public libraries across West Virginia use a document called a collection development policy, which is based on guidelines provided by the American Library Association (ALA). The ALA’s suggested collection development policy outlines the importance of a diverse collection of media within a public institution, as well as the freedom of library patrons to challenge the library’s materials through a different form.

None of West Virginia’s libraries stray from these policy recommendations, which ALA Communications Specialist Raymond Garcia said are based on industry best practices and professional ethics that include First Amendment principles.

Collection development policies either mention or explicitly endorse the Library Bill of Rights, the Freedom to Read statement, and the Freedom to View statement, all authored by the ALA. The Library Bill of Rights, created in 1939, defines the seven key standards for a library, outlining the importance of combating censorship and access to information. 

Collection development policies like the Ohio County Public Library’s explain the importance of access within a collection, explaining that the collection’s materials will not be restricted in any way to prevent access from any potential audience. Wood County’s collection development policy echoes this statement. 

How does someone challenge a book at a West Virginia library? What does it mean when a book is challenged?

The fiction section in the Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library. The library holds an extensive collection of fiction and sci-fi, so much that the entirety of its non-fiction is housed in the basement of the library. Photo by Julia Garrison.

When library patrons feel strongly about a book in the collection, they have the right to challenge its presence through a form titled “Request For Reconsideration of Library Materials.” This form is slightly different at every public library across the state, but are all built off of the ALA’s template of the form. They also include a list of the actions a library will consider taking when a book is challenged. 

The process begins when a library patron notices a book they might not agree with or do not want to see on the shelf. At most West Virginia libraries, the patron is directed to talk to a librarian or the library director before filing a formal complaint. 

When filing a formal complaint, the patron is asked a few questions about the material: did you read the entire material? What is the theme of the material? What age group would you recommend this material for? What should the library replace this material with? 

Although challenge forms are similar across the state, some counties like Marion have a more extensive set of questions compared to the ALA’s five — including new questions about what should happen to the material (if it should be restricted, and if so, why). It also asks the complainant why they believe the library placed the work in the collection.

Who decides if a book is removed from a library in West Virginia?

The library director has 30 days to respond in writing to the patron after they have reviewed the complaint with the appropriate library staff and made a decision. If the patron is not satisfied with the outcome, they can request the issue be brought to the next library board meeting (sometimes called the board of trustees). In this instance, the library board holds final say, not the library director.

These library boards, also referred to in West Virginia state law as the “governing authority,” are made up of citizens of the library’s service area and are appointed by county and city public offices. A library board member will serve for five years, and board members are appointed on a staggered basis — where a new member of the library is appointed every year to phase out the five-year board member.

Who is trying to ban books in West Virginia?

Books from the children’s religion section of the Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library. Photo by Julia Garrison

While the libraries have an extensive process for challenges, relatively few books have been formally challenged in attempts to ban materials from the library. 

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom reported a jump in book challenges in West Virginia from 2021-2022. In the entirety of 2021, the office’s data shows there was only one book challenge, but in 2022, nine titles were challenged — all at public school libraries, not public libraries. Communications Specialist Raymond Garcia explained that many public library challenges go unreported

At the public library level, The Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library stands out, having received three challenges for different books in the last year alone. 

Some of those challenging the books have said they do not want to ban them, just restrict them to a section where only adults are allowed to check out the material. But challenges filed in Wood County say otherwise. 

Formal complaints filed against the graphic memoir Gender Queer and the sexual education book It’s Perfectly Normal ask that the library remove the book from the collection entirely. Citizens who filed the challenges recommend a spiritual self-help guide for teenagers and a fantasy series take their places in the collection, respectively. 

In Hancock County, Swaney Memorial Library has a specific section of books that are only available by request, but can be checked out by any and all library patrons, including children with library cards. The library does not have a formal challenge process.

“You’re never right, you’re going to be wrong one way or another,” said library director Shauna Andrews, adding that she decided to put titles like This Book is Gay on a request-only basis but kept notes on shelves where the books would normally be.

Julia Garrison is a summer intern at Mountain State Spotlight, English student at the College of Wooster, news editor at the Wooster Voice and Morgantown native.