You let my child check out THAT?


One short policy can make your life as a librarian infinitely easier

As a child, I wasn’t allowed to watch Little House on the Prairie.  Yes. That’s correct. My mother did not allow me to be drawn into the scary, mature themes and situations that Laura and Nellie conquered while on the frontier.  You may be chuckling about this — or you may agree with it — either way, that television show was one area where my mother drew a line and became, at least in my mind, the world’s biggest censorship queen.

It’s easy for most librarians, to say, “Oh, I don’t permit censorship — I believe in access for everyone!”  Now think about your last interaction with that angry parent, when her 4, or 6 or 13-year-old came home with a book, movie or video game that he is forbidden to see.

While hosting a program for parents and teachers of pre-school and elementary students called, “Getting Your Child Ready for School” the topic of violent video games came up, as did censorship of the book Harry Potter.  We had a range of parents in the room. Some felt the witchcraft in Harry Potter would bring out the devil in their children, while others were happy their child would read anything. A few parents played the video games we were discussing and some wanted to run to the stacks and destroy them on the spot.

How do you satisfy all of these parents?  Some librarians may try to ensure young patrons are checking out “age appropriate” materials.  This would be tough to enforce at our library, as we have self-checkout stations available.  Another problem with this is that there is such a broad range of reading ability covering all ages.  Other librarians may try to be aware of what different groups, like the local home school club or the teen film making crew, or even individual parents, allow.   Both of these routes get tricky.  At some point, we are crossing a line, with both censorship and access.

One simple policy, that can really be applied to patrons of all ages, has often made my life easier.  First I remind myself of one line in the Library Bill of Rights, “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.”  In my conversation with the parent or guardian I respectfully point out that it is his or her responsibility to help the child pick out materials. It really is that simple. It is not my job to determine (censor) what their child should or should not read, view or play. I often use Laura and Nellie as an example!  And if there isn’t an adult at the library with the child, hopefully they have already let the child know what the guidelines are at home or they will discuss those with the child when they arrive home.   I know what would have happened if I had brought home the DVD of Little House on the Prairie, although we didn’t have that technology at the time. My mother would have directly reminded me that I know I’m not allowed to watch that, and then the DVD would have high tailed its way back to the library, never having left its case.

If asking parents to be responsible is the last step in the conversation, I have failed to provide good readers advisory service. Taking a few moments to develop a partnership with a parent, and show that I want to provide materials that he or she likes, and his or her children will like, can turn a frustrated parent into a happy one. Some easy questions to start with include: What reading level is your child at? What books or movies have you enjoyed in the past, and what did you like about them? The pace? Setting? Characters?  I also like to explain to parents that there are books created for advanced readers that don’t have the mature topics of teen books, and books for slow readers that don’t have that “kiddish” feel.

Helping a parent find materials, while still holding them responsible for having a role in what their child brings home, keeps our own urge to censor, whether small or great, out of the equation.

Joyce McIntosh is the Outreach and Assistive Technology Librarian at Elmhurst Public Library in Elmhurst, Illinois. She has a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University and an MLS from Wayne State University.  In addition to enjoying outreach and reference work, she has a particular interest in issues of intellectual freedom.  Joyce is expecting her first child in September and plans to let her child watch or read Little House on the Prairie.  As for other authors and movies. . . . . . we’ll see.