Librarians employ objective professional judgment through selection, cataloging, classification, and readers' services to make available the information that library patrons want or need. Cataloging decisions, labels, or ratings applied in an attempt to restrict or discourage access to materials or to suggest moral or doctrinal endorsement is a violation of the First Amendment and Library Bill of Rights.
1. What is the difference between a viewpoint-neutral directional aid and a prejudicial label?
A viewpoint-neutral directional aid is a label that gives information while not persuading a patron to a particular point of view. An example of a viewpoint-neutral directional aid could be a genre label, such as romance, historical fiction, and mystery. A prejudicial label would be a label that tries to persuade or establish an institutional preference for something. An example of this would be a genre label of Christian fiction with a cross as the symbol, which would indicate a preference of Christianity over other religions.
2. What are examples for determining whether a genre label is a viewpoint-neutral directional aid or a prejudicial label?
Fiction genre labels, such as romance, mystery, and science fiction, are used by many libraries as viewpoint-neutral direction aids. While there may be some differences of opinion about which titles fit within specific genres, choosing a genre is viewpoint-neutral and does not suggest moral or doctrinal endorsement. On the other hand, some public libraries label Christian fiction with a cross as a symbol. This practice, especially when other religious fiction is not designated, communicates a message of preference for Christianity, which is a violation of the separation of church and state and is prohibited by the establishment clause of First Amendment as well as the Library Bill of Rights. People of all persuasions and traditions have sincere, heartfelt concerns when a government agency, like a public library, addresses religious issues. The practice of labeling Christian fiction with a cross is fundamentally different from a label bearing a "Mystery" or "Western" sticker. In recognition of this practice, some libraries seek to avoid entanglement with religion by using a label to identify materials as “inspirational fiction” that may or may not have religious-based content. As long as both the selection of materials to be labeled and the label used is viewpoint-neutral and inclusive, this practice would not violate the Library Bill of Rights.
Enhanced Content in Catalogs
3. Does the practice of bundling bibliographic records with databases and other electronic informational resources, including book reviews, book covers, and other evaluative materials, violate the Library Bill of Rights?
Some vendors provide bibliographic records enhanced with databases and other electronic informational resources, including book reviews and other evaluative materials. The Library Bill of Rights interpretations on labeling and rating should not be construed to preclude the provision of resources and information useful to patrons as they make their choices from the library's catalog as long as the criteria for inclusion is viewpoint-neutral.
Libraries should seek the broadest spectrum of informational and evaluative materials as possible. Furthermore, the library profession should advocate for the inclusion of diverse viewpoints in the products that vendors develop for libraries.
4. Is it appropriate to add movie, game, or music ratings to the bibliographic record?
No, because these rating systems are devised by private groups using subjective and changing criteria to advise people of suitability or content of materials. It is the library's responsibility to prevent the imposition or endorsement of private rating systems. Including such ratings in the bibliographic record, library records, and other library-authored finding aids would predispose people's attitudes toward the material and thus violate the Library Bill of Rights.
Rating Systems and the Library
5. What if a group develops a rating system? What would ALA advise?
Any private group's rating system, regardless of political, doctrinal, or social viewpoint, is subjective and meant to predispose the public's attitude. The use by libraries, therefore, would violate the Library Bill of Rights. Libraries should remain viewpoint-neutral, providing information that patrons seek about any rating system equitably, regardless of the group's viewpoint.
6. What if a library board is asked to use movie, video game, music, or other ratings to restrict access?
A variety of private organizations — including the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Canadian Motion Picture Distributors Association (MPA Canada), PSV ratings Standards Board (PSV), Parents Television Council (PTC), Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board, and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) — have developed rating systems as a means of advising parents concerning their opinions of the contents and suitability or appropriate age for use of certain books, films, recordings, television programs, websites, or other materials.
None of these organizations are government agencies and as such their rating systems cannot be mandated or enforced by any government or agency, including a publicly funded library. This applies with equal force to library policies and procedures that effectively deny minors equal and equitable access to library resources and services available to other users. A library can, however, make information concerning these rating systems available to library patrons.
For more information on this topic, see Deborah Caldwell-Stone’s "Movie Ratings are Private, Not Public Policy" from the Illinois Library Association Reporter (2004).
7. Is it prejudicial to describe violent and sexual content? For example, would including "contains mild violence" on bibliographic record of a graphic novel violate the Library Bill of Rights?
Yes, in any community, there will be a range of attitudes as to what is deemed offensive and contrary to moral values. Potential issues could be sexually explicit content, violence, and/or language. Including notes in the bibliographic record regarding what may be objectionable content assumes all members of the community hold the same values. No one person should take responsibility for judging what is offensive. Such voluntary labeling in bibliographic records and catalogs violates the Library Bill of Rights.
Age, Grade, Reading Level, and Computerized Reading Programs
8. Is it acceptable to restrict certain sections of the collection based on the patron's age or grade level?
Restricting access to library materials based on age or grade level does not respect the individual needs, interests, and abilities of patrons and violates the Library Bill of Rights.
9. I would like to label sections of the library using Lexile or reading level designations, such as those supplied by Accelerated Reader. Is this acceptable?
Library users that utilize reading-level designations are most often in the K-8 grade level band. While knowing the reading level of a book can assist library users, organizing a library via these labels can impose a psychological barrier for patrons who do not know their reading level. Many will feel that they should not utilize those resources.
Library users who do know their reading level may feel compelled to select only resources at their reading level. This will result in patrons not utilizing the full scope of the library collection.
Labeling books with Lexiles or reading levels is also an issue of patron privacy. If a patron is a reluctant or struggling reader, they may avoid selecting resources based on a fear of being embarrassed by their peers. This results in turning struggling readers into non-readers.
10. All students in my school are required to participate in an electronic reading program that monitors progress. Parents and teachers want library books organized by reading level so that students can easily access and be limited to books that meet their individual needs. Is this acceptable?
No, the chronological age or grade level of students are not representative of their information needs or total reading abilities. If collections are organized by age or grade, some patrons will feel inhibited from selecting resources from sections that do not correspond to their exact characteristics. If the library limits users from checking out resources from sections other than those that match the users’ characteristics, the library will most likely not serve the needs of all users.
Some parents and teachers may find reading levels helpful in guiding developing young readers. Most computerized reading programs list books by grade or reading levels on their websites and parents and teachers may consult these if they wish to seek such information.
11. My library patrons participate in a leveled reading program, such as Accelerated Reader, and we feel pressured to purchase books that are on the reading lists. What do I do?
Using levels for recreational reading prevents students from borrowing books that interest them. While lists from programs like Accelerated Reader may be helpful in selecting books for a classroom or school literacy program, it is important to remember that emotional and maturity levels do not necessarily correlate with reading level. A library or school district should have a selection policy that specifically outlines how materials are selected, which may include specific review journals and other professional collection tools. Librarians should advise teachers and administrators that their responsibility is to follow the selection policy of the institution and quality selection practices. This practice may mean that some books on these lists that are recommended for high-achieving young readers may not be recommended to those readers because of the maturity level of the content presented.
For more information, see “Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, & Academic Libraries.”
Recommended Book Lists
12. A local school has a required summer reading list. Our library pulls them from the general collection and places them together. Is that considered viewpoint-neutral?
Yes, assembling materials that will be in high demand for a limited period of time help library patrons find them. Such selections should be accessible to all patrons and not limited to the target audience.
Labeling Based on Ethnic or Language Group
13. We have a large population of a specific ethnic or language group in our service area. We would like to create a section of the library and a collection to recognize that. Is that acceptable and how may we go about it?
When there is a large population of a specific ethnic or language group in an area, it often creates a large demand for items relevant to their experience in the library. To meet that demand and make it simpler for the patrons to locate those resources, libraries sometimes choose to create a special collection and/or area devoted to those resources. As long as these collections represent diverse points of view within the parameters of the collection and are designed to help patrons find resources relevant to their experience and not to restrict them to a certain section of the library, this practice would be acceptable.
Where can I find more information?
Approved by the Intellectual Freedom Committee on April 6, 2006; updated January 16, 2010; and June 24, 2019.
- “Rating Systems: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” adopted on June 30, 2015, by ALA Council.
- “Labeling Systems: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” adopted on June 30, 2015, by ALA Council.