Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Labels in the library

– Robin

I would like to begin with a shout out to my fellow Middle School librarians. You may be the only people who really understand this post…

Middle School is a time of great change and growth for students – physically, emotionally, and cognitively. It’s a roller coaster barreling full speed into a banked turn followed by multiple loops and a careening pass over a water fall. Basically, you hold on for dear life and pray that you make it out on the other side. Some of the students come into 6th grade having barely gotten their ticket for the ride, some come in on the gradual incline before all of the magic happens, and some come in already engaged in full loop madness. By the time they leave 8th grade most students have either gotten to the gradual deceleration lane or completely exited the roller coaster and are now on the hunt for their next thrill. This is just to say, there is no standard trajectory for the rate at which someone experiences the roller coaster of middle school, and trying to force someone into the wrong car is a losing proposition.

So what am I talking about? And what does this have to do with labels in the library? Please stop now and go check out this post from Mrs. ReaderPants. This post is a response to her question of whether or not Middle School libraries should put some sort of label on their YA fiction books to distinguish them from their middle grades titles. She states that she sees both sides of the argument, but doesn’t think it’s a good idea. My opinion tends to swing much farther into the territory of what can only be politely described as DANGER! DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! I think it’s a horrible idea, for a number of reasons.

First, and probably foremost, I’m not a big labeler. I only put labels on books (other than the normal ones) if it is either an absolute necessity, or if it in some way promotes those books to ALL READERS.

An example of ‘absolute necessity’ would be the labels we place on books that are in Spanish. I have a small but significant number of recent immigrants who only speak and read in Spanish. Similarly, I have a small but important collection of materials written in Spanish. I don’t want to move these titles into their own location; I want these materials interfiled with their English counterparts. Additionally, having a bright yellow and red label on the spine helps keep my not so observant English readers from mistakenly checking out the Diario de Nikki instead of the Dork Diaries. Usually.

The other labels we use are ones that promote the book to all library users. We have some for Teen’s Top Ten that have helped significantly increase the circulation of those titles. I have, in the past, labeled books on the state’s Battle of the Books list to promote that program and make those titles easier to find. The book list is new every year, though, and I no longer have the staff necessary to make all of those changes. Both of these make no statement about the book other than ‘some people think this is a good book.’ I feel that is of the utmost importance.

And that is because of my second point – I am against any form of restriction or censorship in the library. Any label that seeks to pass judgement on the content or age appropriateness of the material within the book is tantamount to censorship. All of the materials purchased for our collection are appropriate for someone in our student population. I cannot judge, and neither should anyone but the student and their parents, whether any individual is ‘ready’ for any particular book. All analogies about roller coasters aside, some of my students enter the 6th grade already sexually active. Some of my 8th grade students end the year still completely absorbed with their Pokemon cards. Students can and will seek out and find materials that are engaging to them and meet them where they are now. I’m vehemently opposed to putting any obstacles in their way.

Karen’s Thoughts: I am not a school librarian, so I can not speak to the school experience.  For me the problem with labels is that I can’t read all the books, so I wouldn’t know what to label them.  So when I am talking to teens and their parents and they express a concern about content, there are several things I tell them to do before making their decisions.  My job is not to label, but to give my patrons the tools they need to make informed decisions for self.  Below is the actual conversation I have in the stacks.  Sometimes I even put it in a bookmark.

Karen’s Tips for helping teens and parents evaluate books before checkout:

1) Read the back jacket copy.  It often gives you an indication of what the book is about.

2) Read the inside jacket copy.  It, too, often gives you an indication of what the book is about.

3)  Turn to the title page.  On the back of the title page there towards the bottom there is a brief summary and subject headings.  This is called the CIP information should you be curious.  The subject headings can also give you a good indication of what you may find in the book.

4) Note the ages of the main characters.  If the main character is a middle school student, they are going to think and do and talk about middle school things for the most part.  If the characters are high school students, they are going to think and do and talk about high school things.

5) Still not sure? Read some reviews on Goodreads or other online resources.  Ask the children’s, teen or school librarian what the professional reviews say, we have access to some reviews that you may not be able to easily find on the Internet.

If all else fails, parents should read the book first and then decide if it is right for their child.  Better yet, read it together and talk about what you think about what happens in the story and how it fits in with your family’s personal values.

Censorship Discussions on TLT: 
A Banned Books Week Primer
Banned Books Week: Teen fiction is . . .
What if Amy wasn’t pretty: A tale of censorship
Let’s Talk Access! And why libraries are radically unsafe places and that is a good thing
The Sacred and the Profane: profanity, self expression and teen programs 

*Roller coaster photo by Mark Dalmulder (mdalmuld on Flickr.) Used with Creative Commons license. Available here.