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Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Let’s talk Access! And why libraries are radically unsafe places, and that’s a good thing!

Access: Noun
1. the ability, right, or permission to approach, enter, speak with, or use; admittance: They have access to the files.

2. the state or quality of being approachable: The house was difficult of access.
3. a way or means of approach: The only access to the house was a rough dirt road. (from

So you may have noticed the other day I got all ranty about a magazine’s decision to pull a review for the book Pretty Amy by Lisa Burstein.  On the one hand, I concede that they have the right to publish whatever they wish in their magazine, I really and truly do.  On the other hand, I object on the grounds that what they are in fact doing is limiting their readers access to information and the ability to make decisions for themselves.  I’m all about access to information.

Let me tell you a story. At the age of 20 I was majoring in Youth Ministry at Mount Vernon Nazarene College in Ohio.  My life goal was to be a youth pastor.  College, as you may have heard, is expensive and I needed a job.  So I went to the job placement center on campus and they said the local public library was wanting to hire someone to work with teens and since my major was working with teens they thought I would be a good candidate.  I didn’t get the job at first (shame on them!), but a few weeks later they called and said they liked me so much that they decided to hire a second part time person to work with teens.  The rest, as they say, is history.

At this same time I was taking my religion classes and my bible classes and my adolescent development classes and my psychology classes.  One day a professor made a point that would stick with me forever: 80% of all decisions for Christ are made in the teenage years.  If you think about it, this makes sense.  Adolescence, as we know, is when most teens go through the process of trying to figure out what they think, feel, believe and want to be.  It is during the teenage years, primarily, that teens decide to go from being someone who is forced to go to church with their parents to someone who has decided of their own free will to actively embrace and engage in their life of faith.  As in most areas of development, adolescence is a crucial stage.

But what makes someone go from being the person dragged to church to the person who desires to go to church?  I believe that part of our answer is ACCESS.

“A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.”
– Jo Godwin
You see, we can’t make decisions without having things to decide from.  You can’t decide you are going to be a Christian (or a Muslim or an Atheist or whatever) without having enough information on all sides of the equation to make an informed personal decision.  I can’t say that I hate the color blue if I have never seen anything that is the color blue.  I don’t have enough information to make a qualified decision.  In the same way, I can’t decide I am going to be a Christian unless I understand what it means to be one.  This is why access to information is so very important.

Free Speech, Free Access

So theoretically, our nation is founded on the principle that all people deserve the right to pursue Life, Liberty and Happiness.  That we have certain fundamental rights, such as free speech and the right to practice our faith of choice.  Again, these rights demand that we also have the right to ACCESS.

That is where your local public library comes in.  We are all about ACCESS.  Our goal is to have a wide variety of materials on our shelves to represent a wide variety of thoughts, opinions, feelings, etc. so that you can make informed personal decisions.  I guarantee you, there is something in every library that will offend you.  But there is also going to be stuff that meets your personal needs.

I mention this because just yesterday someone posted a comment on my Pretty Amy post and they used the words “Free Speech” in quotes.  As if there was something somehow fishy about this concept of free speech. (Please go read our comment exchange here, it is totally and completely a good look at honest civil discourse, which is also important).  This person represents an organization known as Safe Libraries. 

Intellectual freedom is the right to freedom of thought and of expression of thought. As defined by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is a human right. Article 19 states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.[1]
The modern concept of intellectual freedom developed out of an opposition to book censorship.[2] It is promoted by several professions and movements. These entities include, among others, librarianship, education, and the Free Software Movement.
(from Wikipedia, I know – for shame.)

So let’s take a moment to talk about “safe libraries”.  Of course we want libraries to be safe places in so far as when you walk into my building, I want you to leave it unharmed in any way.  BUT, I propose that intellectually, libraries are in fact unsafe places and that is a good thing!  You see, I want you to be challenged and grow and be a radical thinker.  Why is this important?  Let’s remember that before we understood that the Sun was the center of the universe we believed that the Earth was.  A radical notion indeed, so radical that Galileo was charged with being a heretic.  Sometimes, radical thoughts are required to help us move forward in our understanding of self and the world we live in.  Without radical thoughts, unsafe thinking, we would not have scientific progress, personal growth, and those “a-ha” moments that change the course of human history.  We would still be reading off our stone etched tablets by candle light while we rode camels to the marketplace and did our personal business in a hole in the ground.  See, radical thinking is good!

So How do You Make the Library a Safe Place?

So yes, libraries are in fact intellectually unsafe places – as well they should be.  BUT, every library everywhere believes that parents have the right to help guide their children in using the library.  In fact, we highly encourage you to do so.  Whether it be buying products, consuming media, or navigating the stacks in the library – it is the parents role to help make sure that their children are engaging in the things you want them to.  Look, you really don’t want me parenting your child, I promise you.  I woke up this morning and watched the “alien dinosaur from space” movie (Godzilla) with my 3-year-old.  If it has sharks or dinosaurs in it, we’re in.  Some people would object to that.  See, you don’t want me parenting your child.

So here is how I discuss materials selection with parents so that you can make the library a safe place for your family according to your personal standards, which are probably not my own (remember, dinosaurs and sharks!) . . .

1.  Actively use the library with your child/teenager.

2.  Discuss your families personal boundaries so your child/teenager clearly understands your household rules.

3.  When selecting materials, look at the age of the characters in the book.  This will give you some indication as to the type of situations that will be covered, the language used, etc.

4.  Read the back cover and inside jacket information for more clues.  On the title page there is often CIP information that will tell you major subject headings.  This is often found in the catalog as well.

CIP information for I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga
See the subject heading serial murderers? That’s a clue.
5.  Still not sure?  Read reviews from multiple sources.  I recommend more than one source because sex or language may not phase one reviewer so they won’t mention it but another reviewer may.  Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Goodreads all post multiple reviews of titles.

6.  Talk to your librarian.  This one is tricky because the truth is, I don’t read every book that gets placed on my shelves.  It is physically impossible for me to do so.  I do read reviews, but again, different reviewers focus on different elements.  And even if I have read the book, you and I may have personal differences about what is acceptable.  If I know a book has sex in it and I’m talking to the parent of a teen, I will mention it because some parents have strong feelings about that.  If I am talking to an obviously younger teen and doing some one-on-one RA (reader’s advisory) I go to the younger end of my YA collection.  I tend to think 1) age of characters and 2) if I know it, content.  It is important to remember: we don’t always know the specific content and we don’t always agree on what is acceptable.

Here’s my real, true life story example:  A patron once came in and complained to me about Harry Potter.  This patron was a teacher and was reading the book out loud to her class and she said it had a cuss word in it.  It was probably the second or third book.  I personally had read – and loved – the HP books and had no idea what she was talking about.  I didn’t remember there being any bad words in it.  It just didn’t stand out to me in the same way that it stood out to her.  Because people are different.

7.  Read the book first and decide for yourself if you want your child reading it.

8.  Better yet, read the book with your child/teen and discuss it along the way.  Discuss what parts of the stories you like and those that you don’t, how it fits in with your family’s value system, etc.  I think this last part is really important because the truth is, your teenager is going to school with kids/teens completely different than yours (unless you home school) and they are hearing and seeing things every day that they may need help processing.  This is also important because, theoretically, they will one day enter the larger world, get a job, etc. and they will spend a lot of time with people who are radically different than them.  Reading has the power to help build empathy, to create dialogue, etc.  We can shelter our children to the point that they shatter when they enter the “real world”, or we can give them strong foundations and critical thinking skills to help them live quality adult lives so they can interact with the world in positive, meaningful ways.  That is what ACCESS does.

So here’ my real life parenting example.  You see, I am a parent.  I have 2 little girls.  They are awesome (you’ll have to take my word for it.)  My tween likes to watch iCarly, but I have banned it in my house. Why?  Because it is not okay with me that Sam hits Freddie.  I think physical abuse is physical abuse no matter who is doing it to whom or why.  We don’t get to hit people.  It’s not funny.  It’s not acceptable.  I draw that line in my home.  If Freddie were hitting Sam we all know that women everywhere would be screaming about the violence against women.  Violence is not funny, it is not okay.  So we don’t watch iCarly.  That doesn’t mean that you can’t watch iCarly.  It just means that my kids can’t.  I deny them access because that is my parental right, but you don’t get to deny my children access.

Wait, Let’s Get Back to Access

So let’s go back to Pretty Amy for a moment, shall we?  You see, when that magazine decided not to run a review of Pretty Amy, they were withholding access to information and not allowing their readers to make that decision for themselves.  They deemed the book inappropriate instead of allowing teenage girls and their families everywhere to make that decision for themselves.  Was it within their rights?  Definitely.  It’s just not my favorite decision.

What are your thoughts on access?  And what tools do you suggest to parents/teens to help them navigate the library?


  1. Great. Thank you. By the way, I put free speech in quotes because those organizations I mentioned that claim to support free speech in reality do not. I can cite you example after example, and I will if you request it. Free speech isn't fishy, but the ALA/NCAC claim to be free speech advocates is.

    I agree libraries should not be “safe,” but I disagree that the ALA should flat out mislead people into ignoring perfectly legal means to protect people, including patrons and library employees. To that end, I educate people on exactly that point.

    We seem to have commonalities. “Of course we want libraries to be safe places in so far as when you walk into my building, I want you to leave it unharmed in any way. BUT, I propose that intellectually, libraries are in fact unsafe places and that is a good thing!” Exactly. Brava!

    Please keep an eye on my blog and I'll keep an eye on yours. And thanks for that “honest civil discourse” comment. Likewise.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this well written article about access and libraries. In a world where access to information seems 24/7, with social media networks like twitter pushing the brim of instant access to information, I find myself wondering how libraries can improve themselves in providing different forms of access. The 50 shades of gray topic… My library will not buy the books due to a collections policy. Yet many librarians feel this is a denial of access to the materials. When materials become inaccessible through tradiational library means, then I think there something worth discussing.

  3. Regarding the 50 Shades matter, so few have chosen to respect their own collection policies that I could probably guess what library you are in. So you may be interested in seeing this: “NCAC Pushes Porn on Libraries; Fifty Shades of Grey Propaganda: Brevard Buckles, Harford Holds.”

    If you are not in one of the mentioned libraries and wish to make a public statement anonymously, pro or con, please consider writing a guest post for my blog.

  4. Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaait a minute…wonderful post with which I wholeheartedly agree aside, when did you attend MVNC/U/Whatever?????? I'm a 1993 grad!

  5. 1993 would probably have been my first year. I gruaduated in 1997. It was MVNC then LOL.

  6. The 50 Shades question is an interesting one becuase you have a material that is often described as pornography, but it definitely has some high patron demand. If your library policy says you don't collect porn or erotica, you have definite grounds for not purchasing the material. However, if you subscribe to something like Overdrive it may be available in e-book format (I can't verify that it is, I haven't looked) to your patrons as part of a consortium purchase. The landscape is definitely changing.

  7. It's always nice to have a chance to articulate what I believe and why. Have a great day.

  8. As 50 Shades is not a teen title, I won't spend a lot of time discussing how it does or does not fit into local collection development policies here because it is outside the scope of this blog. I mentioned Overdrive because it is an e-book consortium where by participating, your patrons get access to a larger amount of e-book titles than your single library budget can purchase. This also means that your local library also becomes subject to not just your local collection development policy, but the policies of all the various libraries in the consortium who purchase titles for your consortium. This is also true for any library that participates in any form of Inter Library Loan. In a time of constantly shrinking budgets, more and more libraries are participating in consortiums and ILL to help increase the number of materials that local patrons have access to, this does in fact increase an individual's access. That means that when I only have enough money to buy 2 copies of The Hunger Games, or my copy goes missing at a time when my budget is closed and I can't purchase a replacement, my patrons can often still get access through ILL or via an e-book. This does change the landscape of librarianship because it becomes less locally controlled, but patrons gain more access. It is and always will be up to patrons to make personal reading decisions for themselves and their children – that type of control is never taken away.

  9. Also, please keep in mind, that if you have any concerns about how your local library is operating you can discuss those concerns with the library director or board. Most libraries also have procedures for challenging materials in place including having a well developed collection development policy, a materials challenge form, and a material challenge process to follow. I believe firmly that you can not truly challenge a work unless you have read it in its entirety to ascertain the overall message of the piece. For example, many books with racial slurs often include them to highlight how grotesque racism is so the word in and of itself it not an adequate reason to challenge a book. It is also important to remember that although a work may be personally offensive to you, others in your community may not share that view and they still have a right to access and intellectual freedom.

  10. Karen, you said, “I mentioned Overdrive because it is an e-book consortium where by participating, … your local library also becomes subject to not just your local collection development policy, but the policies of all the various libraries in the consortium who purchase titles for your consortium. This is also true for any library that participates in any form of Inter Library Loan.”

    On a different matter unrelated to what we have been discussing, the quote above reminds me of something. Here you are accurately stating that your local library is subject to the policies of the consortium. That makes sense, of course. In other words, your local library is following the recommendations of outside organizations? Right?

    I note the above because the ALA argues that local libraries may not follow the recommendations of outside organizations. ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom says, “Use of the MPAA ratings system to restrict young people's access to films and videos is a violation of the Library Bill of Rights and an impermissible prior restraint on free expression.” Well, does that not apply in the Overdrive situation? Overdrive = good, MPAA = bad? Of course my point is the ALA is wrong to claim it's censorship to follow MPAA ratings.

    That said, you have made a lot of sense on issues we have discussed here so far. I'm hoping to entice you to comment on the ALA's view of MPAA ratings (whether or not you include and/or address any of my own comments on that issue).

  11. To clarify on the consortium issue. What I mean is this, each contributing library purchases titles for their own collections based on their own local policies. However, because they share them in the consortium, that means that although I may not purchase a particular title for my local collection, my patrons would still have access to it through the consortium because another library that participates chose to buy it for their patrons. It is not really an outside organization, just simply an item available at a different library than my own that my patrons have access to through this means. This is actually a very good thing, especially if you are in an area with a small library with a limited budget. Overdrive is not an outside institution, it is a vehicle of delivery where the content is determined by every library who chooses to participate. Basically each library contracts to spend a certain amount of money per year to select titles which are available to all the libraries in that system that use it. So my library may have $2,000 to spend on e-books and a bigger library may have $10,000 to spend and together we spend $12,000 – with me selecting $2,000 worth of titles and the other library selecting $10,000 worth of titles but our patrons get access to all $12,000 worth of titles. It's not really a matter of policy, but a way of increasing the number of materials that a patron has access to by sharing among various libraries, usually within geographical proximity.

    As for movie ratings, I can only tell you my personal opinion as it is my understanding that movie ratings are done voluntarily and not actually subject to any law. Anyhow, I find movie ratings – any kind of ratings actually – to be completely subjective and dependent on indepdent taste and values, which we already have maintained each invidual has a right to. If I understand it correctly, a committee of 12 watches a movie and determines what rating it should get based on very little guidelines. I personally don't go by movie ratings in my own home because there are things in PG movies that I find offensive that others would not. Similarly, although a movie like Schindler's List may be rated R for its disturbing content, it is an important piece that helps remind us of a truly evil historical time period and we need to understand the depths of human depravity and not wipe the truth of what happened under the rug. In some ways, movie ratings would vary depending on what 12 people were on the committee at that time and they in no way represent my own personal ratings. At the end of the day, the only real way to determine if any piece of art,media, or literature is right for you is to do your own personal reserach. Whether that be looking at a wide variety of reviews as stated above or by watching it first and then determining if it is right for your family. I have walked out of movies, I have turned the channel, I have forbidden tv shows and certain musical acts in my own home – and that is where it stops because I can't forbid it for the world at large. I personally don't subscribe to the MPAA system of rating because it is a flawed system as any type of rating system is because it is SUBJECTIVE to individual points of view.

    As for the ALA's stance on the movie ratings, I must honestly say that I am not familiar with it. I must also that although I have been a member of the ALA at various times in my life, every library I have worked at (now numbering at 4) has always been very locally focused. The ALA serves more to keep its professionals updated and educated and to advocate for funding.

  12. I was doing my student teaching and living off campus by then, but we probably passed each other at some point:) I was on Student Government that year, so we may even have met at freshman orientation – I'll pretend I remember you well, and am glad to 'see' you again!

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