To Be, or Not To Be ‘Appropriate’: Why Do We Self-Censor?

One of my esteemed IF Committee colleagues touched on this point a couple of posts back, but I find a need to bring it up again. There have been a couple of intellectual freedom related issues that have cropped up in my library and community as of late; The debates were centered around two books: Elizabeth Scott’s ‘Living Dead Girl’ and Susanna Kaysen’s ‘Girl, Interrupted’ and their suitability for a teen audience. This has had me pondering the meaning of the word “appropriate” and the way it sometimes gets tossed about in our line of work. We often use the word, I think, to justify our own nervousness about more explicit language or content, and to defend our fear of potential confrontation.The New Oxford American Dictionary (2nd Edition) defines the word as such:

Appropriate. Adj.“Suitable or proper in the circumstances.”

I like this definition because it reminds me that we cannot know the circumstances of every teenager’s life in the communities we serve. It is easy to shout “this book is not appropriate for 9th graders!!!” (And heck, maybe it isn’t, for many of them.) But it is not necessarily our place to make that assumption, and it may be *exactly* the right book for a particular teen (or group thereof) at a particular time. Should we deny that kid their right to that book because we are afraid of the possibility of a negative community response? I hope not. We would end up throwing out half the YA collection in the process, including a Printz winner or two.

I think it is important to remember who it is we are developing our collections for: the teenagers that we serve, in all their wildly differing glory. Not their parents, not the politicians, not the adult community at large. And while I would never, ever dispute a parent’s right to decide what is right for their children to read, I am ever uncomfortable with us as librarians deciding what is and is not appropriate for our collections outside of the bounds of literary merit, demand and potential popularity.

I know that some may disagree with my sentiments, and I also know that I am speaking from a public library perspective; school libraries certainly have their own difficulties in this area. But I sincerely hope that most of us are thinking hard about our potential for self-censoring when we are developing our collections.

After all, it’s the “appropriate” thing to do!

See you all in Denver,
Ken Petrilli, IF Committee

About Intellectual Freedom Committee

The intellectual freedom committee serves as a liaison between the YALSA and the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee and all other groups within the Association concerned with intellectual freedom.
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6 Comments

  1. Hey Ken, well said, Thanks for sending the link through WLS

    Ellen McTyre
    Mamaroneck Library

  2. You’ve brought up some valid points Ken, here here !

  3. Liz Siracusa, The Warner Library, Tarrytown, NY

    Very nicely put, Ken… you ‘appropriately’ voiced how many of us feel.

  4. Liz Siracusa, The Warner Library, Tarrytown, NY

    Well put, Ken…you most ‘appropriately’ voiced how many of us feel.

  5. Thank you for fearlessly championing the intellectual freedom rights of teens! Many teens are seeking out materials with mature themes because those books reflect their reality and circumstances. An important part of our jobs as youth advocates and information gatekeepers is to help young adults traverse the often difficult and unclear path to adulthood. We should take this aspect of our jobs as seriously as we take the importance of accurately cataloguing materials. I suggest we arm ourselves with clear collection development policies (if we have not already done so), honestly communicate the diverse (and sometimes controversial) nature of some of the materials in our collections, and continue to remind parents that it’s their job to determine what is (and is not) appropriate for their children, not ours.

  6. I will forever keep in the forefront of my brain, “suitable or proper in the circumstances.” Life has many circumstances.

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