Book Challenges and Records Retention

Submission Date:


In a local school district, multiple books have been challenged recently. This week, the School Board received an email from a community member referencing record keeping for library materials and electronic records retention. The district Superintendent wants to make sure that the district is keeping the right kind of library records, and that they are keeping them for the legal amount of time. Attached are two documents to review. In the first document titled District Records, under #15, it advised that districts should keep a list of book lists and school library reports. With this, should the district have kept a list of all books in their libraries in any given year?


In speaking to different libraries about being prepared for book challenges, I have repeatedly stressed one very important element: have your policies ready.

This question shows the depth of consideration that goes into that simple requirement.

In this case, that "depth" is found in the rocky chasm of the LGS-1, New York's end-all, be-all rules for public document management.  Need to know how long to keep records for a bingo game authorized by a village?[1]  Or how long to keep a record of exhumation?[2]  Or how long we hang onto bridge inspection records?[3] It's all in the LGS-1.

The documents the member references are sections of the LGS-1.

They look like this:

LGS-1 Screenshot of school district records law


Screenshot of LGS-1 guidance for schools

Looking at these requirements, the member's question is: "[S]hould the district have kept a list of all books in their libraries in any given year?"

The answer is: MAYBE, but not DEFINITELY.

Here is why:

The first section referenced by the member, at first blush, looks like it requires the retention of "book lists" for six years.  But examining that precise section, you will see the requirement is limited to records submitted prior to the "consolidation of school districts." 

So, outside of a district consolidation, section LGS-1 15, does not require compiling a list of books.

The next sections, LGS-1 598 and 599, refer to a school district maintaining records related to a "Catalog of holdings" and "Individual title purchase requisition," respectively.

We'll tackle 598 first.

598 requires that a "Manuscript or published catalog" of "holdings" must be retained "permanently."  It then requires that a "Continuously updated catalog" be retained until it is "superseded" or "obsolete."

This means that a district library's "catalog of holdings" that exists in a static form (like a print or PDF list) must be retained permanently, but a list of holdings that is ever-changing (like an ILS) is only retained until it changes form--or that form stops being useful.[4]

In practical terms, this does mean that if the library produces a static list (in print or electronic form), it must be retained forever.  That obligation, however, does not obligate the library to create such a list in the first place.  Meaning, in other words: if the library only uses an ever-changing catalog, it doesn't need to retain any particular copy.

This brings us to 599, which requires that an "[i]ndividual title purchase requisition" (the documentation showing a school library bought a book) must be retained for one year.

Again, in practical terms: while per 598, a school library is not obligated to compile a printed list showing that "Not All Boys are Blue" is in its library's collection, per 599, it does have to retain (and produce, if not otherwise accessible through FOIL) a school’s requisition to purchase "Not All Boys are Blue" if requested.

This gets more interesting as one considers that LGS-1 600 (also seen in the purple-bordered excerpt above), regarding "Records documenting selection of books" sets no minimum retention period.  Meanwhile, LGS-1 601, regarding "Library material censorship and complaint records" mandates such records be retained for at least six years (and encourages considering saving them for much longer, which strikes me as a good idea).

The upshot of these various rules creates a regime where a district is empowered to pick and choose, to some degree, what records it wants to create...but once created, imposes a very particular set of parameters for retaining, purging, and disclosing them.  This is why my answer to the member's question must be so ambiguous.

It is also why it is very important that a district have a well-developed policy on this issue.

Below are some examples of what, depending on the records a district elects to create, a district can say in answer to the question: "I want to make sure I approve of all the books my taxes paid for this year.  Can I have a list of all the books?"

[If the library maintains a published list and wants to be friendly.] "Sure thing.  We compile and publish a list of books in our collection every year as of the first Monday of September.  Do you want the one showing all the books in one particular library, or all the books in the district?"

[If the library doesn't maintain a published list, but has a continuously updated catalog, feels friendly, and allows access to library computers.] "No, we don't publish such a list.  But we do have a continuously updated catalog you can search on this terminal."

[If the library doesn't maintain a published list, has a continuously updated catalog, doesn't allow just anybody access to its computers, but feels somewhat helpful.] "No, we don't publish such a list.  But we do have a continuously updated catalog you can request a copy of."

[If the library doesn't maintain a published list, doesn't allow access to computers, and doesn't feel helpful, but does feel puckish.] "No, but if requested, we can supply you with a copy of every book requisitioned last year."[5]

[If the library doesn't maintain a published list, and doesn't want to offer alternative ways to share the information.] "No, we don't have that."

[If the library doesn't maintain a published list, and is okay risking a spat.]


Optional rider to all the above answers: "Here is a copy of our FOIL policy so you know the process for requesting our public records through our FOIL officer, and can be aware of our copying charges and the process for requesting electronic copies."

Now, as any veteran of public relations battles over school district policy knows, there's a time to be helpful, and there's a time to say "no."  I am not endorsing any particular answer, but based on a district's policy, it should know what records it keeps (and doesn't keep), and how people can access them.

From my perspective, if there isn't a need to compile information, it shouldn't be compiled.  Further, FOIL does not create the obligation to compile information if it is not already compiled.  On the other hand, waffling and appearing to dodge the question when concerned citizens are on the hunt for "objectionable material" might not be the best way to fight the battle for intellectual freedom.  "We don't have a list but we have a continuously updated database" strikes me as a glove-slap; it invites a fight...but nevertheless, if accurate, might be a perfectly valid response.

From my high horse over here in law-law land, a district should proceed from the presumption that if a book is in a school library's catalog, it belongs there; this is the stance that supports intellectual freedom, while also setting a good example for the students (but I am not the one who has to deal with angry community members storming a school board meeting).

Regardless of my personal thoughts on the diplomatic aspects of this issue, from the perspective of intellectual freedom, information access, education law, the LGS-1, and the First Amendment, here is what's important: have a sound policy governing 1) how library books are selected; 2) how library books are cataloged;[6] 3) how library books are challenged; and 4) how library books are removed, and follow that policy.

If, as part of that policy, a district has the desire and capacity to create an annual (or decennial, or whatever time span it wants) list of books in the school library catalog, great, but if such a list is created, it must be kept forever.  And if the district only uses a continuously updated library catalog, it should be clear from the policy who can access it, and how (at the school?  By appointment?  Remotely?).  And all of this turns on the district having a designated FOIL officer and process for timely responding to, assessing, and meeting FOIL requests.

So, there is my answer...and I know it rests on a dangerous triangle of law, practicality, diplomacy.   This stuff isn't easy.

I wish you a clear head, a steady heart, and a ready wit as you face whatever challenges come your way.


[1] 8 NYCRR §185.15 (2020); see schedule items 562-564.

[2] 8 NYCRR §185.15 (2020); see schedule item 136.

[3] 8 NYCRR §185.15 (2020); see schedule item 1085.   By the way, it's "6 years after structure no longer in use or inspected features have been replaced," which I find rather terrifying.

[4] Kind of whimsically sad notion: "You are needed, until you change or you aren't needed."  I would love to meet the person who wrote this part of the LGS-1; they had to be a philosophy major.

[5] I don't advise using this one.

[6] Including having a published list, or simply having a continuously updated database.


First Amendment, LGS-1, Policy, Record Retention, School Libraries, Book challenges