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Flathead County Library Board trustees propose removing young adult designation

by TAYLOR INMAN
Daily Inter Lake | March 8, 2024 12:00 AM

Several Flathead County Library trustees want to remove the young adult fiction designation owing to the genre’s wide age range that they argue fails to give parents enough guidance on whether a book is appropriate for their child.

Librarians are already engaged in an audit process of the system’s young adult novels, which are largely housed in the teen section of the library. Director Teri Dugan said that none of the young adult novels in the book stacks fall under the recently added obscenity language in the library’s collections development policy, so she will be seeking clarification and guidance from the Board of Trustees at its March meeting.

Young adult literature typically focuses on a young protagonist but varies in subject matter. According to a report from PBS Digital Studios on young adult fiction, the genre’s meaning has varied wildly over the years, encompassing everything from coming-of-age-stories to serialized adventures series. The designation includes several of the most popular book series of the last 20 years, such as “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight.”  

Board Chair David Ingram introduced the idea of doing away with the young adult fiction designation at the board’s Feb. 22 meeting. He said the discussion around the “redivision of the [young adult] section” came at his and other trustee’s request.  

Ingram described young adult fiction as for readers ages 12 to 25, which he added “appears to be an arbitrary classification by the publishers that does not provide guidance to the librarians making selections within this category.” 

The Young Adult Library Services Association and many other sources list the intended age range of the genre as 12 to 18.

Ingram said he believes the division of material for an age group that spans 12 to 25 is not realistic. He spoke with Montana State Library Lead Consulting and Learning Librarian Tracy Cook for guidance and said he learned that other libraries have separate sections for tweens and teens, followed by an adult section. 

“I am less concerned about the shelvings of the materials and various renditions of the adult section, than to provide a guide post for parents designed to participate in what their child is exposed to and when,” Ingram said. “This move will not infringe on a younger reader to pursue more mature topics, but will alert parents that the adult section will house content that may not be age appropriate for a minor.”

Trustee Heidi Roedel asked Ingram for clarification during the meeting, given that the board updated their collection development policy in January to include that librarians should avoid housing in areas designated for minors materials that contain sexual content considered obscene as defined by Montana Code. Roedel said she thought the policy shift allowed librarians to move books to other sections as they see fit. 

Ingram said he was confused by the young adult designation and that the easiest demarcation in his view would be to designate all materials as either “for minors or for adults.” Ingram turned the proposal into a motion, adding that it can include further division of materials by staff as they see fit.

He had the support of Vice Chair Carmen Cuthbertson, who called young adult fiction “a designation that libraries didn’t come up with, but a sales tool from the publishing industry.” 

The young adult fiction designation can be traced back to librarians at the New York Public Library, who coined the term in 1944. It followed decades of work by librarians there who wanted to keep adolescents interested in reading. An earlier iteration, the “NYPL Books for Young People” list, was sent to libraries across the country in 1929, according to PBS Digital Studios.  

Cutbertson, though, characterized young adult fiction as a sales tool and agreed with Ingram that it is confusing for parents who want to guide their children toward age-appropriate materials. Still, she said if a parent feels their child is ready for more mature topics, they have the right to let them do so. 

She said she felt like young adult books vary in subject matter too much for parents to know for sure. 

“I think we're giving our librarians great guidelines, and we're going to make it clear to the public what is shelved where in the library. I think this is a good idea and I think the [young adult] section will just cause trouble,” Cuthbertson said. 

She added that there won’t be any punishment for librarians if a book challenge comes from the young adult section, that they “don't have to get it right the first time with every single book that comes in designated this way.” 

Dugan said their current audit is utilizing tools given to them by Cook at the Montana State Library. She said they are looking at the age of a book's intended audience before deciding if it should be moved to the adult section.

“So, we are being proactive and looking at seeing what's in that [young adult] collection,” Dugan said.

Trustee Jane Wheeler viewed the action as redundant. She said the board already gave guidance through its updated collections development policy, and that it is hard to imagine how librarians would have the time to sort through the books, particularly when it comes to ordering new young adult books, which are labeled as such when they come from the publisher. 

She asked for more information from the library’s staff about implementation before proceeding with a vote.

“They don't read every single one of those books. Then they have to determine whether or not they're going to have to take the [young adult] label off a book and determine if it's appropriate for an 18-year-old or someone younger,” Wheeler said. “That's a huge issue for the staff. I'm having a hard time imagining how they can put that together.”

She referenced conversations with Starr White, the county’s teen librarian, who told trustees that it’s not a matter of age, but maturity level when it comes to reading. 

After a lengthy discussion, Ingram withdrew his motion and asked Dugan if she could do more research on the matter and seek additional guidance from the Montana State Library.

Dugan said the library has about 2,000 volumes in total designated as young adult. While the board had one supporter for the issue, public commenter Russell Sias, other community members are anticipating speaking out against the proposal at a future meeting. 

Valeri McGarvey is one of them. She said she believes that some trustees are convinced there are obscene books in the library for kids, an idea she’s refuted at previous meetings. 

“[Young adult] is not unmanageable. It's not just a publishing house designation, it's been around for 40 years (at Flathead County Libraries) and it's a tool for librarians, for authors and for parents. And there's absolutely no reason to up that entire section and add countless hours of meaningless work,” McGarvey said. 

The next Flathead County Library Board of Trustees meeting is scheduled for March 28 at 9 a.m. in the South Campus Conference room in Kalispell. 

Reporter Taylor Inman can be reached at 406-758-4433 or by emailing tinman@dailyinterlake.com.