The Right to Read: The How and Why of Supporting Intellectual Freedom for Teens

teen girl working at a chair in a public library

Teen girl working in the library, photo by Flickr user Asheboro Public Library  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In brief: Intellectual freedom and equal access to information are central to libraries’ mission, but  libraries often fail to consider the intellectual freedom needs of teenage patrons, or lump teen patrons in with children in conversations of intellectual freedom. However, adolescence is developmentally distinct from childhood, and the freedom to access information of all kinds is vital for teen patrons. In this article, I outline the case for protecting intellectual freedom for young adults and provide practical steps libraries can take to do just that.


Recently, my grandmother sent me an article by Meghan Cox Gurdon called “The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books.” Gurdon, the Wall Street Times children’s books reviewer, has gained notoriety among young adult librarians, authors, educators, and readers for writing about (primarily decrying) the prevalence of serious, often unpleasant themes and topics in young adult literature. Her 2011 article “Darkness Too Visible” set off a firestorm in the YA world and led to the creation of #YAsaves, an online movement where readers, authors, and librarians share the impact of “dark” literature on their lives. The newer article has much the same premise as the earlier one: contemporary young adult literature covers topics too lurid, too grim, and too graphic for young readers. In addition, “The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books” calls for authors, editors, and publishers to censor the contents of books for young people under the guise of quality and “good taste.” Although I have plenty to say about Gurdon’s arguments, this article is not a direct response to her. Others have responded more eloquently than I could hope to (Sherman Alexie’s response, “Why the Best Kids’ Books Are Written in Blood,” is my personal favorite). Instead, this article is a call for libraries to actively and consciously defend the rights of teenager readers and library patrons, brought on by a discussion of “The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books.”

While discussing Gurdon’s article, I found myself repeating what I think of as the library party line on intellectual freedom for young people: parents and guardians have the right to decide what their children have access to, but they don’t have the right to decide what all children have access to. Caregivers raise their children with a certain set of values. They have the right to introduce their children to materials that reflect those values and to discourage their children from accessing materials that contradict or challenge their values. Whether or not we as librarians agree with those values is irrelevant; our responsibility is to provide access to a wide variety of materials representing many viewpoints and to help users find materials that fit their needs.

While we remain neutral with regard to the content of library materials, libraries actively encourage caregivers to participate in their children’s intellectual lives in a variety of ways. Collection development policies frequently include language that rests the responsibility for children’s library use in their guardians’ hands. Early literacy programs for caregivers encourage them to read with and to their children. We also facilitate participation in more practical ways, like linking the accounts of children and their guardians. In an ideal world, creating the opportunity for guardians and their children to talk about reading together would set a precedent for conversations that continue through adolescence. It’s not that caregivers should stop being involved in their children’s’ library use and reading habits when their children reach adolescence. There may be times, however, when a young person wants or needs information to which her guardian might want to restrict access. Because of the developmental needs of adolescence and libraries’ commitment to intellectual freedom, libraries should support the intellectual freedom for teenagers rather than the right of guardians to control their children’s intellectual lives.

For teenagers the right to read—even materials with which adults in their lives may not be comfortable—is vitally important. Literature and information are tools for teens who are developing a sense of self and beginning to explore and understand the world as individuals independent from the family in which they were raised. Unfortunately, teens and teen materials are frequently targeted in efforts to censor information and restrict intellectual freedom. Luckily, there are concrete steps that libraries and librarians can take to protect our adolescent patrons’ privacy and their right to intellectual freedom.

Access to Information and Adolescent Development

First, librarians should understand how teens and children are different and what makes intellectual freedom particularly important for adolescents. Although definitions vary, adolescents are usually thought of as middle and high school students, roughly ages 12-18. ((A side note about ages: obviously, the transition from childhood to adulthood is an individual process, which every individual reaching milestones in different orders and at different times. Creating policies that differentiate children from adolescents necessitates an arbitrary cutoff, although the process is, of course, a gradual one. Many organizations that serve young people and youth service providers (including The Search Institute and YALSA, among others) seem to agree that 12 is an appropriate age for that arbitrary cut-off, but there is room for discussion and disagreement on this point.)) Teens and children are often lumped together in discussions of intellectual freedom. Discussing “youth” as ages 0-18 fails to account for the different developmental needs of children and teenagers, and the failure to differentiate is detrimental to teens. Adolescence is a time of vast neurological, physiological, emotional, and social change. Teenage brains are primed for learning and more open to new experiences — more interested in novelty and new sensations — than human brains at any other point in our lifespan (for a more detailed discussion of the teen brain, see David Dobb’s National Geographic article). For example, only 2% of 12 year olds are sexually active, but by age 16, a third of teens have had sex, and by 18, the number grows to nearly two-thirds. Developing sexuality, while notable, is just one of the many changes of adolescence. Cognitive changes, including the ability to grapple with complex and abstract ideas, mean that adolescents are much more interested in questions of morality and personhood than younger children. (Steinberg, p. 32). Such rapid and all-encompassing change means that access to information is critical to young people. I’m using “information” in a broad sense; fictional narratives are as important as factual information for teens who are striving the understand the world around them and their place in it.

Establishing self-sufficiency and independence is one of the most significant outcomes of adolescence. Challenging and questioning the beliefs of their family and their culture is a natural and important aspect of teens’ blossoming independence. Blocking teens’ access to reading, viewing, and listening to materials stifles an opportunity for teenagers to explore viewpoints or experiences outside of the frame of influence created by their caregivers. In addition, the process of developing and asserting independence can be a difficult one for teens and guardians, and teens are often experimenting with behaviors and beliefs with which their caregivers are uncomfortable. Adult discomfort is as much a part of adolescence as teen experimentation. Our job as librarians is not to stand on one side or the other, but to provide access to information on a wide range of topics, depicting a wide range of experiences, so that teenagers who come to the library looking to broaden their horizons find the materials to do so. There’s an abundance of good reasons to let teenagers read about difficult and sensitive subjects. Seeing their own difficult lives reflected back at them can give teens going through dark times a sense of hope and comfort. Reading about lives that are different from their own can give teenagers a deeper understanding of others. Studies have shown that reading literary fiction makes people empathetic.

The thorniness of adolescent-guardian relationships and the importance of exploration and experimentation in adolescence means that it is not enough to establish that public libraries do not monitor or restrict what materials young people check out. Public libraries should, as much as possible, treat adolescent patrons as adults with regard to their intellectual freedom and privacy. This is distinct from our treatment of young children, in that we encourage guardians to take an active role in the reading lives and their children and to monitor and censor where they deem appropriate. Encouraging caregiver censorship for teens is a disservice to adolescents in a way that it is not to younger children, especially given the often-complicated relationships between young people and their guardians.

Knowing that teens have a developmental need for intellectual freedom, librarians should also be aware that young adults are vulnerable to attacks on their right to read and right to information. Adult discomfort with the sudden maturity of teenagers means that challenges to young adult materials in public libraries, school libraries, and classroom curricula make up the vast majority of book challenges. From 1990-2009 (the most recent data available via ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom) the number of challenges in schools and school libraries was more than double the number of challenges in any other institution. In the same time period, “unsuited to age group” was the third most common reason given for book challenges. Obviously both of these statistics include children’s as well as young adult materials. Looking at frequently challenged titles lists gives a little more insight as to the breakdown of the challenges. On the 2013 list of most the ten frequently challenged titles, more than half are young adult novels (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, The Hunger Games, A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, Looking for Alaska, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and the Bone series). Two additional titles are frequently taught in high school classes or included on summer reading lists (The Bluest Eye and Bless Me Ultima). The 2011 list is even heavier in young adult titles (the ttyl series, The Color of the Earth series, The Hunger Games trilogy, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, the Alice series, What My Mother Doesn’t Know, and the Gossip Girl series) with two additional titles that are classroom standards (Brave New World and To Kill a Mockingbird). Book challenges can result in lost opportunities beyond access to information and stories. Rainbow Rowell, whose YA novel Eleanor and Park was well-received by critics and teens alike, had an invitation to speak at a Minnesota high school and public library rescinded after parents challenged the book. Meg Medina, author of  a novel about bullying called Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, faced a similar situation in Virginia.

Due to their minority age, relative lack of power, and the not-uncommon idea that they don’t know what’s good for them, teens are relatively powerless in the face of attacks on their intellectual freedom, although they often speak out in support of challenged books. Public institutions may feel pressure to cave to the demands of tax-paying adults, but we are not serving teens’ best interests when we do so.

In fact, libraries can and should be defenders of teens’ intellectual freedom. Before I delve into the why and how of that assertion, I want to briefly acknowledge that I’m talking primarily about public libraries here. Earlier I mentioned the standard line that guardians are responsible for the reading habits and materials of their own children, but do not have the right to dictate what other children can and can’t read. This policy is an extension of the common assertion that public libraries do not act in loco parentis, or in the role of a parent or guardian. While public libraries do not act in loco parentis, schools have a legal mandate to do exactly that. The history of schools and the doctrine is a long and complex one, and the intersection between in loco parentis and schools’ responsibility to protect the constitutional rights of students is still being negotiated. For more on this topic, see the article by Richard Peltz-Steele included in the Additional Reading list at the end of the article.

Libraries, and particularly public libraries, occupy a space in teens’ lives that makes them uniquely suited to protect and defend teens’ intellectual freedom. Teens and young people (ages 14-24) represent nearly a quarter of public library users, a larger percentage than any other age group. By the time they are middle and high school students, many teenagers are using the library independently. Unlike the classroom, where topics and titles are governed by state and federal requirements, or are chosen unilaterally by the teacher, libraries offer information on virtually any topic of interest from lock-picking to the history of Russian firearms (both real, non-school reference questions I’ve answered). In our collections, we have books that guardians and teachers might not provide, either because they are unaware of them or because they object to the content. The wealth and variety of resources available in libraries make them an ideal match for minds that are receptive to new ideas and primed for learning. A huge amount of information is available online, of course, but many teenagers either don’t have internet access at home or are sharing a computer and internet connection, which can make searching for potentially sensitive information riskier. Additionally, our mandate to protect user privacy means that libraries are a safe space for teens to explore topics and read books that might be embarrassing or controversial.

Supporting Intellectual Freedom for Teens in Your Library

Unfortunately, the theoretical side of intellectual freedom is often the easy part. By and large, librarians seem to agree that we are not parents or guardians and that we do not censor materials because they are controversial. Implementing practices and policies that support our theoretical stance – walking the intellectual freedom walk, so to speak – can be more difficult than getting fired up about the right to read. What feels obvious in an abstract discussion of book bans and challenges and internet access can be complicated and daunting in the real world; turning theory into practice, especially in light of daily demands on our time and energy, is not always easy. So what can your library to do support intellectual freedom for teen patrons? Below you’ll find some suggestions (most of which, as an added benefit, will support intellectual freedom for all of your patrons).

Begin by reviewing your library’s policies. This sounds obvious – most collection development policies have some kind of language absolving libraries from monitoring or restricting the materials checked out by minors (the previously discussed in loco parentis clause). If you’ve never seen your library’s collection development policy, or if it’s been a while, start there. While you’re checking the collection development policy, also look for language that outlines the process for challenges to materials so that you are ready with a response in case of unhappy community members. This is pretty basic library school stuff, but when you’re a working librarian, it’s easy to get wrapped up in daily tasks and set things like policy updates aside. While you’re checking and possibly updating your collection development policy, also look for a statement on diversity within the collection. Most libraries are charged with meeting the needs and interests of their communities, but that does not mean catering only to the majority. In fact, a well-rounded collection should include voices and experiences that do not exist (or are not visible) in your community.

Review your collection as well. Does it have materials for those young people who do not share the majority beliefs, views, and experiences of your community? If you work in a more conservative area, do you have books on sex and sexuality for teenagers? If you work in a liberal area, do you have materials by conservative writers? Are a variety of religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender expressions represented in your fiction and nonfiction collections, particularly your young adult collections?

While you’re reviewing policies, look at your cardholder policy. Do you offer family cards (i.e., a single account that can be used and reviewed by all the members of a family)? While family cards are convenient, they make it nearly impossible to guarantee privacy for teen patrons. In cases where teens’ interests and caregivers’ values don’t align, privacy and intellectual freedom are nearly synonymous, so protecting teen’s privacy is a vital part of protecting their intellectual freedom. Even if you don’t offer family cards, do caregivers have access to information about their teenaged children’s check-outs? For an example of the library system whose cardholder rules protect teenagers’ right to privacy, and with it their freedom to access any kind of materials, check out the Seattle Public Library’s privacy policy. While you’re reviewing cardholder policy, also look at its implementation at your library. Do librarians or circulation staff offer information such as the titles of overdue books on a teen’s card to other family members, even if policy is designed to protect this information? If so, consider offering training on intellectual freedom and privacy to staff. Intellectual freedom is covered in library school, but often front-line staff aren’t librarians and may not have had the same depth of training on importance of privacy and equal access. An organizational culture that supports intellectual freedom is as important—perhaps more so—as policies that do the same.

These suggestions aren’t world-shaking, but if it’s been a while since you did a policy or collection review, or since you reviewed the way that policy is put into practice at your institution, consider this a gentle reminder that policy, as rote as it may seem, can have real implications for young people.

While policy, collection, and practice are great places to make changes that support your teen patrons’ freedom to read, there are additional things libraries and librarians can do to facilitate access to information, especially information that might be embarrassing to ask about or otherwise controversial. First, consider creating an honor system collection. The defining feature of an honor system collection is that the books in the collection can be borrowed from the library without a library card or any other method of check-out. The collection can be as informal as a basket of high-interest books or can be processed and cataloged like the rest of the collection, although security tags and other measures should be de-activated or left off during processing. The Santa Cruz Public Library has an honor system collection called the Teen Self Help collection; titles are entered in to the catalog and the records are browsable by tags. Honor system collections help protect teens’ privacy and remove intimidation and embarrassment, which can be particularly potent in adolescence, as barriers to access to information. These collections tend to focus on nonfiction titles, but could easily include popular fiction titles as well, especially those that frequently appear on banned and challenged lists – titles like Speak, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Consider partnering with community organizations to promote intellectual freedom and access to information for teenagers. Reach out to local organizations for information on mental health, sex and sexuality, healthy relationships, drugs and alcohol, and other topics that teens may need information on.  Examples include religious groups (check your library’s policy on posting religious material first, and be sure that multiple religions are represented), Planned Parenthood and other health organizations, and institutions that work with homeless youth. Many of these organizations have pamphlets or other information available. Create a community resources area in your teen section that provides access to information that doesn’t have to be checked out or returned. Set up a teen resources table at all teen programs, regardless of topic. Players at video game tournaments may not express their interest in or need for health or housing resources, but if the information is available and visible, those who need it are more likely to find and utilize it.

Most of the policy and practice changes I’ve suggested are relatively simple from a librarian’s point of view, but they can make a huge difference to teens for whom intellectual freedom is both vital and tenuous. The right to access materials of all kinds on all topics is a developmental necessity for young people, who are undergoing rapid intellectual, psychological, and social change. As librarians, it’s rarely difficult to talk intellectual freedom; in theory, we all agree that banning books is wrong and access to information of all kinds is right. Putting those ideas into practice, especially when faced with the possibility of controversial material, young people, and unhappy caregivers, can feel much more difficult, but changes like those I’ve suggested above can help bring the theoretical into practice, where it truly matters.

Thanks and Acknowledgments

Thank you to Ellie Collier, Erin Dorney, and Hugh Randle of the In the Library with the Lead Pipe Editorial Board for their insightful comments and grammatical finesse. In addition, I’m grateful to Issac Gilman and Amy Springer, who acted as external editors and provided helpful advice. Thanks to my husband, who now knows more about intellectual freedom for teenagers than any software developer needs to. Above all, thanks to the tireless Gretchen Kolderup, for her guidance, encouragement, and enthusiasm.

Citations and additional reading

“Adolescence.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition.

Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2013. Accessed December 4, 2013.  http://library.eb.com/eb/article-9003766. 

Alexie, Sherman. “Why The Best Kids’ Books are Written in Blood.” The Wall Street Journal: Speakeasy, June 9, 2011. Accessed November 20, 2013. http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/06/09/why-the-best-kids-books-are-written-in-blood/

Becker, Samantha et al. “Opportunity for All: How Library  Policies and Practices Impact Public Internet Access, report  no. IMLS-2011-RES-010.” Accessed May 18, 2014.  http://imls.gov/assets/1/assetmanager/opportunityforall.pdf

“Challenges by reason, initiator & institution for 1990-99 and 2000-09,” Banned & Challenged Books. Accessed November 20, 2013. http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/statistics.

Dobbs, David. “Beautiful Brains.” National Geographic Magazine, October 2011. Accessed November 20, 2013. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/10/teenage-brains/dobbs-text.

Gurdon, Megan Cox. “The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books.” Imprimis 42, no. 7/8 (July/August 2013). Accessed November 20, 2013. http://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/file/archives/pdf/2013_07_Imprimis.pdf.

Gurdon, Megan Cox. “Darkness Too Visible.” Wall St. Journal, June 4, 2011. Accessed November  20, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303657404576357622592697038.

Guttmacher Institute. “American Teens’ Sexual and Reproductive Health.” May 2014. Accessed May 17, 2014. http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/FB-ATSRH.html.

Peltz-Steele, Richard J., Pieces of Pico: “Saving Intellectual Freedom in the Public School Library,” Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal, Vol. 2005, p. 103, 2005. Accessed January 10, 2014. http://ssrn.com/abstract=1669446.

Steinberg, Laurence, and Stephanie Dionne Sherk. “Adolescence.” The Gale Encyclopedia of Children’s Health: Infancy through Adolescence. Ed. Kristine Krapp and Jeffrey Wilson. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 2006. 32-36. Accessed September 28, 2014. http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CCX3447200022&v=2.1&u=kcls&it=r&p=GVRL&sw=w&asid=76a025b1730a2fbcd9f4df3f3c92476a

“Talks Cancelled for YA Authors Meg Medina and Rainbow Rowell.” Blogging Censorship. National Coalition Against Censorship. September 13, 2014. Accessed September 28, 2014. http://ncacblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/13/talks-cancelled-for-ya-authors-meg-medina-and-rainbow-rowell/


6 Responses

    1. Emily Calkins

      I haven’t had a chance to look at it up close either (this post was already almost done when it came out), but I’m excited to read it! The more conversations we’re having about teenagers and intellectual freedom, the better.

  1. Dave

    This is an outstanding article skillfully addressing the very often complicated topic of intellectual freedom and our teen readers. As a service to our YA patrons, this should be suggested reading for every librarian and front-line staff member.

    1. Emily Calkins

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! I hope it will inspire library staff (librarian and otherwise) who work with teen patrons to think about the implications of services & policies.

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