How are library books selected? Many people want to change it There are efforts to change how decisions are made about which books libraries should stock and which section they belong in. Some advocate using a national rating system like the one used for movies.

In the battle over books, who gets to decide what's age-appropriate at libraries?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1214523941/1215512770" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A MART├ŹNEZ, HOST:

There's an ongoing debate in this country over what books belong in libraries, but who's making the final decisions on what stays and what goes? There are efforts around the country to change who decides what books are made available to kids in schools and public libraries. Proposals range from giving parents more control to requiring content ratings on books, you know, like a PG or R rating on movies. Here's NPR's Tovia Smith.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: As Carolyn Harrison sees it, the best way to convince people that the public library is stocking inappropriate books is to show them.

CAROLYN HARRISON: Those two books are in the library if you don't believe it.

HALLI STONE: It's very graphic, very detailed.

SMITH: Harrison and Halli Stone, with the group Parents Against Bad Books, wave down passersby in front of the public library in Idaho Falls, Idaho, showing them books with what they call obscene sexual encounters that are a surprise to many.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, the graphic pictures...

STONE: Oh, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Are taking away our children's innocence.

STONE: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They just don't care.

STONE: No, they don't.

SMITH: As things work now, the process of classifying books is somewhat inconsistent. Books usually get an initial designation from authors and publishers, then professional book reviewers weigh in with an age bracket that may be different, and then distributors and booksellers can, too. But ultimately, librarians make the call on what they buy and where they put it.

HARRISON: And I wanted to know if you'd like to sign the petition.

SMITH: Harrison has been gathering signatures and pushing legislation in Idaho that would let parents weigh in on those decisions, too.

HARRISON: They've told us here that, oh, no, you can't have parents involved. You must have experts choosing books for the children. That makes no sense. Parents are the primary stakeholders for children.

SMITH: For their part, local libraries say most the library staff are parents, they're just not on the same page as groups like Parents Against Bad Books, which has challenged 16 titles - all have failed. The group has also listed what they call 52 bad books, including George M. Johnson's memoir "All Boys Aren't Blue" that contains some explicit descriptions of sexual scenes. But as is the case with most challenged books, one person's trash is another's treasure.

ROBERT WRIGHT: I found it very enlightening.

SMITH: Idaho Falls Public Library director Robert Wright calls the book "All Boys Aren't Blue" critical to young people's development, especially those struggling with issues around sexual identity.

WRIGHT: To me, it was a story of a young boy who felt maybe different, but the story that came through to me was how much his family supported him and loved him regardless.

SMITH: Wright says that book is already in the adult section. And a new tiered library card system allows parents to limit their kids to only checking out children's books, for example. If parents want even stricter control, Wright says, that's on them. But those who say it's the library's job are trying another tact. A proposal in Washington state would require libraries to use a universal rating system, like the G PG, and R designations that are voluntarily used by the movie industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Excuse me, I have the floor.

SMITH: Things got testy as dozens of residents came out to testify for and against the idea at a recent Lewis County board of commissioners meeting. Chehalis resident Kyle Pratt read from the book "Let's Talk About It" that's kept in his library's teen section despite explicit content about sex acts and mature topics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KYLE PRATT: Page 165. (Reading) But there is nothing wrong with enjoying some porn. It's a fun, sugary treat.

That's just one book, and that wasn't the worst.

SMITH: Under the plan proposed by Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope, librarians would be required to rate books according to his criteria. G-rated books that are, quote, "lighthearted and non-controversial" would be available to anyone, for example. And books with, quote, "explicit" and sexual content would be restricted to adults only.

SEAN SWOPE: We're not asking for anything that's unreasonable. This is a tool that we can provide for parents to tell whether or not this is an appropriate book for your child. And, I mean, that innocence is - once it's gone, it's gone.

SMITH: Opponents argue Swope's categories are far too subjective. And they say ratings are already available nationally on multiple websites, ranging from one called BookLooks - that's a conservative perspective, launched by a member of Moms for Liberty - to a more middle-of-the-road approach like Common Sense Media. And while it's one thing for private groups to offer that - or as in the case of movie ratings, for the industry to do it itself - opponents say government can't.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LORI LAWSON: It is not the place of the government to legislate morality, it just isn't.

SMITH: Lewis County resident Lori Lawson says as a mother of nine, she understands wanting to protect kids. But as a 25-year military veteran, she also understands protecting the First Amendment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAWSON: I did not give up 25 years of my life for certain people to get to decide what other certain people get to do. That's not the way of it.

SMITH: Meantime, several other ways to change who decides what books should be in libraries have been enacted. In Florida, a new state law, for example, says when a book is challenged, a decision can now be appealed to a special magistrate, meaning a state political appointee can now overrule a local school district. And even without challenging a book, people can still get it effectively banned. That's because the same law says if someone reads aloud from a book at a school board meeting and is stopped by the chair because the book is too explicit, that book must automatically be removed from schools. In other words, if it's too racy for a public meeting, it's too racy for a school library.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN AMANCHUKWU: "Thirteen Reasons Why," by Jay Asher. Page 265.

SMITH: It's now become a way to effectively skirt the book challenge process. Pastor John Amanchukwu was one of many in Florida's Indian River County to read an explicit passage from a library book describing a sex act until the chair shut it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PEGGY JONES: Sir, I will stop you there.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL BANGING)

JONES: I just said I've stopped you from reading. It's going to be removed.

SMITH: Dozens of books have been removed from Florida schools that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVICE BEEPING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: There you go.

SMITH: There's another way people around the nation are effectively sidestepping long-standing library book selection policies.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Now, just stack the books right up.

HARRISON: Stack them all on there?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yep.

SMITH: As Carolyn Harrison and Halli Stone in Idaho Falls have figured out, they can just check out the books they object to, up to a dozen at a time.

HARRISON: We kept forgetting to take them back. Somehow we kept forgetting.

STONE: So many of them are simply not on the shelves right now.

HARRISON: So we're looking at this as a positive.

SMITH: Along the same lines, those seeking to restrict books are finding that simply keeping the pressure on is enough to make some libraries do the job for them and self-censor, opting to avoid buying or keeping any books that are likely to be challenged.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LADY WRAY SONG, "SMILING")

Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.