Thursday, October 8, 2009

Intellectual Freedom and a Literary Rating System

The International Federation of Libraries Associations and Institutions (IFLA) “declares that human beings have a fundamental right to access to expressions of knowledge, creative thought and intellectual activity, and to express their views publicly.”

As a reader and user of different media forms, I could not agree more with the statement above. People, regardless of race, gender, social-standing or religion, should be able to access and utilize these tools as well. But is there ever a time when it is appropriate to limit the access to said materials? Should the materials available to a 15 year-old be the same as those available to a 5 year-old? Are materials deemed appropriate for adult patrons the same as those in which a 6th grader can view? As a future parent and a sibling of young children, I do feel that there may be the need to limit minors’ contact with mature materials.

Every American is familiar with movie ratings. The ratings range from G, PG, PG-13, NC-17, and R (contrary to popular belief, there is not an X rating). The rating systems for movies was developed and is maintained by the Motion Picture Association of America, Also, anyone who has ever picked up a book aimed at younger readers should know that most books have a targeted reading level. However, this reading level is usually based on the technical difficulty of a book, such as the vocabulary and complexity of grammar used by the writer, not the subject matter of the material.

How will a parent to know which materials are acceptable for their children? Some children in elementary school have the ability to read at a high school level, but that does not necessarily imply that the subject matter is suitable for that reader. Just because a 12-year old can read Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club” (a novel containing explicit language, graphic images of sex and violence, as well as a pro-anarchy plot), doesn’t mean that they should read it. It can be very difficult to navigate children’s and young adult books when there is no clear definition of a book’s material level.

Some communities will ban a book or an author’s complete works if the material is deemed inappropriate. But could a rating system, which would make a book’s subject matter explicitly evident, and eliminate the need for banning books? Some parents claim that they didn’t realize their kids were reading. Had the book been labeled as “PG-13”, it would have been easy know, at a glance, if material is age appropriate. If books were rated the way movies are, conservative readers would have no excuse to ban literature and librarians would know whether to verify a patron’s age before lending mature materials.

In short, a rating system for literature and other materials could help eliminate the desire for over-zealouz book-banning, inappropraite materials falling into the wrong hands, as well as assisting parents in selecting appropriate books for their budding readers. As librarians, the last thing we want to do is turn people away from libraries, and a helpful (and accurate) rating sustem for books could really help develop committed and comfortable library patrons.

(2004, September 18). IFLA Statement of Libraries and Intellectual Freedom. Retrieved from

(2005). Motion Picture Association of America. Retrieved from


Tom Nowak said...

I agree that a literary rating system would be a handy shorthand for parents who want to keep an eye on what their kids are reading. But in practical terms, it would be very difficult. Film ratings are pretty much formulaic -- this word makes it PG-13, this level of gore makes it R, edit out a little bloodletting and it's PG-13. For a book rating system to be meaningful, it would have to be a lot more nuanced than that. Also, the MPAA says 610 movies were released in 2008. An industry report says almost 30,000 juvenile titles alone were published in 2006. There's no way those can be rated in any thoughtful way.

Also,a rating system is more likely to increase censorship and certainly will limit access to books for young people. Those prone to censorship are going to see the ratings not as advisory, but as limits that should be enforced. I can easily see people arguing that elementary school libraries should only have G and PG books, no NC-17 books in high school libraries, and generally restricting access by age as determined by the book's rating. It would be a simple, mindless, "objective" way to put books off limits to readers of a certain age.
And not just necessarily for kids -- using the example of movie ratings, many theaters refuse to show a movie rated NC-17, even though the ratings guide explicitly says the rating is not intended to be negative. There are people out there who would treat the most "adult" book classification the same way.

Trevor Zuidema said...

A book rating system could be cool because it would encourage reading in the same way "Parental Advisory" label on music drives kids to listen to those CDs. I can see kids and adults meeting in the alley behind the library to exchange books like adults buying beer for minors.

English 479 said...

Tom- I agree with everything you are saying, and have to admit, I hadn't considered the number of publications versus the number of movies released. But I have to say that a "Parental Advisory" sticker on a book, like Trevor mentioned, wouldn't be that hard to manage. I think that a rating system really would eliminate the need for censoring though, which is something I feel very strongly about. Art is art, and should be enjoyed by everyone, once age appropriate!

Steph said...

I get the idea behind the rating system, but my first thought is when I was a kid the first books I would head for would be those rated 'R,' and I was not really a trouble maker. So, while it may stop groups from wanting to censor books, which is good, I'm not entirely sure it would succeed in preventing children from reading material that the people in charge of this rating scale deem inappropriate.

Sarah said...

I agree with Tom completely. A also have to say I don't necessarily think kids shouldn't be reading mature books. It should be case by case for parents. I know this might not be popular but I think expanding minds is always a good thing and kids aren't little blank slate automatons but are capable of reading violence and sex if put in the right context. Is anybody really learning about sex and violence only when they turn 18? Oh my god, I didn't know this existed before!?! I myself had no restrictions on reading and was reading everything I could. In fact I find I missed out on a lot of children's books that some of my contemporaries wax nostalgic because they simply never interested me. If my kids wanted to read something a bit more racy I would hope that it would open a line of discussion between myself and them to help me create a well-read and responsible young person.

Tom Trupiano said...

In one sense, it's hard to argue against a rating system for books. After all, if it's OK for movies, music, and video games, why not books. That said, I think the same issues I have with those rating systems (Not all "R" movies are created equally. Why does female nudity draw an R rating while male nudity draws an NC-17? And why does the rating board feel nudity is so much more harmful than violence). My biggest concern, however, is that authors begin self-editing, self-censoring based on some relatively arbitrary rating system. Finally, I worry that the rating system ends up being another crutch we give to allow parents to detach themselves from what their kids are doing. Why bother checking to see if what your child is reading is appropriate if a committee somewhere in Washington can make that call for you?