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

Kendra Fortmeyer is an award-winning author, a teacher at Skybridge Academy, and a graduate student in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. She blogs about her adventures in school librarianship at The Skybrary and graciously shared with Alt Ed Austin this fascinating post about how she handles one of the stickiest aspects of her job.

In the summer of 2015, I developed a school library for Skybridge Academy, the small, progressive private school where I’d been teaching English for the last two years. I was (and am) enrolled in a graduate program in library science, the school administration was passionate and supportive, and I used to reorganize my books for fun when I was eight—a perfect fit, right? Though I knew, intellectually, that it would be a mighty endeavor, some part of me was dimly certain that it would be a summer of dancing through the school Maria Von Trapp style and depositing books into the hands of shining-faced students.

Well, let me tell you.

What followed was a summer of less (though certainly a bit of) singing and dancing, and more buckling down and facing question after question I never could have anticipated. I walked away three months and one library later with an immensely deepened respect for librarians. The business of getting books into people’s hands—especially young people’s hands—is one riddled with challenges. Perhaps the most basic of these is: What do we give them to read?

 In the alternative education field, all of us understand the tightrope walk that is navigating the dual identity of responsible educator and champion of intellectual freedom. When do you give your students hard-hitting material? How do you decide they’re ready? This was a unique challenge for me at Skybridge Academy, a combined junior high and high school that serves students in grades 6–12. This population 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.

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 could we 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 that is appropriate for them developmentally.
  2. Shelve all materials together, but label “mature” content (i.e., content that you’ve identified in a written policy as not appropriate) with stickers or other signifiers. 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 these options sounds great. The first two put an awful lot of trust in 11-year-olds to not hang out in the library at lunch and giggle over naughty bits of lit; 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 kind of 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 abstraction and philosophy and took a more radical, direct approach: we talked directly to the students. Enter Oleanna, Rose and Tav [names changed to protect the children], three of our high school girls and most vocal readers (and, as a result of this discussion, the newly minted Student Library Council). 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 to the material. It also protects this material from being challenged (librarian-speak for “attempted censorship or banning”) by the parents of younger students who don’t want their children reading that material.
  • 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 co-directors 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, thus decreasing the self-consciousness of those who may want to borrow the material.
 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 student council members also suggested that some books with sexual content may remain in the main collection if sex is discussed abstractly, or if the writer employs the “fade to black” narrative lapse that eclipses the actual sex scene (such as in Twilight or Divergent, where sex 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. Additionally, books that take a casual, more adult attitude toward sex (as opposed to treating sex with the great importance that many “first time” high school narratives do) are questionably not appropriate for the library and will be handled on a case-by-case basis. (Fifty Shades of Grey and Lolita? No way.) And again, this isn’t preventing the students from obtaining those books—they can easily do so at a public library. However, as an adult responsible for their education, I don’t feel that I can so actively endorse their consumption of these materials as to put the books in their hands myself.

Both the director and I came away exceedingly impressed with the intelligence, eloquence, and depth of consideration of these young women. Their solution was mature and responsible and, most importantly, spoke deeply to the needs that they felt as teen readers and learners. Sometimes, when puzzling over how best to serve your students, it’s powerful and formative to set down the books on education and librarianship, break out of your own brain-box, and talk to those students. They’re just as invested in their learning community as you are, if not more! And in libraries, valued, invested readers will become your greatest advocates: they will do more to build a community than you and your books could ever do alone.

Kendra Fortmeyer