Dot writes: last week and next week are full of conferences for me, meaning that my head is furiously buzzing with ideas, some of which I’d love to discuss on the blog, but I am also in a big panic to finish papers (and finish organizing – I am running next week’s event) so if I have any time or energy I have to spend it working. However, it’s Sunday – a day of rest, right? So here’s a little report on a paper I went to on Wednesday. It was part of the annual SHARP conference (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing), which was held this last week at Trinity College and had the theme ‘The Battle for Books.’
Paper author: Lynne E.F. McKechnie, University of Western Ontario
Paper title: ‘ “I think kids should be able to read whatever they want and believe in whatever they feel like believing in” (Emily, 9 years): The battle for books between children and the library associations and organizations which serve them’
Provocative title, eh? I admit I went into this paper thinking, great topic, but there’s a problem here – yes we should be open with our children, foster their minds etc, but there’s some terrible stuff out there and it’s just an abrogation of one’s moral responsibility not to guide kids through and, in some cases, firmly away. (And the idea of ‘believing what you feel like believing in’ sets my teeth on edge – beliefs aren’t like flavours of icecream – but I have to cut Emily some slack: she’s only nine.) However, this was a very persuasive and lively presentation and some points really got me questioning my attitudes.
* The UN declaration on the rights of the child affirms the right of the child not just to freedom of expression but to freedom of access to information.
* The American Library Association (I think it’s them – I don’t have my notes by me) affirms both the right of the child to information and the right and responsibility of parents and only parents (i.e. not librarians) to determine what their children will have access to
* The Association for Library Service to Children, which is a subdivision of the ALA, naturally subscribes to the position of its parent organization but also issues publications with titles like “Kids – Know Your Rights!” Which is subtly subversive of them.
* McKechnie sees the position of the ALA as a bit of a cop-out (we’ll stock this stuff, and then you have to stop your kids reading it). Her big contribution is to talk to children themselves about the issues. What she found with a small focus group of children is that they accept that there are some books that are too old for them. However, they are also canny and pragmatic about getting round the rules when there’s something they want to read and adults want to stop them.
* Children’s perception of what is “inappropriate” aren’t necessarily the same as adults’. They don’t worry about or mention sexual content. They are more likely to think in terms of an inappropriate book being scary or violent. In the question session I mentioned the way our own little boys often seem to filter out a lot of what I see as disturbing in a story and asked if much research has been done on how children perceive narratives. Apparently there has – lots.
There are two main ways in which I’ve found myself questioning and wondering following this paper. First, perhaps the right attitude is not to censor at all. Anything in the library and anything in our own collection will be fine for our boys as soon as they can read them: the bits they aren’t ready for they’ll simply fail to register or spontaneously avoid. Do I buy this? I’m not sure. Imperfectly understood information can be worse than no information – look at the media. And it’s quite possible for a child to come across something they find upsetting and then not feel able to talk about it, even with parents who are open and approachable.
Second, does this libertarian approach extend to television? There was a comment in the question session from someone who researches video games, saying that there’s no evidence children become more violent as a result of playing violent games. However, I am bothered by Hugh (in particular) watching programmes with lots of fighting in and then filling his imaginative life and his play with explosions and bashing and death. I would like to control how much he watches of this kind of thing more than we currently do. But maybe all this really means is that I find this style of play distasteful: from Hugh’s point of view, is it just something he needs to think through and explore, without being any more violent than he naturally would be (as an impulsive four-year-old) in his interactions with other people?
I’d love to have your comments and thoughts, whether from the perspective of libraries and what they should provide to children or parents and how much they should censor and control what children are exposed to.