During late March and early April, the ALSC Discussion List was active with comments and concerns around Common Sense Media (CSM) and that organization’s reviews of children’s materials. I followed this discussion with particular interest for two reasons. First, the organization is located in the city where I work. Second, when they were just getting started, members of the organization came to our library to meet with us to discuss their values and seek our support. We declined as we believed that their practice of labeling was in violation of the ALA Bill of Rights and the core values of library services for children.
I do not intend to rehash all of the comments and statements of the online discussion (sigh of relief on your part!). Hopefully, most of you followed it and certainly many of you actively participated. I found it to be a robust and lively exchange. That being said, I believe that there are some points that bear repeating regarding CSM reviews:
- The qualifications of the “expert” reviewers are not always clear with regard to their knowledge of children’s literature and their background in bringing children and books together.
- Reviews contain a not-so-subtle bias that the values of CSM should be shared by everyone.
- Ratings that focus on a checklist of incidents that CSM considers problematic (i.e. violence, sex, language, consumerism, drinking, drugs, smoking) cannot provide a balanced and truly insightful evaluation of a literary work. There is no context.
- The “Parents Need to Know” ratings are presented to the left of the reviews and are the most immediately visible component. Even if the review itself does present some balance, a parent in a hurry will find it all too easy to simply look at the rating as a guide to deciding if the book is one they consider appropriate.
Nina Lindsay, Supervising Librarian for Children’s Services at Oakland Public Library, focused on this issue in a way that I found particularly insightful. With her permission I am going to use her comments:
“…it is indeed the “What Parents Need to Know” section and ratings of CSM that I find inherently problematic, and totally different than, for instance, VOYA’s ratings on popularity and quality. First of all…”Parents Need to Know”? That very statement presupposes that what is about to follow is what every parent should value. Try looking up some reviews of titles with complex stories in them, and picture yourself as a parent who is browsing this site to sanction or veto your child’s reading choices. Does this section really tell you what you need to know about the book? The point is it is different for every parent, every family.”
If you haven’t done so, I would like to encourage you to read a blog post from the Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) and a Booklist editorial by Pat Scales. On March 28th, 2016, Joyce Johnston posted a piece to the OIF blog titled Common Sense Media: Promoting Family Values or Dictating Them? The original editorial from Pat Scales, titled Three Bombs, Two Lips, and a Martini Glass was published in Booklist in August of 2010. It has just been reprinted with updates as a result of the ALSC-L discussions. Both pieces are succinct and on target.
Are two blog posts and an updated editorial on top of the previous discussion excessive on this issue? I would answer no. The discussion about labeling in order to limit what children read is a vital one to our profession. It is one that we should weigh in on whenever possible.
Finally, I encourage you to think about volunteering to serve on the ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee. Several of us currently serving are coming to the end of our appointments at the close of the Annual Conference. This will provide openings for those who might be interested in participating in this critical committee, and working with great people who share your passion for intellectual freedom!
Toni Bernardi, San Francisco Public Library
Member, ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee