I recently participated in a long debate on information access sparked by none other than 50 Shades of Grey. The issue: is it within the library’s right and/or responsibility to deny children access to “mature” materials?
The Argument in Favor of Denial/Limiting Access
Movies are given ratings by the MPAA which help parents decide whether a film is appropriate for their child, and theaters stand behind those ratings by refusing to admit minors to movies with a rating of R or higher, unless accompanied by an adult. Books should be classified in a similar fashion so that parents will have better control and confidence in the age-appropriateness of their children’s reading selections.
This will only be effective if libraries agree to enforce a parent’s desire to limit access to materials with certain ratings, as the parent cannot be expected to be present and know every item a child checks out. In lieu of a book rating system, which does not currently exist, the librarian should note the parent’s wishes in the child’s record and use their own discretion in allowing certain items like 50 Shades of Grey to be checked out.
The Argument in Favor of Allowing Access
The purpose of the library is to provide access to information, and has never been to make judgments on what information is appropriate for users on an individual basis. Movie theaters are privately owned businesses with the corresponding right to refuse entry, whereas the public library is a government institution ruled by an entirely different set of standards.
The lack of official book rating system makes the task of policing information access all but impossible, and certainly too subjective to be useful (my thoughts on why rating books would be anathema to the mission of libraries will be reserved for another day). One librarian may find the frequently-censored Catcher in the Rye too “mature” for a young patron, while another may object to I Want My Hat Back, a children’s book that sparked moral controversy in 2011. This opens the door for all kinds of outraged parents – equally angry because their children were and were not allowed to access an item – and provides very little in the way of concrete policies and practices to back up the decision-maker.
Libraries can limit access to certain parts of the collection on a broad basis (no internet access, no media, etc.) at the request of the parent, but ultimately it is the parent’s responsibility to know what their child reads, and to set clear guidelines for what they expect their child NOT to read.
Findings on Current Library Policies and Laws
ALA Library Bill of Rights, Section V: “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.”
Akron-Summit County Public Library policy (as related to me by a circulation employee): Parents may deny access to the internet, all audio, and/or all visual collections for their children, but it is too time-consuming and subjective to attempt to limit access to the collection any further.
Fountaindale Public Library policy (as gathered from news article): “Librarians are prohibited from blocking the rental of R-rated movies by minors. Not even when the movie in question is obviously not meant for a youngster.” The case in question was the rental of Fight Club to a 15 year old without parental supervision. The library upholds ALA policy and attempts to discourage inappropriate content by separating adult and children’s A/V materials and providing movie reviews with information about content and recommended audiences.
Library of Michigan, Lance M. Werner statement on public libraries and MPAA ratings – “As governmental entities, library boards, employees and agents have no inherent powers. They possess only those limited powers given them by the state… although Michigan’s public libraries must adhere to section 6 of the Michigan Library Privacy Act [CIPA, nationally speaking]… which requires libraries to take steps to prevent minors from accessing obscene or sexually explicit harmful material… on the Internet, it does not authorize libraries to restrict minors access to other library materials. In fact, because there is no legal authority that enables libraries to restrict minor’s access to library materials that fall outside of the purview of section 6, restricting materials could conceivably to considered an infringement of minor’s constitutional rights.”
In closing, you tell ‘em, Lance M. Werner.