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 dictionary.com)

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?