Blogger Intellectual Freedom Committee

Why We Should Sweat the Small Stuff

Lately I’ve had cause to consider the overabundance of labels appearing on the spines of library books. It began when I came across a small picture book that had no less than three different genre stickers and a call number spine label which all but obliterated the title information. Then, around the same time there was a discussion amongst my peers concerning whether we should label our juvenile books with reading level labels: labels that are determined by proprietary companies using scientific formulae to assign a reading level to a book, such as the locally pervasive Accelerated Reader and Lexile Levels. Certainly, parents of children at our local schools would consider such labels a useful directional aid, and it would doubtless save time for the staff that currently has to look up the levels of books on the internet. Attempting to explain why we do not, or cannot, label or shelve books in this manner usually falls on deaf, frustrated ears, and does not win fans. Our patrons don’t particularly care that this is an ethical issue for public librarians.

The ALA has defined two different kinds of labels: directional and prejudicial. Rating labels such as those provided by the MPAA for movies, are considered prejudicial, as are labels that indicate ‘mature content’. Public libraries, for the most part, do not subscribe to this kind of labeling, believing that “cataloging decisions, labels, or ratings applied in an attempt to restrict or discourage access to materials or to suggest moral or doctrinal endorsement is a violation of the First Amendment and the Library Bill of Rights”[Labels and Rating Systems: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights].

Directional labeling would be those the ALA defines as “viewpoint-neutral”. Examples being the call number on the spine, or those ubiquitous little genre spine labels that indicate content as being science fiction, western etc. But consider an argument that these labels are actually not viewpoint neutral at all. Aren’t these little labels unavoidably subjective and therefore prejudicial too? And when is a genre not a genre? Are we okay with labeling something as Fantasy (dodgy unicorn graphic notwithstanding), but labeling something African-American, or Jewish holiday, not so much? Not everyone has the same definition of a romance or mystery, and genre categories can, and do overlap. Patrons use those labels to make their choices, to discriminate between items. Discrimination and prejudice, those uncomfortable bedfellows – nemeses of the public librarian, right?

Now I’m not suggesting we do away with genre labels, I’m really not. But do I think we should be so unquestioning about them? Probably not. Do I think we should regularly and critically revisit our approach to labeling? Probably so.  I really think we have a responsibility to be more mindful of our labeling decisions. When it comes to intellectual freedom issues we’re all familiar with challenges to library materials, patron privacy, computer filtering, and so on, but lets not ignore those everyday ‘small stuff’ decisions that we make too. What do you think?

Claire Davies

ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee


  1. Lisa

    Well said! I wholeheartedly agree. In the realm of beginning readers, there is room to question whether or not a book actually is a beginning reader. Just because it’s a certain size and the publisher says it’s so, that does not make it so. In picture books, I’ve seen books labeled “ABC” because they feature the letters of the alphabet. However many of these same books also feature colors or seasons or numbers. Will these books be passed over by the patron seeking a “season” book, not an alphabet book? Probably. I agree that we need labels, but they give me fits as well.

  2. Kathy

    My thought is that genre labels in juvenile fiction are most problematic. I think they often have the effect of pigeonholing a book. Readers at this level would find more choices and get more information on the book from the catalog.

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