The West Bend Challenges: Open Access and Intellectual Freedom in the Twenty-First Century

I’m very excited to announce the publication of a special issue of Library Trends dedicated to the 2009 controversy over select Young Adult books at the West Bend Community Memorial Library.

The special issue, titled “The West Bend Challenges: Open Access and Intellectual Freedom in the Twenty-First Century“, is co-edited by Joyce Latham, my friend and colleague at UW-Milwaukee School of Information Studies, and Barbara Jones, director of the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. As they note in the introduction, “This investigation of the West Bend (Wisconsin) Community Memorial Library controversy of 2009 is, most immediately, a case study of a library confronting organized challenge to its execution of its role in American culture,” and the articles reflect a broad range of important perspectives to help understand the West Bend controversy, and apply its lessons beyond the borders of this Wisconsin city:

This issue of Library Trends is a case study in intellectual freedom and the conflicts that so often surround it (Appendix I and Appendix II in this issue provide statements on the matter of intellectual freedom by the American Library Association). The case study is a research tool that can be used to advance a range of social inquiries, allowing investigators to study “how general social forces take shape and produce results in specific settings” (Walton, 2009, p. 122). Case-based research allows investigators to explore one event, institution, or organization from multiple angles. The particular focus encourages a detailed description that can expose multiple themes related to the case, enriching the analysis. West Bend Community Memorial Library (WBCML) was selected for this study because of the complexity of the events and their visibility. The availability of documents and digital exchanges generated by multiple participants related to the “materials challenges” and professional authority support a robust research process. This study investigates the strategies of conservative social agents in their attempts to recast the role of the public library as a negative element in advancing the public good.

But it is also a case study of the resistance to the expansion of the public sphere to include traditionally marginalized populations, such as GLBTQ populations. In her essay in this issue of Library Trends, Loretta Gaffney argues that, in the view of the challengers, “any GLTBQ content in YA literature was propaganda aimed at indoctrinating youth with the view that homosexuality was normal,” which violated their family values. As Michael Zimmer and Adriana McCleer indicate in their essay, the WBCML controversy was one in a string of social disruptions focused on school budgets, social climate, and education. Coalitions of conservative and religious groups aligned with social reactionaries to impact social progress toward open inquiry and inclusivity, anchored in a rhetoric of public stability.

This collection of essays provides context for understanding the challenges by situating them in the community of West Bend, exploring the relationship of the West Bend challengers to their predecessors, analyzing the language employed by the challengers in reference to that employed by the library profession, theorizing the motivations and success of the library’s grassroots supporters, and, finally, revisiting the policies currently in place intended to facilitate dialogue about library services among professionals and community stakeholders.

I’m thrilled have have contributed a summary of the West Bend case to the issue. Co-authored with SOIS PhD student Adriana McCleer, our contribution, “The 2009 West Bend Community Memorial Library Controversy: Understanding the Challenge, the Reactions, and the Aftermath,” tries to unravel the various twists and turns in the West Bend controversy:

For most of 2009, the West Bend Community Memorial Library in West Bend, Wisconsin, was embroiled in controversy due to a series of community-based challenges against the presence of so-called “sexually explicit books” and “books for youth on homosexuality” in the library’s Young Adult section. The controversy generated considerable discussion and debate over the role of the library in providing access to information, the nature of intellectual freedom and professional authority, the influence of community and outside stakeholders, and the role of local governance in library operations. These discussions occurred in public meetings and across dinner tables, in community protests and editorial pages, on blogs and social media, and in professional and academic venues, and they reached far beyond the limits of the rural Wisconsin city, making the West Bend controversy an important and unique opportunity to explore how debates over intellectual freedom play out in the twenty-first century information ecosystem.

Other important contributions include: Loretta Gaffney addressing the issue of YA literature and its relationship to conservative activism; Emily Knox analyzing the various interpretations of “censorship” as a broader concept, and a specific one within the West Bend debates; Mark Peterson exploring the role of the counter-movement within the controversy, and the question of whether a public sphere can actually function in American society; Jean Preer surveying the challenge process within Wisconsin public libraries, and produces a trenchant analysis of “best practices” for addressing intellectual freedom practices within a public library’s community.

Finally, the release of the special issue announces a new project at the Center for Information Policy Research focused on collecting and making available all relevant complaint materials, news reports, public comments, relevant communications available through public records requests related to various public library material challenges. We have created a public repository of hundreds of emails, memos, meeting minutes, videos of public forums, blog posts, and news reports related to the West Bend controversy.


  1. Michael, you wrote about me but you didn’t get my input and you didn’t even have the courtesy to tell me you wrote about me. I’m disappointed. Worse, by not speaking with me, you may have introduced bias and/or error or magnified existing bias/error. Would there have been any harm in contacting me?

    Emily Knox who also wrote in Library Trends spoke with me for an entire hour. No one else. Loretta Gaffney, possibly more, never contacted me, I just don’t know because you all do not tell me you have written about me.

    “Information ethics” is the first thing listed under your name. Where is the ethics in what you and they have done and not done?

    I would like a serious answer.

    I would also like the chance to debate any of you, particularly Barbara Jones, but preferably Emily Knox. At least Ms. Knox plays fair. Can you set up some form of debate between myself and Barbara Jones, or anyone else? Free speech, anyone?

  2. Mr. Kleinman:

    No one was interviewed for the contribution I co-authored; the descriptive summary of events was based on publicly-available primary sources. I believe you were mentioned twice in the document. If you feel there is an error in these passages, let me know the specifics.

    I cannot speak on behalf of other contributors to this special issue. If you wish to debate Prof. Knox, I suggest you contact her directly.

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