The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) has formally issued a written opinion affirming the idea that, through proper classification techniques, students should be able to browse their school libraries’ collections “safely and without restrictions.” The document, titled “AASL Position Statement on Labeling Practices”, outlines the proper deployment of labeling practices by school librarians as it relates to the issues of access and student confidentiality.
Labeling Concerns for Content and Reading Level
AASL’s position statement is specifically geared towards school libraries – libraries that serve the entire student body – rather than classroom libraries, which are narrowly focused on a specific grade level. The statement speaks to two distinct forms of classification: content and reading level. It also acknowledges the practice of transitioning away from traditional classification systems in favor of a genre-based approach. Such a transition, AASL writes, is acceptable provided that librarians review the available research to learn best practices before taking action.
Whether using a genre-based or traditional approach to classification, school librarians should use caution when labeling books according to their content. Examples of this practice include labels that denote “controversial” or “mature” content. These classifications pass a “value judgement” on the item, AASL writes. This triggers a violation of students’ First Amendment rights to free speech and their right to decide what type of content is appropriate for themselves. It is not the role of school librarians to make this determination; rather, they should support their students in making their own choices.
Other content-based labels come in the form of identifying library materials that reflect marginalized groups, either as creator or character (e.g. books written by Black authors or about LGBTQIA+ characters, etc.). By labeling these materials as such and keeping them separated from their collections, patrons who are not specifically looking for them may be prevented from discovering them.
The second piece of AASL’s statement deals with labeling items according to their reading level. The statement describes commercial reading levels as “an imperfect predictor of a book’s reading level” since they do not take the full scope of a book’s complexity into account. The text itself may be appropriate for one level, but, often, important context like qualitative meaning and necessary background information is left out. By restricting students to a labeled reading level, school librarians may turn browsing into an assignment-oriented chore. Moreover, when reading levels appear on a book’s spine, they create a privacy concern for the reader. AASL reiterates that a child’s reading level should stay between themselves, their parents or guardians, the classroom teacher, and the school librarian. Similarly, certain content-based labels, such as those denoting LGBTQIA+ situations, can also violate a student’s privacy.
AASL includes an appendix at the end of its position statement with a list of questions that school librarians can use to guide their classification practices. They are designed to clarify considerations such as students’ First Amendment rights, privacy, and “potential behavior modification” when making classification and labeling choices. For further information, school librarians can also consult the resources the task force used when drafting its position; all are linked in the appendix as well.
Gretchen Kaser Corsillo (she/her) is the Director of Rutherford (NJ) Public Library and has worked in public libraries in a variety of capacities since 2003. In 2013, she received her Master’s of Library & Information Science from the University of Pittsburgh. She also holds a B.A. in Literature with a concentration in Creative Writing and a minor in Political Science from Ramapo College. Prior to working as a professional librarian, Gretchen worked in the marketing and legal fields; the latter, combined with her interest in writing, has made her a strong advocate for intellectual freedom.