Monday, August 20, 2012

Content Labels in Libraries

"Is it prejudicial to describe violent and sexual content? For example, would including 'contains mild violence' on [the] 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. For some the issue is sexually explicit content, for others the concern is with violence, for still others it is 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."

Questions and Answers on Labeling and Rating Systems (ALA 2010)
Did you notice the gap between what was asked and what was given as an answer? Mild violence is not "mild offense" or "mild immorality." It's a matter of description whether a work has low violence, moderate violence, or extreme and pervasive violence. The precise boundaries between categories may be culturally defined, but it's not moralistic to say a work contains some amount of violence.

Now I understand that the American Library Association wants to avoid labels which amount to "Un-American" or "Not for young readers" or "Immoral themes." The answer above would be a perfectly apt response to the use of such labels.

Content Labels as Directional Aids
"Labels on library materials may be viewpoint-neutral directional aids designed to save the time of users, or they may be attempts to prejudice or discourage users or restrict their access to materials."

Labeling and Rating Systems: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (ALA 2009)
The term "directional" here isn't strictly limited to call numbers. Genre labeling is given as an example of viewpoint-neutral directional aids (ALA 2010). One could argue that a "Fantasy" label prejudices some library users, but really these users are already prejudiced against the fantasy genre and the label is merely facilitating their choice to avoid fantasy books. It's saving them the time of reading until the first magic spell or dragon shows up. Since other users may be seeking out works of fantasy, genre labeling is an expedient for fans and anti-fans alike. Users who are indifferent towards fantasy can ignore the label and select material based on other factors.

"Contains mild violence" labels could work in much the same way. Users who don't really mind either way can ignore the label. Users who prefer not to read about violence will be spared the time of reading until a violent scene comes up. Users who like violence will have an easier time finding such works.

So if a content label isn't an attempt to prejudice or discourage users (any more so than a genre label), and the only restriction going on is a user's possible self-restriction based on her own preferences, I don't see a problem.

Content Labels Done Wrong...and Done Right
"Directional aids can have the effect of prejudicial labels when their implementation becomes proscriptive rather than descriptive.  When directional aids are used to forbid access or to suggest moral or doctrinal endorsement, the effect is the same as prejudicial labeling." (ALA 2010)
When Americans think of content labels, we tend to think of the MPAA film rating system, i.e: G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17. There's a lot to dislike about this system. For our purposes the biggest problem is that it's not actually a content rating system so much as an age rating system. The letters represent what some small group of people believes is appropriate or inappropriate for children. Access restrictions are built in as well.

ESRB ratings for video games suffer from the same fundamental flaw. On the other hand, ESRB's content descriptors are quite helpful for giving consumers information they can use to reach their own conclusions.

I'm tentatively in favor of including ESRB content descriptors but not age ratings in bibliographic records. For example, Prototype's record would include this line:
ESRB content descriptors: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language
but not this line:
ESRB rating. M for Mature 17+
It's simply not true that a game with these elements is going to be appropriate for everyone seventeen years and up, or inappropriate for everyone sixteen years and down. And even if it were, it's not the library's place to make a call that should be left to individual users or parents.

Why Label?

My main point in this post is that content labeling isn't necessarily prejudicial. In the larger discussion of whether to use content labels or not, "they're prejudicial!" is not a valid way to shut down conversation.

Suppose there aren't any other theoretical reasons to oppose content labeling. It would still be reasonable to ask, "Why bother? What positive reasons could motivate librarians to take on the additional workload of creating and maintaining content labels in bibliographic records?"
  • Like genre labels, content labels save the time of the reader when readers prefer to read about or not read about certain kinds of content.
  • Content labels fill an information need for parents who take on the "responsibility and the right [...] to guide their own children’s use of the library and its resources and services." (ALA 1999)
  • Labeling would allow librarians greater freedom to recommend materials without worrying about a user being surprised about undesired content.
I'm not sure whether, all things considered, content labels are worth adopting. Labeling is a complex topic which would require extensive discussion before making radical changes. But I do believe it's a discussion worth having.


American Library Association. (1999). Libraries: An American value. Retrieved from

American Library Association. (2009). Labeling and rating systems: An interpretation of the library bill of rights. Retrieved from

American Library Association. (2010). Questions and answers on labeling and rating systems. Retrieved from

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