Issues and Trends

State of America's Libraries 2017

Children’s and teen services

Whether it goes by the name of propaganda or “fake news,” disinformation is not new. The speed of the news cycle and access provided by social media have made identifying false and misleading statements more challenging. Libraries are ramping up efforts to make sure that children and teens are well equipped to evaluate the sources, content, and intended message of all types of media. Some libraries are collaborating with organizations like the National Association for Media Literacy Education and The Lamp, which focus specifically on this issue. In addition, several ALA units have hosted webinars and provided additional resources to support libraries in their efforts.

Libraries welcome diversity and provide a safe community space in uncertain times. They are displaying prominent signage stating that “Libraries are for everyone” and “You’re welcome here” to reassure all community members, especially the most vulnerable. Contributing their expertise, children’s librarians are creating positive, unifying resources for children and families. Some notable examples include a Storytime for Social Justice Kit; a booklist for a “hope and inspiration” storytime; a Talking to Kids about Racism and Justice resource list for parents, caregivers, and educators; and a curated media list on the topic of immigration. ALA’s Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) has established a living document, ALSC Supporting Libraries in the Post-Election Environment, comprised of resources like these, and has invited its members to add to the list. ALSC also created two new booklists after the November elections, “Unity. Kindness. Peace.” and “Working Together for Justice.”

In October 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced new recommendations for children’s media use, calling on parents to act as “media mentors” for their children. In addition, a study by the Pew Research Center , also released in the fall of 2016, indicates that 47% of US adults are either “reluctant” or “unprepared” in terms of digital readiness. Considering this disparity between responsibility and readiness, the role of youth services librarians as media mentors for parents and caregivers has become even more crucial and prevalent.

Librarians recognize that each child and each family is unique and thus make their digital media recommendations based on specific needs and circumstances. They model positive media behaviors, share relevant research, find the best materials, and give parents and caregivers resources to evaluate all forms of media for themselves. This behavior is nothing new for librarians, who have always recommended books and offered storytimes. Librarians have just expanded their focus and practice to consider new digital media formats in response to a rapidly evolving technological world.

Digital citizenship, another concept born out of today’s high-tech society, continues to be an area where youth services staff work with children and their families. Cyberbullying, digital footprints, and digital literacy are issues that affect young digital natives as well as their digital-immigrant parents. Libraries continue to step up programming to prepare all family members to become safe, responsible, and effective stewards of the online world.

Teen Outcomes:  Leadership: Proactive, Teen-driven; Learning: Connected, Social, Authentic; Community: Diverse, Supportive, Inclusive; Creativity: Innovative, Solutions-based; Digital Citizenship: Equitable, Ethical. Global; Literacies: Critical. Multi-modal, Active.
Source: Young Adult Library Services Associaton,

In December 2016, ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) adopted a new National Research Agenda on libraries, learning, and teens. The agenda identified five priority areas that reflect the current needs, trends, and landscape of teen services that are a top priority in transforming and improving the future of teen services. They are:

  • The impact of libraries as teen formal and informal learning environments
  • Library staff training, skills, and knowledge
  • Equity of access
  • Cultural competence, social justice, and equity
  • Community engagement

Learning environments continue to evolve to keep up with emerging technologies and trends in teaching and learning. A growing movement towards hands-on, experiential learning has led to the need for libraries to rethink how they use their spaces to support informal, connected learning. In response, libraries have moved toward designing spaces that are flexible and adaptable. Many have also created makerspaces to promote science and technology learning, while libraries with limited physical space have taken a creative problem-solving approach by hosting pop-up makerspaces, designing mobile maker carts, and providing maker backpacks for loan.

Because of the changing demographics of the US population and the evolving ways in which information is created, accessed, and used, library staff must gain new knowledge, skills, and behaviors. These include such areas as cultural competence, community engagement, and adolescent development. YALSA’s Future Ready Project, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and launched in May 2016, brings together library staff from small, rural, and tribal libraries to build their knowledge of middle school–aged teens, their unique needs, and how those impact college and career readiness. Resources created through the grant will be made widely available to all libraries as the project progresses over the next three years.

For years, libraries have been on the front lines of addressing the digital divide, but recently a related issue has emerged: the knowledge gap. Because many low-income families do not have access to the latest technologies or to experts who can help them use these digital tools, youth from low-income families are leaving school unprepared for living and working in the 21st century. Libraries can play a key role in providing equitable access to technology for all, as well as in safeguarding teens’ rights to privacy in an increasingly online environment.

Today’s teen generation is diverse and coming of age in a difficult political and social climate, so cultural competence, social justice, and equity are issues that loom large. Libraries are addressing them by striving to create equitable, bias-free learning opportunities and spaces. They are also taking a community-engagement approach to planning, delivering, and evaluating programs and services. By connecting with other community groups to identify and address pressing needs of local teens, libraries can affect significant and positive change, and ultimately increase their value in the community.

Libraries can learn more about how to take steps towards transforming their teen services in YALSA’s YALSA's case studies, as well as its new Reimagined Library Services for and with Teens Infographic.

Public programs

Whether creating a budget, talking about climate change, or just downloading apps on a smartphone, understanding basic concepts of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) makes us more informed citizens and better workers. Yet the United States continues to fall short on STEM education, particularly when it comes to underserved and rural communities.

As champions of lifelong learning, libraries in 2017 are offering a wide variety of programs to engage patrons of all ages in STEM learning. These in-person experiences spark curiosity, break down barriers between community members and science experts, and encourage skill-building that can apply to all aspects of patrons’ lives.

Children at the Salem (Oregon) Public Library interact with Thinking Money, a traveling exhibition.Children at the Salem (Oreg.) Public Library interact with Thinking Money, a traveling exhibition created by the ALA Public Programs Office in partnership with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Investor Education Foundation.

Science Cafés combine STEM education with libraries’ natural strength for fostering conversation. Created by the Nova television series, the format is straightforward enough: Bring people together with scientists in a casual setting, such as a coffeehouse or neighborhood bar, for engaging conversation. By keeping the conversation brief and lively and preventing any one person—including the scientist—from dominating the talk, Science Cafés encourage all attendees to participate, empowering them to learn.

Oceanside (N.Y.) Library hosts a monthly Science Café, tapping the expertise of faculty at local colleges and universities; topics have included “Can Long Island Survive Climate Change?” and “Dinosaurs: Beyond Jurassic Park.” Open-ended questions help participants explore new avenues of thought. “When we had a computer ethicist talking about internet privacy, I asked the room if they would be willing to give the government complete access to their emails, etc., in exchange for a higher degree of security,” said Tony Iovino, the library’s director of community services. “The conversation got enthusiastic to say the least!”

Money affects all Americans, but many of us lack the knowledge we need to make smart financial choices that will prepare us for whatever the future brings. Thinking Money, a traveling exhibition created by ALA’s Public Programs Office in partnership with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Investor Education Foundation, strives to teach tweens and teens, and their parents, caregivers, and educators about financial literacy topics—such as saving, spending, and avoiding fraud—in a way that is not only understandable, but fun. Through an adventure-themed storyline, interactive iPad content, and other activities, the exhibition explores themes like wants versus needs, preparing for a rainy or sunny day, and imagining your future self.

By 2018, the exhibition will travel to 50 US public libraries, where communities will benefit from a suite of related programming such as expert guest speakers, programs on saving for college, and much more. “Patrons who interacted with the exhibit or participated in a program definitely learned new things about money,” said Ann Scheppke, adult services librarian at the Salem (Oreg.) Public Library, which hosted Thinking Money in 2016. “However, the greatest value of the exhibit was to demonstrate that financial literacy topics don’t need to be boring or scary, and that information about finances can be gained without fear of being subjected to a high-pressure salesman.”

Fifth-grader Evan Sass asks NASA astronaut Jeff Williams a question via video chat at Gail Borden Public Library. The Elgin, Illinois, library was one of eight nationwide selected for the traveling exhibit, Discover Space: A Cosmic Journey.
Fifth-grader Evan Sass asks NASA astronaut Jeff Williams a question via video chat at Gail Borden Public Library. The Elgin, Illinois, library was one of eight nationwide selected for the traveling exhibit, Discover Space: A Cosmic Journey.

As a host of ALA’s Discover Space: A Cosmic Journey traveling exhibition, Gail Borden Public Library District in Elgin, Illinois, was eager to present out-of-this-world programming for local youth. So staff worked with NASA to host a once-in-a-lifetime experience: a live video chat with an astronaut aboard the International Space Station. Area school districts and homeschools brought in dozens of eager children, who asked the astronaut such questions as, “Do you ever see a shooting star fly past the space station?” (The answer: Yes, but they are below, not above, the spacecraft). The live video chats, broadcast online, garnered over 7,000 live viewers, inspiring future astronauts in Elgin and beyond.

Many people of all ages are fascinated by what lies beyond our planet, but opportunities to learn about space and planetary science can be rare in many parts of the country. In 2017, the ALA Public Programs Office announced NASA@ My Library, a STEM programming initiative offered in partnership with the National Center for Interactive Learning at the Space Science Institute, the Pacific Science Center, Cornerstones of Science, and the Education Development Center. The initiative will increase and enhance STEM learning opportunities for library patrons throughout the nation, including geographic areas and populations currently underserved in STEM education. Seventy-five US public libraries will be selected through a competitive application process to receive materials and training that will assist them in leading educational and fun STEM programming for all ages. The project will continue through December 2020.

Intellectual freedom

Book challenges. Out of 323 challenges reported to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), the “Top Ten Most Challenged Books in 2016” are:

1 | This One Summer
by Mariko Tamaki
illustrated by Jillian Tamaki

This young adult graphic novel, winner of both a Printz and a Caldecott Honor Award, was restricted, relocated, and banned because it includes LGBT characters, drug use, and profanity, and it was considered sexually explicit with mature themes.

2 | Drama
written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier

Parents, librarians, and administrators banned this Stonewall Honor Award–winning graphic novel for young adults because it includes LGBT characters, was deemed sexually explicit, and was considered to have an offensive political viewpoint.

Book cover: Drama

3 | George
by Alex Gino

Despite winning a Stonewall Award and a Lambda Literary Award, administrators removed this children’s novel because it includes a transgender child and the “sexuality was not appropriate at elementary levels.”

Book cover: George

4 | I Am Jazz
by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas

This children’s picture book memoir was challenged and removed because it portrays a transgender child and because of language, sex education, and offensive viewpoints.

Book cover: I am Jazz

5 | Two Boys Kissing
by David Levithan

Included on the National Book Award longlist and designated a Stonewall Honor Book, this young adult novel was challenged because its cover has an image of two boys kissing, and it was considered to include sexually explicit LGBT content.

Book cover: Two Boys Kissing

6 | Looking for Alaska
by John Green

This 2006 Printz Award winner is a young adult novel that was challenged and restricted for a sexually explicit scene that may lead a student to “sexual experimentation.”

Book cover: Looking for ALaska

7 | Big Hard Sex Criminals
by Matt Fraction
illustrated by Chip Zdarsky

Considered to be sexually explicit by library staff and administrators, this compilation of adult comic books by two prolific award-winning artists was banned and challenged.

Book cover: Big Hard Sex Criminals

8 | Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread
by Chuck Palahniuk

This collection of adult short stories, which received positive reviews from Newsweek and the New York Times, was challenged for profanity, sexual explicitness, and being “disgusting and all around offensive.”

Biik cover: Make Something Up: Stories You Can't Unread

9 | Little Bill Books series
by Bill Cosby
illustrated by Varnette P. Honeywood

This children’s book series was challenged because of criminal sexual allegations against the author.

Book cover: The Day I Saw My Father Cry

10 | Eleanor & Park
by Rainbow Rowell

One of seven New York Times Notable Children’s Books and a Printz Honor recipient, this young adult novel was challenged for offensive language.

Book cover: Eleanor and Park

“Challenged” books were formally requested to be removed or to have access to them restricted. “Banned” books were actually removed. Of the 10 most challenged titles in 2016, five were withdrawn from their institution’s collections or curricula last year.

In 2015, nine of the 10 most challenged titles were by or about diverse populations. In 2016, five of the 10 continued the trend, but “sexually explicit” seemed to be the overarching theme. Most of the challenges, as usual, continued to focus on youth, either the picture book audience (children’s books), or young adults. As in previous years, parents made up the largest single category of persons initiating the challenge (42%).

At the end of 2016, the OIF rolled out a new, simpler challenge reporting form, and provided a webinar on its use. This may have something to do with a 17% increase in reported challenges from 2015 to 2016—although previous research demonstrated that as many as 80%–90% of challenges go unreported.

Banned Books Week 2016 was a banner year. The Public Awareness Office tracked over 1,176 articles or mentions, as well as coverage by Time, The Guardian (UK), National Geographic, CNN, Quartz, Bloomberg News, Washington Post, Houston Public Radio, Atlanta Public Radio, Voice of America Radio, and the New York Times. OIF featured guest blogs by challenged authors (including Alex Gino, Kate Messner, and Phil Bildner), used Thunderclap to reach more than 1.6 million people online, and saw, for the first time, interest across the pond. According to Google Analytics, the Banned Books pages are the second most-visited area of the ALA website.

Report cover: PEN America, And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Freedom of Speech at U.S. UniversitiesIntellectual freedom and the academy. Amid growing concerns about “trigger warnings,” high-profile speaker cancellations, and campus protests, in October 2017 PEN America published a report, And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Freedom of Speech at U.S. Universities (PDF). Two findings from that report were:

  • While free speech is alive and well on campus, it is not free from threats, and must be vigilantly guarded if its continued strength is to be assured.
  • Generally speaking, there is declining support for intellectual freedom among college students, but rising support for social justice.

Challenges reported from public libraries, schools generally (curricular), and school libraries in 2013–2016 are summarized in this chart:
Source: Challenges in public libraries by year: 2013:101, 2014:121, 2015:123, 2016:95; Challenges in schools by year:  2013:182, 2014:106, 2015:66, 2016:65; Challenges in school libraries by year: 2013:55, 2014:34, 2015:52, 2016:45.ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, 2017.

Censorship in K–12 schools. In September 2016, School Library Journal published its Controversial Books Survey, updating its landmark 2008 “self-censorship” survey with input from the National Coalition Against Censorship. It was based on the responses of 574 US school librarians. Among the many findings:

  • More than nine in 10 school librarians serving elementary and middle school students have passed on purchasing a book because of potentially controversial topics. The number drops to 73% among high school librarians.
  • Sexual content and profanity/vulgar language were the most frequently cited offensive topics.
  • A third of elementary and middle school librarians and a quarter of high school librarians feel they need to make decisions about controversial subject matter more often now than they did even one or two years ago. Many think this is because books have become more graphic, while others blame the close-mindedness of society.

Poster: Library Bill of Rights

Representative challenges. Drama, by Raina Telgemeier, is second on the OIF’s most frequently challenged list. The alarming pattern is that all of the challenges occurred in schools, and in every case the title was in fact withdrawn. Only one of the cases is public; the rest of them requested confidentiality, and one indicated that despite the popularity of the author for her middle school library readers, she was now “afraid” to buy books from Telgemeier.

Virginia House Bill 516 required schools to identify materials as “sexually explicit” and notify parents if teachers planned to provide instructional material containing such content. The legislation also required teachers to provide alternative instructional materials if requested by a parent. HB 516 was passed by the Virginia Senate and House in March 2016, but was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe  on April 4. The governor stated that “Open communication between parents and teachers is important, and school systems have an obligation to provide age-appropriate material for students. However, this legislation lacks flexibility and would require the label of ‘sexually explicit’ to apply to an artistic work based on a single scene, without further context. Numerous educators, librarians, students, and others involved in the teaching process have expressed their concerns about the real-life consequences of this legislation’s requirements.”

Public libraries and public programming.The Darby (Mont.) Community Public Library held a controversial public program that, in the end, was unusually well received. As part of a series of talks highlighting people from various backgrounds and experiences, this rural community library brought in a language professor (University of Montana’s Samir Bitar) to discuss “Perspectives on Islam.” Library Director Wendy Campbell provided a successful framework for civic and civil discourse about the topic. Attendees, and follow-up press, were very positive. In January 2017,  Campbell was honored with the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award, which is given annually to acknowledge individuals or groups who have furthered the cause of intellectual freedom, particularly as it affects libraries, information centers, and the dissemination of ideas.

Resources. Those interested in intellectual freedom and privacy issues in US libraries can track ongoing news reports through the Intellectual Freedom News. The Journal of Intellectual Freedom and Privacy, an online journal (subscription $50 a year), provides scholarly articles, reports from the field, and public challenge reports.

A poster of the Library Bill of Rights  is available, as well as a free downloadable version that includes the Freedom to Read Statement.

Finally, a list of practical guidelines to protect patron privacy in various library settings is available.

 Infographics, video and talking points about the Top Ten Most Challenged Books are avaialble on the Top Ten Resources page.

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State of America's Libraries 2017