Librarians, Youth Reading and Intellectual Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Views

Concern about children’s and teens’ reading has been with us for hundreds of years. Mobilizing concerns about youth reading in order to spur activists and citizens to action has a long and complex history in the United States. Much lip service has been paid to the freedom to read as an essential component of democracy, but when the readers in question are minors it has tended to raise the country’s protective hackles.

The profession of youth services librarianship was forged amidst what amounted to a national obsession with regulating youth reading during the Progressive Era (1890-1920). Dime novels and other cheaply available, sensational print materials were feared to be detrimental not just to young readers themselves, but to society as a whole. Amidst much hang-wringing and public outcry over dangerous reading, librarians built a professional specialty guiding young readers and found a comfortable niche.

Certainly, reformers and librarians alike were concerned with steering youth away from harmful reading and toward more edifying fare. But early youth services librarians went further–they succeeded in fashioning a professional identity around vetting and promoting books with child appeal and literary value, as well as good morals. Cooperating and collaborating with their counterparts in publishing and literary circles, early youth librarians quite purposefully and self-consciously helped to create an American canon of children’s literature, a canon bolstered by review journals, recommended reading lists, and book awards.

Not everyone accepted librarians’ literary judgments, nor even granted that they had the right to exercise them; indeed, book awards provide a perennial bone of contention for both critics of librarianship and competing professions, like education. Nevertheless, promoting youth literature of high literary quality and defining the terms of that quality have been (and continue to be) central to youth librarians’ professional identity.

However, shifts in the field, most notably in librarianship’s commitment to a diversity and variety of media and materials and its stance on youth intellectual freedom rights, have complicated and sometimes conflicted with these canon-forming activities. As youth librarianship embraced a more explicitly populist ethic of service, emphasizing access, diversity, and choice, it has distanced itself from the protectionist stance and vocal commitment to quality that characterized its professional infancy. Awards and recommended reading lists remain, but they now include more controversial subject matter (such as GLBTQ+ themed novels and stories), once-marginal materials (like series fiction and graphic novels), and popular media. Though individual practitioners may harbor doubts about the quality of the materials they are making available to youth, the official discourse of the profession emphasizes ethics of service, diversity, and freedom over elite notions of literary quality. However, librarians continue to participate in canon-forming activities, and to stake out their professional jurisdiction as youth literature experts. Such tensions are not unique to professions who serve youth, but it is important to recognize them as influences on our professional philosophy and practice.

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: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Intellectual Freedom

2 replies

  1. Good work, Loretta. I’m currently working on a history of American public school librarianship, whose portrait has haloes and warts. Among the latter is a deafening silence about segregated schools in AALS in the 1950s and 1960s, same time as AASL passed a School Library Bill of Rights.

  2. You are right, the current attention to access, diversity, and choice has given youth librarians the opportunity to offer children books that stimulate empathy, love of reading and social awareness. Thank you for reminding us about all the many different resources available now.

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