Friday, June 22, 2012

#ala12: Intellectual Freedom, and how it impacts children's librarianship

My first session of the 2012 ALA Annual Conference was Intellectual Freedom 101, an informational program put on by ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom. The program hit the highlights of what the OIF does to support the fundamental freedom for folks to read, view, think, and express whatever they want: there's the annual Banned Books Week, an annual Choose Privacy Week, a database on book challenges, policy and procedure best practices... All sorts of initiatives and information to support libraries who support customers' library rights.
In my experience, the biggest intellectual freedom issue when working with children is censorship, or the potential for censorship. It can take many forms: the parent or teacher who won't let a child read a particular book because they deem it inappropriate or unsuitable for some reason, sometimes without having read the book themselves; a person who wants particular items removed entirely from the collection so that no child has access to them, again sometimes without having read said items; from library staff who may hesitate to recommend or check out a particular item to a young library customer because of their personal views or experience with the item; and even from library materials selectors who refrain from purchasing certain materials in order to preemptively avoid potential challenges. Hopefully your library has policies in place to deal with formal materials challenges and to inform staff behaviors with regards to library materials and young readers--but what about those parents who voice their "is this appropriate?" concerns in the library? How do you preserve intellectual freedom on the spot?
I'm interested to know how you respond to these situations, and I'll go ahead and share my most common responses. First and foremost, I come right out and say that I believe a child has the same freedom to read as any other library user--if a kid wants to read it and we have access to it in the library, I will give it to the kid. I state this without judgment, as it is the parent's position, not mine, to monitor a child's reading. Then I give the parent the power to decide how they want to support the child and his or her interests:

  • Does the parent think the material is too thematically mature? Violence, relationships, language, etc.? I cite that stories with elements that challenge children have been found to benefit them and develop their understanding of the world, but not promote the behaviors themselves. Is the parent concerned the child can't work through the elements on his or her own? Then read the book together! So many families have come back to tell me that, after reading a book together that they had thought would be inappropriate, they had great family discussions and strengthened both their relationships and their love of reading.
  • Does the parent think the material is too scary? I point out that research shows encountering frightening situations within the boundaries of a story helps children to work through their fears in a safe, non-threatening setting. And again, discussion after reading a story can do wonders for ensuring that story leaves a positive impact.
  • Does the parent have concerns because of what they've heard about an item from friends, religious groups, television, etc.? In these situations, I have found that my opinion doesn't count for much--why should a parent trust me, a relatively unknown person, over a voice whom they trust? Instead I provide some options for finding out what people in the know have to say. What age range does School Library Journal recommend as the readers? Has Booklist cited any potential red zones? I am careful to use only reputable library resources--the same ones we use when deciding what materials to purchase for the collection. A critical opinion can do wonders for putting a parent's mind at ease.
How do you repond to parent concerns? How have intellectual freedom and serving children overlapped in your library?

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