Frequently, when a book or other material is targeted for removal from a public library, it’s because a minor managed to access something that does not meet the approval of his or her parents or guardians. Although most libraries do their utmost to make clear that it’s not the responsibility of their staff to police what minors may check out, too many adults continue to be caught off-guard when children in their care bring home yaoi manga or an erotic novel after an unsupervised library visit. Often the problem seems to stem from an outdated or naïve idea of just what kinds of materials can be found in a modern public library. Libraries are committed to serving the entire community, and in addition to the examples above, virtually all of them stock R-rated movies, music with the “explicit lyrics” stamp, and other materials that many parents probably wouldn’t want their children to check out. But every household has different rules; logically, the solution is not to purge the entire library collection to make it meet the most restrictive parent’s definition of child-friendly.
In a recent article from the Chicago Tribune, representatives from several local libraries and the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom reiterated the seemingly simple idea that each individual parent or guardian is responsible for deciding what his or her child may check out. As we’ve seen from numerous book challenges over the years, there certainly are parents who don’t want their kids reading children’s or young adult books such as And Tango Makes Three, In Our Mothers’ House, or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian — but there are probably just as many parents who would be outraged if a library employee presumed to block their children from checking out those same books. In light of this, OIF deputy director Deborah Caldwell-Stone told the Tribune:
The library can’t know what the family’s values are. They can’t restrict access based on disapproval of the content. They do what they can to match usage and materials, and to give parents all the information they need so they can make good decisions in light of their family values.
Although we’ve recently seen this issue arise when a book was challenged and retained at the Indianapolis public library and last year in the King County Library System near Seattle, the Tribune article was sparked by a controversy in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove. The town’s library is currently running a film series that includes some popular and/or critically acclaimed R-rated movies: Safety Not Guaranteed, the 2012 adaptation of Anna Karenina, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The controversy first arose at the June 25 screening of Priscilla, when a library board member in attendance noticed that the employee tasked with showing the film and monitoring the room was a 16-year-old girl. Although the teen’s own parent had signed a waiver allowing her to show the movies as part of her job, board member Cathy Peters publicly insisted that “the majority of our taxpayers would be offended by this hiring.” Throughout the summer, Peters continued to pressure library administrators to have an adult employee show the films. By the time the Tribune article appeared last week, the teen had left the library for another job.
But, as Caldwell-Stone points out, MPAA ratings are highly subjective and nothing more than guidelines for parents. Cinemas enforce the age-related restrictions in order to maintain good relationships with film distributors and studios, but libraries are under no such obligation. Moreover, the R rating covers a lot of ground, from sex to violence to language — and as the rating saga of last year’s documentary Bully shows, it only takes a few choice words for a movie to be rated R based on language alone. In fact, that was the case with Safety Not Guaranteed as well. Caldwell-Stone emphasizes that “an R-rating [is] not, and has never been, a determination that a work is any way obscene or pornography. It’s [the parent’s] decision. If you don’t want your child to see this movie, make sure your child does not see this movie.”
Virtually all libraries have written policies on intellectual freedom, access to materials, and unaccompanied minors. These are often at least summarized — and probably also often go unread — on the forms that parents fill out and sign when obtaining library cards for their children. If not, they can usually be found on the library’s website or by inquiring at a service desk. All parents and guardians are encouraged to familiarize themselves with these policies and realize that they, not library staff, are responsible for determining what their children may check out.
Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.