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R-rated libraries

The U.S. library establishment is ideologically committed to providing inappropriate material to children, but citizens are not powerless to stop it

R-rated libraries

EASY ACCESS: Students use Kindles to check out books at public libraries. (Erica Brough/Gainesville Sun/Landov)

It’s a scene lodged in collective memory: afternoons at the neighborhood library. Grandparents remember checking out stacks of picture books with sturdy bindings and smudged pages, working up to Betsy-Tacy and Hardy Boys novels. Add a few banks of computer screens, and the library looks much the same today, with its comfy chairs and cheery Kid Zones.

But picture a mom who has dropped off her kids at the sparkling new branch while she runs to the mall for two hours of shopping. On her return, while waiting for her children to use up their allotted computer time, she pages through the books her 12-year-old has already checked out. Some shocking words jump out from the text: Can you say that, in a children’s book? Another novel falls open to a scene of teenagers exploring sex for the first time. And this book on art photography is more graphic than an R-rated movie! What were they thinking at the checkout desk?

And she thought the library was safe. What happened?

The American Library Association, chartered in Philadelphia in 1876, began with a modest aim: “to enable librarians to do their present work more easily and at less expense.” At that time the organization held firmly to middle-class values. Arthur Bostwick, elected president of the ALA in 1908, proudly stated in his inaugural address that, even though sin-glorifying books might tempt the general public, “Thank heaven they do not tempt the librarian.”

What did tempt the librarian was political ideology. In 1938, while Nazi book bonfires were burning in Germany and The Grapes of Wrath was outraging readers in the United States, Forrest Spaulding, director of the Des Moines Public Library, wrote a list of anti-censorship principles. These became the “Library Bill of Rights,” adopted by the ALA the following year. Though only one page long, it’s a formidable document: It has undergone five revisions and acquired its own interpretative adjunct—the Office of Intellectual Freedom—and its own legal arm, the Freedom to Read Foundation. The ALA in 1967 added one little word to Article V (“A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, background, or views”). That word, inserted between origin and background, was age.

There’s the rub: the public library’s long-standing association with children. It’s where big-city immigrant kids learned about America and small-town American kids broadened their horizons. As children’s publishing carved a bigger slice of book sales, libraries created larger children’s sections. The ALA’s Newbery Medal, established in 1921, was the first children’s book award in the world.

When the exploding social mores of the ’60s and ’70s introduced themes of sex, suicide, and substance abuse to the juvenile stacks, parents suited up for action—only to find the ALA already armed with Article V and the intellectual muscle to enforce it. But enforce what, exactly—and how? The Library Bill of Rights has no power of law, and the ALA itself is only a professional organization with voluntary membership. Nevertheless, many individual librarians, especially those who are conservative Christians, believe it favors social activism over community standards.

For example, the expansion of computer access in public libraries led to CIPA, the Children’s Internet Protection Act: Bill Clinton signed it into law in 2000. CIPA requires schools and public libraries receiving government funds to block pornographic internet sites on their public-use computers. When the ALA (along with the ACLU) challenged CIPA, a 2003 Supreme Court decision upheld the constitutionality of the law. But blocking software can be disabled upon an adult patron’s request, leading to reported incidents of pornography being visible “over the shoulder.”

The bestseller status of Fifty Shades of Grey bumped “intellectual freedom” to a new level. The three-volume series about a sadomasochistic affair is soft-core porn, of the sort that public libraries have traditionally eschewed. But as sales figures zoomed into the stratosphere, libraries gained notoriety for not buying the books.

When the Brevard County, Fla., library system removed its copies, the National Coalition against Censorship (which includes the ALA) went into action with a strongly worded letter to the Brevard County Library Board. Strong words had their effect, and Fifty Shades returned to the shelves. In Maryland’s Harford County, the director’s decision not to purchase the trilogy stirred a firestorm of criticism on library websites, but she stood her ground—in part. Fifty Shades remained unordered in print form, but the electronic version is available, which might be even more of a temptation to a 12-year-old who can quietly download it to her Kindle.

That takes us back to the concerned mother flipping through her preteen’s reading stack at the local branch. She marches to the circulation desk with three books in hand and makes a complaint. A librarian hands her a form: “Request for Reconsideration of Library Materials.” Besides identifying the objectionable materials and specifying her concerns, the form asks, “Can you suggest other material to take its place?” (That question seems beside the point, and according to Dan Kleinman of, it is: “It makes the process personal—puts you [the patron] on the spot, makes you look like an idiot.”)

What happens after she turns in the form? Lisa Sampey, Collection Services Manager for the Greene County (Mo.) library system, says the staff reviews all requests and recommends one of three actions: (1) removing the item, (2) moving it to a different location, or (3) retaining it. No. 3 is by far the most common. Occasionally librarians move items—from the children’s to young adults’ section, for example. But they almost never remove them. “Strategies and Tips for Dealing with Challenges to Library Materials,” a handbook on the ALA website, includes no guidelines for determining whether materials are inappropriate, only talking points to deflect objections.

What if a young teen brought Fifty Shades of Grey to the checkout desk—wouldn’t the librarian be obliged to set it aside tactfully? At Greene County, they leave that up to the parents. That’s also policy at the neighboring, and much smaller, Polk County library, although if checkout personnel know the family, they might say something. In loco parentis (in place of the parent) is another traditional principle that conflicts with the ALA’s commitment to intellectual freedom.

Why not tag books with a content label, like the MPAA rating for movies? The ALA’s “Statement on Labeling” claims that would be “an attempt to prejudice attitudes and as such, it is a censor’s tool.” The Statement also takes on groups or individuals who offer to set criteria for evaluating content: “Injustice and ignorance rather than justice and enlightenment result from such practices, and the American Library Association opposes the establishment of such criteria.”

At this point, concerned parents are likely to throw up their hands in dismay. What can they do?

Dan Kleinman says, “Get informed, get ready for long-term attacks, rely on legal precedent, get organized in educating people, then make a stand.” When it comes to adding materials (as opposed to removing them), Christian have a say, even in larger systems where the main branch does all the ordering. Lisa Sampey estimates that Greene County acquires about 95 percent of materials requested by patrons.

Betsy Farquhar, online book reviewer, Library Science student, and homeschool mom, recommends “positive library activism”: “There’s a heavy emphasis these days on the ‘user’ and the ‘user community.’ The homeschool community is talked about fairly respectfully in some circles because they tend to be ‘heavy users.’” Besides requesting books, Betsy repeatedly checks out wholesome titles to bump up their status in library records: Books that circulate remain in the collection, even if they’re anything but PC.

Public libraries need funding, and they justify funding by usage. Building rapport with the local librarians, suggesting positive additions to the collection, and supporting worthwhile material are all ways to tug the local library in a more family-friendly direction.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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  • Midwest Writer
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 05:49 pm

    Thank you, Janie Cheaney, for an eye-opening article. Well researched. I also appreciated readers' comments. All of this points to parents' responsibilities in guiding their children through any book experiences. That includes being with them when they check out books at a public library. Again, a salute to Janie's "Redeemed Reader" blog. Very helpful!

  • Laneygirl
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 05:49 pm

    Navigating libraries in the new world is not a problem solely for children. A voracious reader who began to follow Christ at 35, I found it virtually impossible to find clean fiction mixed in amongst the foul writings. It sent me to the Christian bookstore, but I deeply miss that library smell of books, books, books.

  • shevrae
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 05:49 pm

    This is why I don't drop my kids at the library.  I go with them to make sure 1) they aren't making a nuisance of themselves and 2) that they are browsing in the appropriate sections.  Their library cards live in my wallet.  Parents used to be able to trust society at large to assist in protecting children - no longer.

  • Tricia
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 05:49 pm

    The other issue is that the kids don't need to go to the librarians to check out the books. They have self checkout stations where I go, and the child only needs his or her library card and then can scan the bar codes on the books. Parents need to be very involved in their children's library usage.

  • Julia
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 05:49 pm

    Requesting good books, checking out LOTS of good books, and being good friends with your librarians are indeed very important ways to be positively impact your library system.  I have found your Redeemed Reader website's young adult fiction reviews helpful for new book requests.  Thanks.