Intellectual Freedom and Youth: Practical and Philosophical Considerations

When it comes to intellectual freedom, most people would agree that adults should have the right to read what pleases them. Many would also agree that teenagers need some freedom to explore their own reading tastes and choices. But what about children, specifically school-aged children? Does it make sense to talk about intellectual freedom for a population that generally exercises little freedom at home or at school? The Library Bill of Rights does not discriminate on the basis of age, which would include younger children as well as older ones. But are there other reasons to support intellectual freedom for younger readers?

First things first: What is intellectual freedom? We use the term so often in librarianship that it runs the risk of being too vague and undefined. Basically, intellectual freedom is both an ideal that we work towards, and a guideline for library policies and practices. It has three components: access, diversity, and privacy. Access means that readers are able to find and check out the materials that interest them, without unnecessary barriers. Diversity means that there are a wide range of materials to choose from, including viewpoints and experiences that may have been overlooked or marginalized. Privacy means having that access to materials without oversight or supervision. Together, these three components make up the broader category of intellectual freedom.

Second, let’s look at elementary school aged children. What is this developmental stage like? In a word, it’s all about curiosity. Kids get interested in books and other media because it feeds their often insatiable desire to know. This is completely developmentally appropriate for kids, especially those aged 7 to 11. As they inch toward 11 and middle school, kids become obsessed with the concept of justice. Everything must be fair! The combination of these two passions, curiosity and justice, make elementary school an ideal time to give kids some freedom and responsibility for the information and entertainment they seek.

Besides being developmentally appropriate, intellectual freedom for kids has some practical benefits for librarians. If you have policies that involve screening or previewing for offensive things, you set up the expectation that you’ll be able and willing to do that for all young patrons. It will be very difficult to be consistent, it will take up large amounts of time, and it’s not really what librarians do. This doesn’t mean that you can’t suggest a different book for a kid if you believe that s/he isn’t ready for one they’ve chosen. You can always suggest alternatives. The important thing is to have some wiggle room in your practice and not be tied down with a rigid, one-size-fits-all policy.

Even more importantly, free choice in reading is good for reading motivation! Lots of research supports this, but for an overview see Stephen Krashen’s The Power of Reading or Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries, and Communities. When kids have access to reading that appeals to them, they read more, and through practice they become better readers. Intellectual freedom is thus not an abstract ethic, but a framework for how we’re teaching kids to love reading.

Reading is also a key component of identity formation. This is clearly true of teenage readers, but is also true of school-aged children. As they form a world outside of their families at school, church, camp, and other communities, kids are discovering who are they are for the first time. Reading, according to Rudine Sims Bishop, is about providing window and mirrors: readers can see themselves reflected in reading as well as discover other people’s experiences that might be unfamiliar. In any case, meaningful exploration of identity demands some freedom of reading choice, even for young readers.

In sum, intellectual freedom for young readers makes sense, for many of the same reasons that it makes sense for teens and adults. It also makes sense for younger readers in particular, because they are just beginning to explore identity and are building themselves as readers and students. By allowing kids some free rein in book choice, and by eliminating barriers to access, diversity, and privacy, we make it more likely that young readers will learn to love reading and libraries. By the time they are older, intellectual freedom will become ingrained in their expectations of learning and life.


Author: Loretta Gaffney

Loretta M. Gaffney, MLIS, MA, Ph.D., is a librarian and teacher at Harvard Westlake School in Los Angeles. Illinois-born and Iowa-raised, she is slowly becoming an Angeleno by learning to shiver in 50-degree weather. Loretta is the author of Young Adult Literature, Libraries, and Conservative Activism, published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2017. A frequent conference speaker and guest lecturer, Loretta taught YA Literature, Reading Research, Intellectual Freedom, and Youth Services Librarianship at both UCLA and the University of Illinois. She has twin 13-year-old daughters and two extremely active kittens.

Categories: Blog Topics, Intellectual Freedom

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