The ALA’s Library Bill of Rights details the professional responsibility of the library to provide “resources … for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves” (2009). The Bill of Rights makes clear that materials are not to be censored due to content and that the patron’s “right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views” (ALA, 2009). Interpretations of the bill of rights argue that this responsibility is not only professional but legal. Libraries must not only provide unfettered access to information, but this access is part of a constitutional “First Amendment right to receive information in a publicly funded library” (ALA, 2009).
For teens, whose “reading experience … mirrors the stuff of everyday teen life: the struggle for independence,” (Anderson, 2004, p.106) the access to controversial literature can be an important ingredient in finding autonomy. There are two elements I see in a teenager coming into independence: the power to make choices, and a sense of identity- both in the teen figuring out who s/he is and in finding the self as distinct from others.
Making our own choices is one of the ways life changes as we grow to adulthood. When we are children, we are scheduled, fed, and advised on every matter under the sun. As adults we gain more power to make our own choices; to decide if we want to eat nothing but cheese and pears for dinner, or if we want to stay in our pajamas all day, or if we actually prefer a messy room to a clean one. Helping teens transition into these choices by providing access to books which may not be on any approved list, is one way the library can function supportively. Teens do not have to read the library’s controversial books, they may make the choice to not expose themselves to something that may not be in line with their beliefs, or they may decide to challenge the boundaries of their experience through literature.
For teens, especially those who may be marginalized in some way, literature depicting aspects of his or her own life may be key in self-acceptance. Bodart suggests defending controversial literature by “looking at the lessons it teaches, the problems or situations it reveals, and the information it contains about how to resolve them.” For librarians, this is valuable advice. For people who want teenagers to grow up to be healthy adults, this is a good reason to defend controversial literature. Teens should be given every tool available to learn how to deal with life, and literature is an even more valuable tool when there are not understanding adults or peers around.
But even for teens who are not marginalized, for teens who feel loved and accepted in their identity, who have not dealt with vicious treatment, and who happily fit in with the things that are expected of them, controversial literature may fulfill a purpose. As we grow we see the differences in others. Our parents, for example, are no longer extensions of our own being. No matter whether or not we embrace lifestyles that differ from our own, we begin to recognize that they exist. I think this is a very important stage of growth, and one that controversial literature can help teens arrive at, through realizing the breadth of the human experience.
American Library Association. 2009. Privacy: An interpretation of the bill of rights. Retrieved July 14th, 2009 from
American Library Association. 2009. Library bill of rights. Retrieved July 14th, 2009 from http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala
Anderson, S. (2004). Serving older teens. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Bodart, J. R. (2006, Fall). Books that help, books that heal: Dealing with controversy in YA Literature. Young Adult
Library Services v. 5 no. 1 (Fall 2006) p. 31-4.