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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Intellectual Freedom and the Leveling of Beginning Readers: When Library Values Clash



Today's guest contributor, Danielle Jones, is a youth and teen public librarian in Portland, OR. Find her on Twitter @DanielleBookery. 

The Geisel Award raises awareness of the importance of quality beginning reader books, and we as librarians and teachers want to connect these quality books with the young readers we are serving. Beginning readers can be one of the most sensitive areas of service as each emerging reader is at their particular reading level and we want to get them a book that will be successful for them, continue to build their reading skills, and curate a love of reading. Many things are at play in how we facilitate that, we need to create accessibility to books and we need to make it a user experience that enables searchability and discovery.

One of the hardest things for libraries is when two values of library service come into conflict. We are champions for intellectual freedom and we are dedicated to accessibility and the user experience. We want to match emerging readers to books close to their reading ability so that it will build their reading confidence. This can be a challenge when trying to wade through all the different publisher designated reading levels that are often in conflict with other publishers’ leveling systems. This is confusing to patrons and to the staff trying to serve them.
Image by Danielle Jones

So what do we do? Do we try to come up with our own leveling system? Do we market books by labeling books or displaying them in their own reading level section? It would make it so easy when a parent or caregiver came into our library and wanted “level two” books for their child. What would the drawbacks be?

ALA’s Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights: Labeling and Rating Systems warns against labeling systems as, “Labeling and rating systems present distinct challenges to intellectual freedom principles.” The American Association of School Libraries’ (AASL) also has a strong position against the labeling of reading levels as librarians’ “should resist labeling and advocate for development of district policies regarding leveled reading programs that rely on library staff compliance with library book labeling and non-standard shelving requirements.” They point out that labeling a book with a reading level allows scrutiny from peers and threatens confidentiality about a student’s reading ability.

So how do we increase the usability of our collections while not falling into labeling systems that might marginalize a child’s intellectual freedom and privacy?

Parent and Caregiver Education
  • Share resources, such as the Five Finger Test, with them to help them pick appropriate books.
  • Compare books to show them what the different stages of reading levels can look like on the inside. This promotes the importance of opening books up to get a true sense of the reading level and if it matches their reader.
Support Staff
  • Educate staff that serve emerging readers on the variety of levels
  • Provide staff with tools for addressing the questions of parents and caregivers. 
For example, if a parent, caregiver or educator is disgruntled by a lack of leveling it may be useful to gently remind them of these factors:


  • Children need a space to build confidence, and with that they need to feel safe from scrutiny of their peers.
  • Children build their skills at different paces.
  • Children will want to read more, and will work harder, if it is something that is of interest to them.
  • Allow children to read a beloved series, whether or not it is challenging to them as a reader. Encourage them to read new things - but as an addition to rather than a replacement for a favorite.

The Geisel Award’s mission is to honor books that motivate children to read, make learning new words a positive experience, and create "a successful reading experience, from start to finish.” It is the job of the library to make successful reads as accessible as possible while still valuing an emerging reader’s intellectual freedom. 

How does your library balance accessibility with intellectual freedom when shelving books for beginning readers? 

In addition to Patrick's post on hosting a mock Geisel, we have a profile of several successful mock programs up at School Library Journal. With so many great tips, how could you NOT host a mock Geisel this year? 

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