Libraries: don’t throttle kids’ consumption of books

OK, memories, I’ve experienced this.

I was probably in second or third grade, somewhere around there. The town library was across the street from the elementary school I attended, and rather than walking straight home, I’d often sidle into the library and devour books for an hour or three. Unfortunately, the library had this policy that weird little kids like me had our own specific section of the library, and we were not allowed in the adult section. But I’d already read all the biology books in the kids’ section, and most of them were descriptive and phenomenological picture books, and I wanted to know why, not more what. So I snuck into the adult section one day.

And a librarian caught me. She said I had to have an adults’ permission to be back there with the real science books.

That made me mad. I think eventually I got Mom or Dad to tell them I was allowed to read anything in the main library, and that allowed me to consume everything.

I’m pretty sure that the Kent Public Library changed their policy a few years later, because in high school I noticed that they allowed all kinds of short riff-raff to run free everywhere. Good for them.


  1. lexisaurus says

    I think the Kent Free Library did change that policy by the time I got there, but the Central School library still had a very restrictive policy. I spent lots of time over at the public library because I was sick of being told I couldn’t check out chapter books at school. The school library was so small you could only take out a couple books at a time anyway. It’s not like the content of the books for older kids was objectionable, though. They just had some superstition that kids would check out difficult books and then get permanently discouraged from reading. As if being confined to “Go Dog Go” wouldn’t drive you away from reading if you were a weird second grader like me reading at a high school level.

  2. ikanreed says

    I thought the comic was being hyperbolic, but your own story sounds equally nuts.

    Who ever thinks “kids shouldn’t read so much”? Much less educators of any kind.

  3. dianneleonard says

    In between kindergarten and first grade, my family moved to a new town. I loved the library because it was the only place that I could go that didn’t have steps. (I have an orthopedic disability and steps were (and are) huge barriers. I started with the kid’s library (which was quite large) and by the time I was 9-1/2 I’d read the whole kids’ library out, except for sports, which I had no interest in. Anyway, to use the adult library, you had to be 13 or an adult had to check out your books for you. My long-suffering dad did this for the next four years. My family could only go to the library once a week, on Saturday afternoons, so every week I would stagger out with a pile of books about half my height. The other rule was, “If you checked it out, you have to carry it (to the car, up to the house, and back.)”. My parents had seven kids and they had to put some rules on us. The car sagged noticeably when loaded with all of us and our books. In junior high school, I finally got to use the bus on my own and go to the library after school on my own–FREEDOM!! By ninth grade, I’d started making forays to the UC Berkeley libraries, because I’d read out the entire city libraries. My mom threatened to take away my bus privileges because once I’d stayed til the Cal libraries closed and I had to walk home (about 5 miles) and got home around 3 a.m. Going away to college was a revelation–the number of books at my UC campus library was over a million, and they had interlibrary loan, so you could get books from any other UC campus, just for the asking! In case you haven’t figured it out, I’ve loved libraries all my life. I consider them to be the best invention of civilization.

  4. says

    My mother once got a call from the local library. I can’t remember how old I was, perhaps twelve? The book in question was on pyrotechnics, and to their shock and surprise she was completely fine with it. After all it was just a book, not a box of chemicals.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    I remember that there were lots of books around the house that I picked up, read a few pages of, and then put back. I wasn’t ready for them yet. Then, eventually, I was ready, and I tackled them and made it through.

    How are you going to know how high you can fly if someone sticks a ceiling on top of you?

  6. says

    Gotta be careful of those kids learning stuff. Sure, starts out fine, but pretty soon they’ll be asking questions, and then where will we be?

  7. ardipithecus says

    Only the kid knows what is beyond the kid’s current abilities. Even then, if a work is too much, the kid will process the portions which are not too advanced and skip over those which are. Over time, the ‘too advanced’ portions will shrink, and the processable portions will expand. Let the kids decide.

  8. wzrd1 says

    My entire family are avid readers, we always have been.
    In seventh grade, I had tested at a two year college level vocabulary and averaged around a 95% comprehension and read at a speed that the librarian thought I was joking around. Right until I asked her to test me, the machine used could show a word at a time or a line at a time, set it for line and ran it full speed, 99% comprehension.
    My wife reads at a more human speed, but the kids aren’t slouches in quickly digesting various books.
    Even in elementary school, I’d gravitate toward text books well beyond my age, learning human anatomy by reading our family doctor’s medical texts.

    Never tell a child that they can’t understand a subject! That simply encourages mediocrity.

  9. vucodlak says

    I didn’t have access to a library as a kid. My school didn’t have one, and neither did my town.* The closest library was just across the river (8-10 miles on the roads, something like 5 miles as the crow flies), but that meant it was in another state, and kids from Illinois couldn’t check out books from a Missouri library. The closest in-state library was 20 miles away, in another county, and kids from my area couldn’t check out books there either.

    When I got to sixth grade, I learned that our elementary school did have a library of sorts- the sixth grade classroom walls were lined with books. No one was supposed to touch them. I read a few anyway, because my chair was right next to one of the walls o’ books, but I was always afraid I’d get caught. Our teacher was a tremendously terrible human being. Supposedly the library became open to the school after the sixth grade was combined with the junior/senior high (the year after I left), but I have my doubts.

    My junior high/high school had a proper library. We, the students, weren’t allowed to touch the books without explicit permission from the librarian, who was seldom in the library, and who never gave permission. Dire threats were made toward anyone who wandered too close to the bookshelves on the rare occasions we were even allowed into the room.

    As a result, I have something of a complex around libraries. When I finally got to university, I had free access to the (huge, to me at least) library just like all the other students. I almost never went, and every time I did I felt an overwhelming paranoia that someone was going to catch me and have me put in stocks, or something.

    Now I’ve live in the same town I went to uni in. The community can visit and check out books from the uni library, and there’s a separate public library too. I keep thinking I’ll go to the public library and get a card, but I haven’t been able to screw up my courage.

    *For a couple of months, a former elementary school teacher tried to get one started in my home town. It was just a couple of shelves in someone’s house, but it was better than nothing. Unfortunately, when she died the library died with her.

  10. says

    On a camping trip decades ago a friend saw a book on the back windowsill of my car and asked me if I enjoyed reading it. I don’t remember the book but I told the friend that I wasn’t reading it but my 9 year old daughter did and she liked it. My friend was blown away as she knew the book.

  11. Ragutis says

    Similarly, the public library was right across the street from North Palm Beach Elementary. I “missed the bus” quite a lot until my mother figured it out and we settled on a schedule. I’d burn through the Bobsey Twins, Hardy Boys and Tom Swift waiting for her to pick me up, then head upstairs to the “adult” section and bring home the interesting space and critter books that needed more attention. (Those Cousteau books with soooo many pictures). That’s where I first read “The Book of Three” and “The Hobbit“. Those books, their archive of National Geographics and seeing the Star Wars movies around the same time set me on the path to becoming the geek that I am. I should google and see if the library’s still there. I think I owe them a decent donation (on top of all the overdue fees they wrung out of my change jar).

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    I remember being very annoyed as a kid that my local library (in Leeds) had a lot of sc-fi books I couldn’t read until I turned 12. Why 12? Still have no idea.

  13. says

    I was allowed to take from the library whichever books I wanted.

    Instead my problem was that my native language is a small one with only about million native speakers. The number of books available in my native language is pretty small. I could get some bestsellers, but nobody published niche textbooks in Latvian. There simply wasn’t a large enough market for them, thus it’s not financially possible to publish books that are actually worth reading. Local libraries have an idiotic policy of only keeping books in Latvian. The number of available books in foreign languages is tiny.

    Thus I didn’t have access to that many books until I was 16, at which point I got access to the Internet and learned how to pirate textbooks in various foreign languages.

    Who ever thinks “kids shouldn’t read so much”?

    My mother. She routinely told me to stop reading so much and do other “more useful” activities like household chores, sports, etc. She also told me to stop drawing and think about more reasonable career options. Of course, I didn’t obey her. By now I’m a professional artist who reads a lot.

  14. colinday says

    What about black people who weren’t allowed in the white people section of the library? What are they supposed to do, steal FORTRAN books? Oh wait

  15. Artor says

    I’m fortunate for having older sisters. I read everything they brought home when I ran out of stuff for my own age. By junior high I was reading college-level history tomes for enjoyment.

  16. PaulBC says

    I completely agree with giving kids access to books potentially beyond their reading level (and especially the point that it’s no problem to consume just the parts of the book that you can).

    However, I do have one comment about growing up in a house filled with shelves of books that were beyond my reading level for years. Sometimes I looked at them, sometimes I didn’t. But they’re all “old” to me. It was hard (though not impossible) to get excited about a book if I’d been staring at the spine as long as I can remember. It created kind of a false sense of already knowing about it.

    This is more about my psychology than a general comment. I just wonder if anyone else had this experience of being reluctant to read books that just seemed too familiar from exposure.

  17. damien75 says

    I grew up in France and I never encountered anything like what happens in the comic strip.

    My parents literally let me practice reading in their “dirty” comic books as soon as I could read. By the age of 8 or 9, a friend and I were taking judo classes. I remember going with him into the adult section of the library and checking every book about martial arts. That is I guess the nerdy way of learning judo. Turns out nobody told us anything, nobody checked what we were doing. We could have picked any book.

    Apparently, the story in the strip is faithful to reality as it is in some places.

    My background does not allow me understand the woman in the comic strip (not that I always understand wy French people act the way they do). I do not understand if she is the child’s teacher or a librarian or anything else, but most importantly, I do not understand her “policy”. I kid you not, it does not make any sense to me, I think I miss a cultural item or two there. To me it’s like a doctor denying nutritious food to a kid.

    Is there anyone around here who can give me some “pointers”, some bits of information regarding what the motivations of that woman are ? She does not seem to be evil, I guess she thinks the is acting for the good of the child… (Am I wrong ?) So… What’s the deal, here ? Where is her “policy” coming from ? What in her worldview makes her act the way she acts ?

    Well, if anyone cares to enlighten me, I’d be grateful.

  18. brightmoon says

    They used to have a library card that needed to be swiped with a wand . I used to get teased broiler actually wore out my card which was plastic. I was a little lucky as a kid as my father bought encyclopedia brittanica when I was 5 . He bought the children’s set as well . I was first attracted to the pretty pictures: Birds butterflies and fish . Started reading soon afterwards. By the time I was 10 I was reading those Victorian classics ( I miss those old Whitman Classics) . Read Gullivers travels at age 10 also . It was the fight between the Big Endians and the Little Endians which made me see the pointlessness of most religious dogmas. The fight was over which end of an egg to open first. I grew up not with being restricted because of age but because I was female my parents put no restrictions on what I was reading as they were both readers and would buy books on sociology, religion, and history as well as popular fiction. The librarian gently discouraged girls from reading sci fi. Grrr I hated that ! Unfortunately my father was rather sexist so he didn’t see the problem when I complained.

  19. rrhain says

    I must say, I never experienced this, either in my school libraries nor in my public libraries. I could see some idea behind it in the sense that a child of a certain age might not be able to take care of an “adult” book even though they might be able to read and comprehend the book, and thus you might consider having the adult “co-sign” for the book to ensure it is handled properly, but it would never occur to me to tell someone who wanted to read something that they aren’t allowed to.

    That said, I’m sure all of us have read Harry Potter and are thus quite aware of the “restricted section” of the library at Hogwarts….

  20. PaulBC says


    Is there anyone around here who can give me some “pointers”, some bits of information regarding what the motivations of that woman are ?

    I think the goal is probably to avoid frustration in early readers, though I agree it is extremely misguided. There is a concept of “reading level” that everyone who has gone through US schools should find familiar. This wikipedia page may help to explain it (it is redirected from “reading level”).

    I can see the pedagogical purpose to preventing teachers from assigning work that is beyond students’ abilities. Even there, I don’t fully agree, but I am willing to trust education research up to a point. I don’t see why you couldn’t just say “This might be hard, but give it a try. No shame in missing some of it.” In practice, this isn’t how K-12 education usually works though, and maybe there’s a good reason for that.

    What I don’t see is the purpose of putting a wall in front of students motivated enough to find their own challenges. I believe there are people like the woman in the comic, but I’m as baffled as you are. They’d have to explain their reasoning themselves.

  21. Michael Sparks says

    She’s a busy body, I am certain France has those. If not, what made that country so lucky? She is a “caring” adult, concerned for the welfare of the child, who doesn’t understand that challenging the mind is a better means of education than pandering to artificial limitations. She isn’t evil, she is ignorant.

  22. damien75 says

    @PaulBC, #21

    Thank you for your answer.

    You write the goal is probably to avoid frustration in early readers. You may be right.

    According to me there is nor risk. What happens when you pick a book that you are not ready to read ? After five minutes, I put it back on the shelf, that’s all. When I was a child, I knew I was a child and I did not expect to be able to read any adult book. I wasn’t ashamed by that. My mother told me once that as a child she tried to read a poetry book of the kind only high schoolers and adults can appreciate. She concluded the adults were stupid to read such nonsense and I find that both funny and beautiful.

    You also write : “I can see the pedagogical purpose to preventing teachers from assigning work that is beyond students’ abilities.” Well, here, sadly, I can see the point of the policy. Some teachers are stupid and some of them, out of pride maybe, will put too much of a burden on their pupils shoulders. In a place where such teachers are frequent, the librarian’s policy might be perceived as necessary, and later on applied ham fistedly by unsophisticated people like that woman.

    “What I don’t see is the purpose of putting a wall in front of students motivated enough to find their own challenges” Neither do I. Apparently, nor does anyone here. Libraries are like a box of candy to me. Sure, once in a while, you find a candy you don’t like. Well, you spit it out and pick another one.

    “I believe there are people like the woman in the comic, but I’m as baffled as you are. They’d have to explain their reasoning themselves.” : none of them available around here, sadly.

    Thank you again for your kind answer.

    @Michael Sparks #27

    “She’s a busy body, I am certain France has those.” Make no mistake, we have those, however, depending on the society, they do not blossom in the same places. Check religious education institutions and charities to find them. It is unkind of me to say that… But, yeah, those are places where that special brand of ill weeds grows apace.

    You write “she is a “caring” adult”. I think I see what you mean. People who “want to do good”. Again, check charities.

  23. kimberlyherbert says

    I love Harris County Texas’s policy. I think it has been the same since I was a kid. I remember riding my bike at around 8 yo to check out books.

    My current branch is full of kids say 8 yo – 17 yo every school holiday. The middle schoolers up are volunteers. They help with programs and shelve books. They behave better than some of the adults.

    From their website:
    Children have the same rights as adults to be in the library. They must follow library rules of behavior. If they transgress any of the above rules, their parent or guardian may be called to intercede. If a child’s behavior necessitates them leaving the library, and this leaving could pose a risk to the child, the local law enforcement agency may be called as well as the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

    Suspected child abuse or neglect will be reported to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

    Members of the library staff will notify the appropriate law enforcement agency for children left after the closing hours.

  24. hemidactylus says

    There’s at least two issues at play here. In the OP it’s age vs appropriate places in the library for unattended (???) kids. In the comic it’s more about age appropriate book content.

    There are good reasons to frown on unattended children below a certain age given the adults that may be roaming for easy prey. And younger kids might start coloring in the science books with crayons. Adults merely use highlighters and pens. Toddler books are virtually indestructible (vomit proof).

    Content wise if a second grader wants to try their hand at Dostoevsky more power to them. Harry Potter might be a better, more realistic, challenge. I would ask if elementary school kids can decipher a book on particle physics, which isn’t saying whether they should be permitted to read it. They have this Lexile thing as a guideline:

    Dostoevsky shouldn’t be verboten by policy, but I sure as hell ain’t about to read that for fun myself. And I can’t imagine what it would be like for a second grade teacher grading that book report or literature assignment. And there might be policies about unattended children below a certain age being in the adult area.

  25. says

    Same here I had to get my father to borrow books for me from the adult section. Our school library was fairly decent but the librarian had a particular obsession. It was an all boys school and she felt that our teenage interest in matters of sex was unhealthy. All of the nudes in the art books were obliterated by library stamps and a collection of native New Guinea carved figure was emasculated with a chisel and wood filler much to the ire of the art department. We of course played on this by grabbing a book off the shelves and huddling around making various grunts and conspiratorial mumblings. She would storm over expecting to find us ogling some salacious artwork that had somehow escaped the censorious stamp only to find us perusing something like a Popular Mechanics article.

  26. John Morales says

    The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage.

    Probably not really appropriate for children, but what do I know? I have no children.

  27. hemidactylus says

    Again a separate issue from age appropriate book content, here’s a strongly worded policy on unattended minors, though policies may be less strict around the US.

    “ Children under the age of 8 must have a parent/caregiver in the immediate vicinity of (and in visual contact with) the child. The parent/caregiver must be at least 14 years old and must carry personal identification. Children can be left in the care of an older sibling if that sibling is at least 14 years old. A child can attend a Library program without a parent/caregiver in the room as long as the parent/caregiver remains in the Library and immediately joins the child at the end of the program.

    If a child under the age of 8 is found unattended, Library staff will attempt to locate the parent/caregiver in the Library and inform him/her of the Unattended Child policy. If the parent/caregiver cannot be found, Library staff will contact the Haverhill Police Department. If a child under the age of 8 violates the Library’s Code of Conduct, the child and the parent/caregiver will be informed of the policy. If inappropriate behavior continues, the child and parent/caregiver may be asked to leave the Library.

    Children ages 8 to 10 must have a parent/caregiver in the Library. Children who exhibit inappropriate behavior may be asked to leave the Library. If a child ages 8 to 10 is not able to leave the Library without an adult, he/she should not be in the Library alone.”

    And a related article:

    As for content common sense would be to better match kids to books within their comfort range I suppose. If a second grader wants to bring home a 500 page book on the American Revolution for an assignment due in a couple weeks that’s perhaps their call, but wouldn’t a several 50-120 page books geared to elementary level readers ensure a better chance of success? They could be a precocious speed-reader.

  28. magistramarla says

    I read way above my age level since day 1 of school for me. My Grandfather taught me to read and I was reading Black Beauty aloud to him when I started school at the age of six. I had read most of the English classics (Bronte, Dickens, Shakespeare, etc.) by the time I finished Jr. High. My husband was the same kind of early and avid reader.
    We lived in Oklahoma when our second daughter started kindergarten. For show and tell, she took one of her favorite books to school, and began reading it to her classmates. I received an angry call from her teacher, upset that any child would be reading so long before the school proclaimed that the child should be reading. I took my concerns all the way to the superintendent, who told me that “people from up north shouldn’t be pushing their kids so hard”.
    A few years later, we were living in Ohio, and we were packing our station wagon for a trip to Disney World. Our friend, her husband and my husband and I had all read the first book in The Clan of The Cave Bear series, a decidedly adult book. Our oldest daughter, 10 at the time, settled into the back seat with the book. We agreed that she could read it, with the agreement that she should discuss it with us each evening when we stopped for the night. She did so, and we all learned a lot from the discussions.
    That child is now a Neuroscience PHD, and her next younger sister is now a high level executive. We tried hard to instill a love of reading and education in all of our children. We think that is why we have five successful adult children.

  29. whheydt says

    From the other perspective… My wife and I permitted our kids to read any book in the house (we had–and still have–a lot of books). We did put a few specific one on high shelves, but that was meant as mild discouragement, not a denial of permission. One example of a book on a high shelf when they were small was “Gray’s Anatomy”.

  30. voidhawk says

    I always thought the reading level guides were guidelines, not restrictive rules. As in, there were shelves of books of a certain level so that if you wanted a book, you could go to that shelf and be pretty sure you could enjoy it without much difficulty.

    When it came to buying my own books, I liked to get the most amount of ‘book’ for my pocket money, so I deliberately sought out Peter F. Hamilton’s 1,000+ page doorstops full of descriptions like ‘enzyme-bonded concrete’

  31. rwgate says

    I had the same problem when I was six and got my first library card at the Carnegie library in West Seattle in 1952. They restricted young readers to the children’s section, which lasted about a week before my dad marched into the library with me in tow and demanded that I be given an unrestricted card and complete access to everything. Just like the cartoon, the librarian thought I wouldn’t be able to handle the reading, so my dad grabbed a book off the shelf and had me read several paragraphs from Samuel Eliot Morison. I got my brown library card. Reading was big in our family. My dad graduated from Purdue at age 19 with honors. He read to us from the time we were infants. Reading opens up the world.

  32. patricklinnen says

    My mother told me that for a time in my childhood, she and my dad thought that I might have some form of learning disability. So cognitive tests were part of my secondary school life. It wasn’t until one of my teachers assured them that I was reading books well above my grade level for me to have a learning disability that they set that notion aside.

  33. DanDare says

    Thanks for this. I thought it was just me being weird.
    When I was about 6 we had a reading system in school (1967) with colour graded reading tasks that were meant to stretch out over a year.
    I was entranced by the colours and wanted to get to the gold ones at the end.
    I read the whole set in a couple of weeks and my teacher started sending me to the library when the class was doing reading.
    My dad baught me Moby Dick then let me start choosing new books. I baught two history books first. One about Custers Last Stand and one about D-Day.
    I now have a library of some 400 books (after merging with my wifes library and winnowing out perhaps twice that many over time). A third is fiction, several dosen are technical, and the rest is science, philosophy, history and politics.
    My daughter grew up with these and the internet and entered geek heaven at uni with their library, especially the biology section