One of the consistently controversial subjects in many cultures is sexuality and youth. To many, it invokes some disgusting subjects that I do not wish to think about, none-the-less write about. But, for teens themselves it is an important subject that they require access to truthful and honest information about. Some governments and parents feel as uncomfortable as I do about discussing these things, or may reduce the access to honest sexual education information that teens have in some ignorant desire to “protect.”
Kyle Marshall is an early career librarian working as a School-Aged Services Intern Librarian, conducting research for after-school library services for tweens, at the Edmonton Public Library, and former LIS Student Association President during his Master’s program. He has studied, presented, and published on the topic of information seeking behaviours of teens seeking information on sexual education. His recently published article from The Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults can be found here. I have included the abstract after the interview.
*Note that this interview was edited for clarity. Natural language may have been changed for brevity.
Ken: Could you describe your research, what you’ve done, just briefly?
Kyle: Sure. So, it was a pilot study that I conducted for an advanced research methods class during my MLIS degree. What I did, basically, was to interview four participants, four teenagers, to find answers to two streams of questions: how do they find, assess, look for information about sex education that supplements what they are already receiving in the formal streams. But, in addition, they did also talk about their formal streams of information–when I say formal I mean from formal education, so sex ed. classes. I also asked them about their use of the library, if they do use the library and if they do not what might stop them from using it. Looking at barriers to participation and use.
Ken: The teens you talked to said that when they’re searching for sexual education information libraries aren’t their first stop, if they think to research at the library at all. Could you elaborate on why that is?
Kyle: Well, first I’ll say that it was a pilot study, so there were only four participants. So, this was not representative. I’m sure there are some people that use the library for sex education information. These ones didn’t. The two biggest barriers from using the library were privacy and awareness.
Privacy is kind of a tricky one, because we can only grant so much privacy at the library. It is a public space, and thus it’s not going to be like their room at home where they can hide away and have a very private information seeking experience. They were concerned, also, with taking out materials–whether they were looking at that information at the library or not–if they were to check out the materials from library staff at their school library they were concerned about their identity being shared, potentially, or just being seen by peers while they are looking for those materials or checking them out. So, privacy was a big one.
And the second biggest one was awareness. Basically, none of them were aware their school library might hold those resources. That’s obviously problematic. They didn’t think that was the type of information they could get from their school library, and they didn’t find resources from either the public or school library online. It wasn’t on their radar.
Ken: Let’s start with privacy. What steps do you think libraries can take to improve, or better explain, what privacy libraries offer?
Kyle: One is for internet confidentiality. If you’re allowed to have a browsing experience that is unfiltered and in which histories are not kept, I think you should be communicating that to your customers. It doesn’t need to be a big, loud, garish sign, but just in some way letting them know that they will have an unfiltered and private experience in looking at information. Of course, there are bounds to that, access to pornography of course is frowned upon when it’s viewable by the public in the library, and those are obviously important restrictions. But, just communicating that is important. Particularly in a school environment. School libraries are very difficult though, because I think filtering within schools is pretty rampant, and public libraries are much ahead of schools in that regard. But, perhaps, letting them know that you’re not going to track them down for sites that they visit that are within the realms of the filter [is important]. If they are looking for information that they can find through that filtered access then letting them know that it’s acceptable.
In terms of browsing and selecting privacy, maybe you can put those sex ed. collections for physical items in a certain corner of the library that isn’t the most visible. I think once they know about those materials, if they can at least find them in slightly less public area of a library, it would be positive. And then privacy in terms of our professional ethos, protecting the identity of customers for what items they check out or use is vital to the profession. But, unlike their teachers who are in constant contact with their parents about their grades, library staff should not be in contact with parents about the items that they are taking out. That should be communicated for that very reason: there is a distinct difference between teachers and librarians in that regard. I focused a little bit more on school libraries because that’s the way that most of my participants framed their responses. That was the most important and relevant library to their daily lives.
Ken: One thing you talked about in your paper was the location and placement of computer terminals. A lot of the computers in a library, school or otherwise, are public facing–monitors easily seen from a lot of angles. Browser history is one thing, but there is also the physical aspects.
Kyle: I’ve read something recently about having certain terminals that do have more private browsing experiences in public libraries. I am curious, I do think that poses interesting–and positive, mostly–spaces for people to have a more private experience in the public space. And that goes with the research that I’ve done recently at EPL; while it is a public space, a lot of people–kids and adults–want some sort of private location within the public space so that they can not be disturbed so often, and to not have their activities disturb others. I think that does pose greater implications in terms of space, and how we can use it. If you have all these private locations that have screens that people can’t see, quite often it means that they will be near walls or in small rooms, and those are very difficult to come by for some libraries. But, that being said, I think school libraries, and smaller library systems in particular, maybe can look to not have such an open concept in which there is a bank right in the middle where everyone can view everything.
Ken: You also talked about making sexual education collections known more widely. How would you envision libraries doing this?
Kyle: It doesn’t have to be that difficult or that complex. This is something that I’ve found in my research at EPL as well. Teens and kids are browsers, generally, and quite often they don’t go through the planning process to make sure holds are coming towards them, or they might actually go to a library just because their parents want to drop them off. So, it’s not a planned outing. As a result, they are going and they’re browsing–just looking for what’s possible and what’s there. So, honestly, displays. Just having a physical display, particularly at those school libraries where they don’t know that it’s even a part of a collection. These are the types of collections that displays are necessary for. Kids know they can get the Hunger Games at their library. They know that those will always be there, and stocked, and available. However, other information that may be vital to their health is in those libraries, and also not just vital to their health, but at great interest to them at this stage in their life. Having those physical displays is important. Even just talking–all of my participants had school library orientations when they got to their high school. They would take them through what they could do at the library–all that stuff, and I’m sure it happens at most schools. The diversity of the collection needs to be discussed at that point, so that the access is improved. As I said, they know they can plan for their popular novels to be there.
Ken: I believe you also talked about having things like call numbers online. So, the kids could do their research online, and know where to go when they get to the library.
Kyle: Yes. That was a suggestion from one user, and I think he just viewed that as something so that he wouldn’t have to ask a staff member when he went to the library. A lot of kids and teens don’t know how to use libraries–they don’t know how to find materials, so they have to rely on a staff member. If there’s something like call numbers on a website, or I think I talked about having a coordinated list of credible websites where they can find good sex ed. information could be really useful and helpful.
Ken: Like a web portal.
Kyle: Ya, exactly.
Ken: What kinds of struggles did the teens in your study encounter when trying to find information on sex and sex ed.?
Kyle: They didn’t view their environment as something that was deficient of information, I would say. The barriers, in my study, were more focused from the library perspective, whereas the actual manner in which they go about finding information was not viewed as difficult. They all had trusted information sources, and those sources differed between the participants. Some of them had trusted interpersonal sources that they would use–an older brother and sister for example. Some of them trusted the internet, and they would go to that. Some of them might go to teachers, or have contacts in the queer community that they would speak with. So, the struggles were not necessarily pervasive. I think the one struggle that definitely came across was finding people who were open to talk about things candidly. The perfect example is in sex ed. class when the teacher doesn’t want to be teaching the subject gets up and says, “I don’t want to do this either,” or “I’m just as uncomfortable as you are.” At least, a couple of the participants viewed that as an immediate signal that this person is not actually a good information source, and “who knows how credible I can view the information that is coming from them?” For the internet, I think the validity of the information was a potential struggle, but they had ways to get around that. I was quite impressed with the way they would open up multiple tabs to check a reliable stream of information, which definitely goes beyond what our general assumptions in terms of teens and finding information online. Again, small study, probably high achieving students, but quite interesting to see the lengths at which they would go to confirm that the information was correct.
Ken: What made you interested in this topic in the first place?
Kyle: I actually got information from the library as a kid about sex. I remember taking out a book that talked about puberty and all that comes with it–typical sexual education stuff–in grade seven. It was really interesting and helpful to me. I think when you consider curricular instruction we’re getting a lot better in terms of how inclusive it is becoming. But, there are still major gaps, particularly for people with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, or diverse interests. There’s just a whole range of spectrums that when you have such a set curriculum and a very constrained set of time you can’t cover everything comprehensively or well. The amount of information they need to seek and get is going to be conducted on their own time, and on top of that sex education is very important. As with any health information, you have such high societal risks for misinformation. If you get bad information it is going to cost society money. In terms of STI’s, or teen pregnancies. Also, the realm of consent. Our schools in Canada are getting better at this, but there’s not enough time to do it super well.
Another reason I’m interested is just the influence of porn. But, that never came up in my study.
Ken: Could you recommend some resources for librarians to collect? Were there any titles that jumped out at you?
Kyle: I can give you two recommendations, just because I have been reviewing for the Deakin Review of Children’s literature. There are two resources that I’ve come across that I find are really good.
The first one is called, “This Book is Gay,” by James Dawson. That book is written more for teens, but it is incredibly comprehensive. [Kyle’s review of this book can be found here]. It’s fantastic–it’s something that I would have loved as a gay kid growing up. First off, you have to consider that queer kids, unlike most cultural components of your life, you’re not raised with a family that shares that with you, necessarily. It’s possible, but for most kids it’s not even shared with your family, and that can be an isolating experience. That information seeking that is done elsewhere is very helpful, and this book is very light in tone. He gets into the heavier topics, and how to combat that, but there’s comics, it’s very conversational in style. It’s like talking to an older brother or sister about these topics. I can’t recommend that enough. It’s been challenged in certain libraries. It is a bit explicit in areas, but I think it’s well within what teens can be reading.
The second book is called, “Sex is a Funny Word: A Book about Bodies, Feelings, and YOU” by C. Silverberg & F. Smyth. This book is more for younger kids, probably seven to ten or eleven year olds. [Kyle’s review of this book can be found here]. This book approaches sex from such a sex positive perspective. It doesn’t get into anything explicit at all–the most awkward section might be about touching oneself and the happy feelings that makes you feel. It’s very aimed at kids, but it’s so much about having a positive approach, about respect, and a few other things that sort of anchor the perspective. It’s meant to be read with the parent so you can start these conversations early, and maintain an open dialogue later. You kind of have a really strong basis about respecting yourself, respecting others going forward. It also has really good representation of gender identity. They have a really great discussion of what gender means, and how that can be expressed differently. They have a gender-fluid character who is represented. It’s fantastic.
Ken: I should say why I think this is an interesting Intellectual Freedom issue. There’s a lot of stigma against talking about teen sexuality–a lot of implications of abuse, and pedophilia, and things that are distasteful. This is a subject that I am uncomfortable talking about at all, so I do think it’s valuable to have people discussing it, talking about it, even having a school librarian talk about sex ed. and resources.
Kyle: That’s a perfect example: when that unit is occurring with those classes, just to have librarians give a really brief note, “you can find out more about this, because we’re not going to cover it at all and you can find this information here.” You are right, it’s a landmine. This topic [can be controversial to different groups].
Abstract: Sex in the Stacks: Teenager Sex Education Information Seeking Behavior and Barriers to the Use of Library Resources. The Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults
Due to the proliferation of sex education information sources in the twenty-first century, teenagers are faced with a wealth of available sources on the topic. However, hegemonic narratives from classroom education alienate certain youth, while negative misinformation from unreliable sources has the power to encourage harmful behaviors. At even greater risk are youth coping with trauma, particularly survivors of sexual assault and queer teens, or those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who have limited Internet access. This qualitative pilot study identifies the explicit and implicit choices that teenagers make to seek and select specific information sources for sex education, and it examines the factors that prevent teenagers from seeking such information from library resources. Data was collected in the form of semi-structured, face-to-face interviews comprised of open-ended questions with four participants. The results suggest that teenagers use a variety of sources to gather sex education information, including curricular instruction and the Internet, as well as interpersonal, media, and print sources. A wide range of factors attracted participants to use specific sources, such as ease, privacy, comfort, perceived experience, familiarity, openness, and assured provenance. None of the participants visited the library for sex education, and lack of awareness of collections as well as confidentiality concerns represented the main barriers to use of libraries.
Keywords: Sexuality Information, Adolescents, Credibility, Sense-Making
I want to sincerely thank Kyle for agreeing to be interviewed, sharing his time, and dealing with my amateur interview skills.
Kyle can be reached on Twitter at @kylemarshall4 or his email address: email@example.com.
Ken Sawdon is a Footage Curation and Metadata Specialist at Dissolve Ltd., a startup stock footage and photo company. He is a recent MLIS graduate from the University of Alberta, where his activities included co-chair of the Forum for Information Professionals student conference and community activist and blogger for the Future Librarians for Intellectual Freedom. He has been a volunteer librarian for the Aero Space Museum of Calgary as well as a Collections Assistant at Fort Calgary. He loves wading through policy and legislation, especially intellectual property issues and professional association rhetoric. You can find and connect with him at @kainous on Twitter.