What Are We Scared Of?

The other day I had a conversation with library school students on the topic of fear.’  It came up when I realized that several of the students said they needed to be careful about what they put on their teen library shelves because of the community in which they worked. The concept was, people in my community don’t want that. I know my community and that won’t meet their needs.

As I kept hearing this comment I thought about how some librarians use “I know my community” as an excuse for not purchasing controversial materials for the collection. For example, if I say that my community doesn’t want these materials for teens on the shelves then it’s OK that I don’t buy them.

There are at least two things to question within that framework.

  • First, how do you know the community doesn’t want those materials on the shelf? Have you asked them? Or, are you making an assumption based on a fear that someone (maybe only one person) might complain about the item you’ve added?
  • Second, even if there are some members of the adult community who might not want a certain item (or items) on the library’s shelves, isn’t it the role of the teen librarian to advocate and support teens by having materials that might serve teen needs while at the same time perhaps making others uncomfortable? Aren’t teens members of the library community who deserve to have materials on the shelves that they want, even if members of the adult community might not think what they want is appropriate?

While I realize that it can be scary to put something in the library collection that might raise some community hackles, the only way it’s possible to serve teens successfully is to provide materials that help them to grow up to be well-adjusted adults. That can only happen if there are books, CDs, movies, web sites, etc. in the collection that answer some of the tough questions teens have about sex, health, relationships, drugs, and so on.

A librarian serving teens has to be prepared for community reactions to items in the collection. The best thing for a librarian to do is to continually educate adults about the role of the library in a teen’s life and make sure adults in the community know why it’s important to have a wide-variety of materials available to teens.’  The Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets are a great resource for demonstrating the need for controversial materials in the library teen collection.

Take a look at the Assets and while you do think about an item that’s in the library collection that might be controversial.’  Ask yourself, how does that item help teens meet the assets outlined by the Search Institute? If a teen reads the book or listens to the music you are thinking of, will he or she gain social competencies? Will the teen feel empowered?’  Will you demonstrate support of the teen by making the item available?

Don’t let fear be your decision-maker when building your teen collection. Yes, it’s important to know your community. But, knowing your community means focusing on the teens who might have the library as the only place where they can access the information they need in order to grow up successfully. Be a teen advocate by giving teens the resources they deserve.

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.
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8 Comments

  1. This strikes home. For years I took the position of fear. I worried about controversy and didn’t want to face any. I will say especially in the area of fiction that I had a very bland collection. I found over the past few years that since I took greater risks and provided a broader selection that my circulation has gone up dramatically. I regularly read what the kids are reading. I check out authors and reviews for things I think might be a little more controversial and just arm myself for a challenge should it come and luckily so far it has not. MY district will be updating our challenged materials policy this year to reflect the changing world of information s a whole. I find my students which are grades 7-12 have come to trust me more as a source of information and reading materials when they see me offering things that truly interest them and I have to say it has been well worth the risk and I no longer fear.

  2. This is an important topic – especially since public libraries need to make available materials that are more controversial if found in schools. After having been banned 6 years ago from book talking at the local high school over “Perks of Being a Wallflower” I found that my collection became even more popular! There’s nothing like forbidden fruit…! Now, with a new principal and school librarian, I have been invited back into the high school this fall, so I will have to consider again what titles to include. I’m planning to start pretty “clean” and move into edgier material, well-noted, as soon a s I can. I think it makes a difference when administrators know what to expect. They need to be prepared if a booklist includes material that nervous parents may object to. In our community issues such as cutting, suicide, and depression are worrisome to parents – not just sex. I think it is imperative to address these issues head on and both fiction and non-fiction can be good vehicles to start a conversation…

  3. As I read this post, the part of my mind that is educated on the tenants of Readers’ Rights and Intellectual Freedom cheered. I agree with the overall messages of the entry, yet I have other thoughts that complete the story — at least from my experience and perspective.

    I think collection development can be an exciting part of a media specialist’s job. I love identifying, evaluating, and purchasing new resources for our patrons. I also enjoy finding new ways to gather input from my patrons. I seek their recommendations, push their requests to the top of the priority list, and value the time they take to give input. Over the past year, I took collection development in a new direction by increasing the amount of circulation and other data I used during selection process. I also worked with our tech facilitator to improve the functionality of our Media Technology Advisory Committee. The channels for patron input have never been more open and viable (not to say that I won’t continue to seek to find more and better ways to accomplish this goal).

    After I read the article, it occured to me that I rarely receive a request for a resource from students, teachers or parents that falls into any of the traditionally controversial topics or themes. Is that strange? Is it my responsibility to try to change this? That is not to say that none of the materials in my collection address controversial topics or themes — they do. But truthfully, I do select and evaluate materials with my “community” in mind. I follow our district’s selection policy and try to find the best reading materials available to meet the curriculum needs of my students and the instructional needs of our staff. Is it bad that I don’t actively seek controversial materials to add to the collection when I’m not receiving any requests for books that fall into these categories? Maybe, maybe not.

    I’ve experienced book challenges, that’s never particularly fun, and I’ve witnessed a book ban firsthand. As uncomfortable as those experiences can be, I still believe it’s my responsibility to stand up for Intellectual Freedom and advocate for my students’ rights to read quality, relevant materials.

    I feel like having a balanced approach to collection development feels “right” to me as a professional. I believe I should do all I can to advocate for the best literature and resources I can offer our students. I also feel I should value the input of our stakeholders, while protecting everyone’s right to read (or not read) within the educational environment. I’m glad I took time to read the blog entry on the YALSA site. It gave me something to add to the mental mix as I approach a new year and a new horizon of collection development within our media center.

  4. YALSA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee is presenting a program on this very topic at ALA’s 2009 Annual Conference in Chicago. Our program is titled “Walk the Line: The Fine Line Between Selection and Censorship.” We’ll have panelists discussing genres and areas of YA collections that can certainly cause fear in the collecting process: non-fiction, media, urban fiction, graphic novels, and religion.

  5. I’m so glad Linda wrote this. I’ve been very upset at the casual acceptance of self-censorship by the graphic novel discussions I’ve seen among YA librarians, and also among my own students in the Queens GSLIS program. I’ve said for years that the number one dilemma in YA services is knowing who the primary client is. With imaginary censors and your own fear dogging you, it’s almost impossible to keep focused on the kids.

    It’s also probably long overdue that we talk about the issue of “balance.” We’re not publishers, but dependent on publishers who often have entirely different objectives than we do, and all viewpoints are not “equal” in terms of documentable “truth” vs. opinion. Whether “balance” is even achievable is another issue, related to fear if we think that achieving it will somehow save us from controversy.

    Serving YAs well is by definition, a controversial activity. Prepare for it!

    Mary K. Chelton

  6. Cyndee J. Marcoux

    After taking Linda’s class, Programs and Services for Young Adults, at Simmons College last year I started making a concerted effort to add books that may be considered controversial to our young adult collection. This effort has resulted in an increase in our young adult circulation of more than 35% and climbing. Almost daily I have a young adult in my office requesting I purchase something. I love that they feel free to ask and that they are visiting the library on a regular basis. I have not had any challenges or complaints yet but if I do I am confident that I can defend my collection. Thanks for all your efforts on behalf of teenagers Linda!

  7. At my last job I was quick to purchase GLBT titles (which were never in the collection before). I had the full support of my boss and the board and the items survived several challenges. However, I wasn’t fully prepared for the fact that I would be physically assaulted for “bringing filth” into the community. So… fear is sometimes understandable (and now you understand one of the reasons why I don’t use my name in the comments). Thankfully, I no longer work in that community.

  8. Arthur S. Meyers

    I just found these very important comments. They should be widely shared. I will begin the process in my library (staff and board) and community.

    Arthur S. Meyers, Director
    Russell Library
    Middletown CT

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