Roundtable: Who decides what kids can read?
Rather than the more usual story covering a parent objecting to graphic novels in the library, in this case this article reported library staff at the Jessamine County Library, located in Nicholasville, Kentucky, stepped in to prevent what they dubbed "porn" from being distributed to a child (an eleven year old girl.) The article, as you can see, is short and under-informed: the women in question were not librarians but circulation desk attendants, and the distinction between masters’ degree holding librarians and circulation staff is an important one in the library sphere. The spelling errors and slant of the article may call into question the facts as presented. It’s apparent that this title was on hold (i.e. at the Circulation desk) for the patron, so it was unclear where the title was shelved. Later checking in the online library catalog does indicate that the title was shelved in a separate graphic novel section, one apparently intended for teens and adults. This followup article discusses how titles are selected for a library and reactions from the public coming from both sides.
Some of the first questions I’ve heard from the librarians who’ve reacted have been: where was the title actually shelved? How can we fight the misperception that so many, including our own staff, have that comics are for kids? When an article like this surfaces, seemingly focused on the sensational aspects, how can we defend libraries, librarians, and comics?
Other questions have arisen: what would you do as a librarian or educator or parent, if anything, in this situation? How might you react if this happened to your child? Would you be glad that the staff intervened, or would you be puzzled?
I invited my colleagues here at Good Comics for Kids to debate the issues this incident raises for librarians, parents, and library users of all ages.
Robin: One of my first questions, here, is the question of just why the staff felt they could simply take the item off reserve. Within my library, for example, it’s very clear that you don’t comment on what someone has reserved and certainly we would never interfere with someone’s title already on reserve. I have, at times, chatted with people while they were in the middle of requesting items, and occasionally talked to a parent about the content of a particular title they were requesting for their child just to make them aware of the intended audience and content levels, but I would never not request an item if they requested me to, nor would I take a request off of their card.
Another practical question that came up in my head: in my library, parents use their children’s cards all the time to request items intended for the whole family, including the parents or older siblings, so I almost immediately wondered if in fact the actual card associated with the request was the person who asked for the book. It’s entirely possible it was a mom or dad requesting the item for themselves, or their college-age son, on their daughter’s card.
However, even if it was for an eleven year-old girl, my professionalism would keep me from ever interfering with a request like this. It is not my job to police what other people are reading according to my own personal standards. I might, if I were able to, ask whoever picked up the item if they were aware of its intended audience, hopefully speaking with a parent or guardian of the child. I might even go so far as to ask the circulation staff to come and find me when the person came to check it out, to talk to the parent and educate them about the title and that it was intended for adults. I can understand the confusion of not realizing a title was for adults, especially if it was a parent who is unfamiliar with comics today.
The idea of taking the decision out of the parents hands, however, is not our policy or our responsibility — it should never be my job to decide what someone else has a right to read.
Eva: I had many of the same reactions Robin did. I first suspected that the library employees in question are not actually librarians, but paraprofessionals. (This turned out to be true.) The majority of the paraprofessionals I’ve worked with have been extremely professional, but they usually haven’t had the Library Bill of Rights drilled into them the way most librarians have. This sometimes leads to misunderstandings about which types of intervention are appropriate and which are not. There are so many variables that come up in a library, the idea that these ladies would take matters into their own hands is surprising. Even with the best of intentions, the fact that they would invade both the girl’s and her family’s privacy by not only going into her patron profile, but arbitrarily canceling her hold, certainly calls for immediate re-training, if not disciplinary action.
My next suspicion was that a family member had used the girl’s library card to place a hold. As in Robin’s library, this happens often in my system, too. But let’s do some imagining. There was a movie made about the first book and that movie was rated PG-13. There’s every chance an eleven-year-old could have seen the movie, piquing her interest in the title. Therefore, it’s not unimaginable to think an eleven-year-old girl would assume that if the movie was okay for her to watch, the book would be okay, too. That the book is meant for adults would be lost on a young patron because, at least from what I can tell by looking at the Jessamine County Public Library’s catalog, all of the graphic novels for teens and adults are shelved together. Naruto and Yotsuba&! are shelved in the same area as League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, volumes one and two. (Out From Boneville is shelved in the children’s department under J741.5973. Sigh.) So tweens are expected to be browsing the shelves where League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is housed. To me, this is yet another real-world example of why one graphic novel collection per library is a Bad Idea. Two collections is a minimum. Three collections is best.
Do I think the library staff members did the right thing? No. But I don’t think the library did all it could to inform its customers about the material housed on its shelves, either.
Robin: Brigid, I can definitely see where you’re coming from, but in all honesty, no, we don’t have a duty to alert someone. A school librarian might, in terms of acting in loco parentis, but a public librarian simply cannot. I cannot predict what might alarm or discomfit what parent, or kid, and the problem comes from trying to guess that. As I said, if I was able to, I might try to talk to the parent or even the kid and bring up any concerns about content. Many kids and teens know their own comfort levels, and a bit of warning that a book ventured into adult territory might well be enough to make them realize it either wasn’t what they expected or that the title would be too much.
Another point, by the way, is that many libraries do have limited cards for children — children can be restricted from taking out adult materials through a card classification, and this is something that parents voluntarily sign up for in order to control what their children can check out. That seems to be a decent medium — it still puts the decision in the parents’ hands, and it does give parents a viable option that means they don’t have to peer over their child’s shoulder at everything they read.
Finally, as Eva has pointed out, this incident does underscore the necessity for separate graphic novel sections for children, teens, and adult patrons in our public libraries. Having only one section for the format, or only two, perpetuates the incorrect belief that graphic novels are only for particular ages. The more we as librarians can demonstrate that there are comics of interest to and appropriate for a wide range of readers, including age, then hopefully the less these kinds of incidents will happen.
Esther: Just this afternoon, a young lady came up to me and asked me, "Am I too young to read Twilight?" I was taken aback, because the kids generally don’t ask me that. I asked her why she thought she was too young, and it seems like something came up at Church. What I told this young lady: "If I ordered it for this library, then I thought it was appropriate for her age." I told her she should go home and discuss this with her parents and if they thought it was okay, then I’d be happy to put her on the list.
I do see both sides of this issue all the time. When I worked at the public library, I worked in a branch which had many patrons who shared my own religious beliefs, and was often asked, is this okay for me. Yet, if I saw someone picking up a title that wasn’t appropriate for them, I couldn’t say anything unless I was asked. Since my days in the public library, and now in the school system, I’ve actually become more prudish. There’s a huge difference in maturity between 11-year-olds and 14-year-olds and I purchase books and materials for the entire age span. Sometimes an 11-year-old picks up something that was intended for the 14-year-old. What do I do? Some in the library world would say this isn’t okay, but I do it anyhow. I ask them if their parents are okay with them reading mature material. If they say yes, then I check it out. If they say no or aren’t sure, I leave the choice up to them. I just alert them to the content.
Still, I felt sort of shocked when reading the story, and was glad to hear it wasn’t a librarian, but rather a paraprofessional, because it is so contrary to the way libraries work. They’re supposed to be about free choice – a place where you can made choices without being judged. It seems to me that it’s a bit harsh to be fired over this. I think a bit of professional development is in order. Unless the story is correct and these employees are now on a mission to rid the library of all the "evil and inappropriate material."
I don’t know…. I grew up understanding that not everything in the library was for everyone. It’s just that there’s something for everybody in the library.
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About Robin Brenner
Robin Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. When not tackling programs and reading advice at work, she writes features and reviews for publications including VOYA, Early Word, Library Journal, and Knowledge Quest. She has served on various awards committees, from the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards to the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards. She is the editor-in-chief of the graphic novel review website No Flying No Tights.
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