Students and Revolutionaries, Demand Libraries Now

public university of the people



There was something very empowering about walking into the building, past all the adults, and realizing that I could pull down any book I wanted to and just start reading…

no one goes into any library seeking to lose knowledge or leave knowing less than they did before they went in

– Henry Rollins





dutch people


The Library is for Trying New Things.

Last week I wrote about Asanti’s Pick, a display gimmick where kid patrons can check out a wrapped book. They know from a sign that it is one of two titles, but not which of the two it is. These books circ! People take a chance on an unknown read. In the debate about whether or not to take the book, a lot of kids say something like “but what if I don’t like it?”

We then point to the fine print on the sign which says, “If you don’t like the book, you don’t have to finish it.”

This is often a revelation to an eight year old. “You mean I don’t have to read the whole thing?!” Nope. My boss says to kids, while recommending all kinds of books (not just wrapped up ones) “Take it home. Read the first chapter and the back cover, and if you’re not interested, bring it back. I don’t mind.” A long term co-worker of hers, another excellent children’s librarian, once finished a discussion with a child patron on the relative merits of two audiobooks by saying, “Take both. Test them out and just bring back the one you don’t like.”

Children’s librarians often talk about how libraries are often one of the first places that young people begin to practice autonomy. When they get their first card, they begin a process where they learn to choose, for themselves, what to read. They start to direct their own intellectual development. They can create an internal life that belongs solely to them. Due to privacy laws, here in California at least, their library records are their own – parents have no right to look at what their children are checking out, or when it is due. Their relationship with the library, and with reading, is their own private affair.

Trinidad and Tobago. 'A science master demonstartes primary distillation in the laboratory of the co-educational school for senior staff children at Pointe-a-Pierre'

In companionship to this self-direction, is the fact that the library makes it possible to conduct low-risk, low-commitment experiments in reading. If you don’t like a book, you’ve made no financial sacrifice (or no parent has made a financial sacrifice on your behalf), and you can just bring it back and try again.

You’ve got the freedom to experiment.

This is such an important library function, both to the development of children, and to the development of the kind of world I want to live in. In that world, people are open-minded. They are free to explore new interests, and to easily set them aside if they are not captivating. They are able to listen to different kinds of thinkers, without needing to invest in one particular school. They have choice.

They have intellectual options.

So there’s another reason why libraries are awesome; Libraries give you the freedom to try new things.

Mr Tulk and dog "Sausage" going fishing using flying fox he built onto other island - Solitary Island, c. 1935 / by Winifred Tulk

Emerging adults at the library – I read what I want!

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
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.