I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we prepare library staff to handle intellectual freedom issues that arise. While most libraries have a reconsideration policy in place, public service staff is not always prepared to actually respond to concerns about library materials. Even managers may not have any specific training in issues of intellectual freedom. How do you talk to an angry parent about the graphic novel that’s “too explicit?” What do you say when a local school board member questions why the library won’t label “controversial” material? And what is your responsibility, as a library employee, towards those titles with which you disagree?
Supporting the freedom to read isn’t easy, and it can be especially sensitive where children are concerned. Most of us in youth services will probably deal with many more questions about our collections than your average adult reference librarian. Parents have widely different opinions on what is “appropriate” for children at different ages, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we can all probably name at least a few titles in our library collections that we would like to see disappear. It’s one thing to talk abstractly about how important it is to have materials that represent diverse perspectives, but what does it feel like to confront a title that you find personally offensive? I think that’s a question that every library employee could benefit from considering and perhaps talking through with co-workers in a supportive environment. And I think a better understanding of that question is integral to each employee’s ability to communicate effectively with library patrons about issues of intellectual freedom.
What if we incorporated intellectual freedom training into every new employee’s orientation? What if everyone from the shelvers to the branch manager knew about the Library Bill of Rights and The Freedom to Read statement that we display so proudly on our website? And better yet, what if they actually had some training in the hows and whys behind those documents? I believe we need to empower all of our staff to be able to articulate, to themselves and to our community as well, the reasoning behind our commitment to freedom of choice and open access to information.
So what do you think? Does your library incorporate intellectual freedom into staff training? Would you consider requiring staff to understand your library’s policies on intellectual freedom? I’d love to hear how other libraries approach this issue. Please share your experiences in the comments!
Chelsea Couillard-Smith, Youth Materials Selector, Sacramento Public Library
Member, ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee