Sex in the library (books)! How our students helped me develop a plan to handle mature content in their Skybrary

Now that you’re tapped into the librarian hivemind and know all of the great and ground-breaking titles, it’s time to buckle down and really consider your audience. This was a unique challenge for me at Skybridge: our school serves students from grades 6-12. This runs the gamut from smart but very (emotionally) young ten-year-olds to 18-year-olds with part-time jobs and coffee addictions. Obviously, books for one age group might not be of interest, or appropriate, for the other. This is what we call having a dual-audience library.

skybrary twilight shelf

What do public libraries do?

In a public library, all library content is available to all patrons.* It’s detailed in the American Library Association Bill of Rights—the librarian’s job is to allow everyone access to all information. A parent may tell his eight-year-old that he may not check out Sex Criminals. However, the librarian may not do so.

It’s different in a school library. For one, the parent isn’t present, and many schools have privacy policies so that parents may not even know what their child has taken out. Also, because the library collection has been selected especially for youth (as opposed to a public library, which caters to all ages), there’s an expectation that the materials in the library already are youth-appropriate. In making that collection development policy, the librarian is putting her implicit seal of approval on each book. There’s no expectation that she’s read every book, but her collection development should be so intentional that she could stand behind every single book in a challenge (and she certainly wouldn’t put Sex Criminals in her collection).

How can you properly serve users at all stages along this development spectrum? There are a few options:

  1. Shelve all materials for all ages together, and trust students to choose material appropriate for them developmentally.
  2. Shelve all materials together, but label “mature” content (i.e., content that you’ve identified as not appropriate in your collection development policy) with stickers or other signifiers and only allow older students to borrow these materials.
  3. Keep “mature” content in a secured closet or other locked area that older users may access with teacher permission.
  4. Do not keep mature content in the library at all; students may access such material at home or from a public library.

Frankly, none of them sound great. The first two put an awful lot of trust in eleven-year-olds to not hang out in the library at lunch and giggle over naughty bits; the third stigmatizes material that may be developmentally important for high schoolers (like “first time” sex narratives, or stories in which characters fight to recover from sexual abuse) in the manner of the XXX back room of a video store. And that fourth one—the so-called safe route? It cripples your collection by making it irrelevant to teens who may not be able to get that information elsewhere, thus gutting your own mission statement.

Not the vibe we're going for. (image credit:

Not the vibe we’re going for. (image credit:

To solve this dilemma, my director and I set aside documentation and philosophy and took a more radical, direct approach: we talked directly to the students.

Enter Oleanna, Rose and Tav,* three of our high school girls and most vocal readers (and, as a result of this discussion, the newly minted Student Library Council). *Names changed to PROTECT THE CHILDREN.

After about an hour, the council ultimately decided this:

  • The Skybrary will contain material suited for teens only, which can be borrowed only by high school students, as well as middle school students whose parents have given written permission.
    • This allows developmentally-appropriate students to have access, and protects this material from being challenged by the parents of younger students
  • The material will be kept on a shelf in the office marked “Mature Readers.”
    • The school’s office is a walk-through room directly outside of the library, and is almost always overseen by the codirectors or an administrator. This allows the administration to enforce the high-school only rule.
    • Additionally, because this is a high-traffic space, it is more difficult for kids to clump up and giggle over material, thus decreasing the self-consciousness of those who may want to borrow it.
Beautiful, Orpheus-inspired book for high schoolers; too much sex and teen drinking to endorse it for middle schoolers.

Beautiful, Orpheus-inspired book for high schoolers; too much sex and teen drinking to endorse it for middle schoolers.

The council also suggested that some books with sexual content can remain in the main collection if sex is discussed abstractly, or if the writer employs the “fade to black” narrative lapse during the actual sex scene (such as in Twilight or Divergent, where the sex act occurs in the timeline of the book but is not described for the reader). Books that discuss sex explicitly would only be appropriate for the mature readers section. Books that take a casual, more adult attitude toward sex (as opposed to treating sex with the great importance that many “first time” narratives do) are questionably appropriate for the library and will be handled on a case-by-case basis. (Fifty Shades of Grey and Lolita? Right out.)

Both the director and I came away exceedingly impressed with the intelligence, eloquence and depth of consideration of these young women. Sometimes, when puzzling over how to best serve your audience, it’s powerful and formative to break out of your own brain-box and talk to that audience.  Remember, they’re just as invested in your final product, if not more! And valued, invested users will become your greatest advocates, and do more to build a community than you and your books could ever do alone.

How have your students changed your library for the better? Share below!


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