Banned Books Week: A Discussion on Intellectual Freedom for Kids

Can of Worms. 'No Matter' Project Photo Stream on Flickr.

In honor of Banned and Challenged Books Week, Britt and Rebecca want to discuss the assumptions, implications, and consequences of challenging and banning books in public and school libraries, particularly for youth.  We think that library school is the best time to explore these topics so you can develop intellectual and ethical positions before you start your career; even as they shift and change in practice, having a theoretical foundation and a chance to exchange ideas with peers is a way to build your own position.  Please add your voice to the discussion!
Rebecca: Off the bat, I am totally pro-intellectual freedom, even for youth.  I think it’s necessary to expose children to all sorts of ideas and to encourage them to critically reflect on their reading to help them become better learners and citizens.  Similarly, it is the job of the parent to determine what is or isn’t appropriate for an individual child, and not the job of a library or school.  When a school removes a book, they aren’t just saying the book is inappropriate for some, or even most, children; they’re saying the book is inappropriate for all children.  That doesn’t seem right.

Britt: Of course, public and school librarians operate in different spheres of responsibility for a child’s access.  Many teacher librarians may act in loco parentis (in place of a parent) depending on their state or district; public librarians have no such mandate.  It is the common practice of public librarians (and the suggestion of ALA), particularly when processing a challenge, to place the responsibility for access on the parent, which relieves the librarian of that role.  This leaves us free to collect for a broader audience, but also, I feel, limits our ability to be advocates for intellectual freedom for youth.  Should youth librarians take a more active role when promoting access for children?  Should we advocate for the right of the child over that of the parent?

Rebecca: Librarians are advocates for the minority voice– adult collections routinely contain books that are useful to immigrants or disabled  persons or non-heterosexual populations.  Why wouldn’t we also be advocates for youth?  The goal isn’t to usurp parental rights, but to have first and foremost the intellectual freedom of youth in our decision-making.  Individual decisions about appropriateness for a child should be left to the parents.  Maybe I’m super-radical here, but I think youth librarians are ultimately advocates for intellectual freedom for children.  That being said, some materials are just flat-out inappropriate for children (right?).

Britt: That’s such a hard question, and so determined by the individual.  How far do we go in making those decisions?

Rebecca:  Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy is a wonderfully written book and discusses the nature of humanity and morality, but is so violent that I would not advocate making it readily available for children specifically.  What is the difference, then, between making informed decisions regarding collection policies and censorship?

Britt:  I firmly believe that children have the ability to self-select.  I wouldn’t use children’s materials funds to purchase Blood Meridian, and I wouldn’t place it in the children’s section, because I would be endorsing it as having the potential to be enjoyable for a child.  I think most children would probably choose to not read beyond a few pages if they ever got so far as to even open the book.  So I think that having a respect for the intellect of a child is what draws that fine line in building an appropriate collection and censoring.  That and understanding that resources are finite, and it is my responsibility to use them wisely, to the greatest benefit of my patrons.

Rebecca: That’s a good point. Children are good at self-selecting but we need to be aware of what is a reasonable expectation of their comfort level.  Has ALA misappropriated the term “censorship?”

Britt: I wonder this every time I read a comment from Safe Libraries.  The individual who spearheads that movement has an excellent point; the Annoyed Librarian also frequently points out that true censorship is quite rare in the United States.  I think perhaps my biggest frustration with this isn’t the distinguishing characteristics of varying levels of access restriction, but that it detracts from our larger message of intellectual freedom and prevents us from spending energy in other places: advocating against legislation that allows parents access to children’s library records, or against making library funding conditional based on complicit censorship, which CIPA very much does.

Rebecca: Certainly a government forbidding the printing and distribution of a book and a school removing a book due to explicit content isn’t the same thing.  The issue becomes how and why a book is determined explicit; if it’s because the book offends Christian minority sensibilities (as one of many examples), then the removal of the book is inappropriate.  However, if, for whatever reason, a school librarian does buy Blood Meridian and it is challenged and subsequently removed, that removal might be appropriate.  Who gets to decide?

Britt: If the school librarian is an elementary school librarian, then I think I could only blame poor collection development for that choice.  But what if it was Hunger Games?  Somewhat similar themes, and wildly popular.  Inappropriate for a third grader, maybe, but for some sixth grade readers? I would absolutely argue for that title.  And maybe that’s what the decision comes down to.  Having the courage of our professional credentials to make such decisions, and establishing relationships with our teachers, parents, and administrators so that this authority is considered, perhaps not the final, but certainly the most weighty, in a collection decision.

Rebecca: Professional credentials– especially for school librarians who often need additional certification outside of an MLS– should be respected.  That isn’t to say individual librarians don’t make mistakes, but in the same way we trust accountants, doctors, or lawyers to act in our best interests, so also should we trust our children’s educators.  Should we also take into consideration how accessible the book would otherwise be, for example, if it is in the local public library collection?

Britt: I think maybe this goes back to the ability of children to self-select, at least for books composed of text. This of course raises the question of access to material of a sexual nature, particularly images.  Distinguishing between text and images has long been part of the intellectual freedom debate.  Same for digital access: exposure to explicit images one patron is accessing online when a child walks by.  How do we defend access then?

Rebecca: It feels like digital access is a whole new can of worms, though something librarians absolutely have to think about.  Digital access to materials should be treated the same as a print resource; unfortunately, so long as public access terminals remain the in the open, a child might inadvertently see an inappropriate image.  One solution some public libraries have taken is to block sexually explicit content on any terminal that doesn’t have some way of obscuring its view (such as blinders).  As for accessing electronic sources themselves, kids are pretty smart at getting around filters and firewalls…so I don’t know.

Britt: I suppose, then, that as technology and professional practice develop in tandem, so will our individual and professional takes on intellectual freedom.  No easy answers!
There are obviously many issues to consider when discussing intellectual freedom for youth, and we can’t talk about them all.  Here are some “talking points” we’d like to open up for discussion:
  • How can school and public libraries best collaborate to ensure the most protection over children’s intellectual freedom?
  • How does the role of advocate change from school librarian to public librarian?
  • Does the feminization of librarianship contribute to the distrust of professional librarian judgment?

Categories: Advocacy & Activism

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9 replies

  1. I really feel for the school librarians. It often seems like school libraries always have to deal with book challenges and like you guys pointed out, if the book is deemed in appropriate for one child, all the kids have to suffer.

    I thought about the public library in my hometown. They have some computers for kids, but it explicitly states on their policy page that it is the parents’ responsibility to monitor their children’s activity because they don’t have any filters on the computers. In an ideal world, the parent is always there with their kids however, I remember my own mother dropping me off at the library and going off to do errands. The library became my babysitter and it was OK because I was safe there. Also, there were maybe 2 computers that had internet access in those days. Anyway, the point is, I don’t think librarians need to be the babysitter but it feels like libraries ARE inherently safe places to be, despite the dangers out there in society.


    • Annie, I agree–by and large I think public libraries are safe places. In Austin, all the computers are filtered for sexual content except one “adult only” computer which obstructs passerby to view the monitor. Youth are encouraged to be in the library alone because we know that a lot of youth need safe places to be, so the solution was to filter all the computers (there are youth-only computers that adults can’t access, but kids can access every computer except the one adult-only one). Does that make sense?

      It’s not a perfect solution, but I think most people are satisfied.


    • This made me think of an experience I had when writing up an observation on a teen space in a public library. This branch was right down the street from a large H.S., but there was *never* any teens there. I think this was because the space, constructed to give teens privacy, made it the perfect place for some shady dealings– I saw two drug deals go down in the two hours I was there. The use of this branch as a safe space for itinerant individuals was pretty high, but I worried that we can’t let one oppressed population make the space less safe for another oppressed population. If the library isn’t comfortable, that’s really denying access. A kind of ultimate censorship. A hard balance… but I know some systems, like D.C. Public, are doing some really innovative things to try and serve both.


    • As an elementary school librarian I do feel the pressures of protecting the students that I serve while allowing intellectual freedom to have its place. I want our students and their parents to know that the library is a safe place where learning is a top priority. Creating an atmosphere that inspires a love of reading that will lead to a life long desire for learning is vital.

      While I appreciate the value of intellectual freedom protecting children until they are prepared to make those choices for themselves also has value. There are somethings that can wait and if there is any question as to the content being appropriate or not…should we not error on the side of caution.


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