Honor system allows library patrons to borrow sensitive-topic books

04/17/2019

If you’ve been browsing in the teen section of the library recently, you may have noticed an unusual sign: “STEAL THESE BOOKS…” it begins. But the Marin County Free Library system isn’t encouraging theft. It is trying to give patrons a chance to reads books about sensitive topics without fear, embarrassment or parental reprisal. Fairfax librarian John Elison first brought up the idea of an honor system collection in 2013, when he came to Marin from the Santa Cruz Public Library. “It took time to get people on board,” he said, but the Marin County Free Library’s new West Marin branch manager, Raemona Little-Taylor, has been “super supportive.” Books in the honor system are not barcoded and cannot be tracked, and the titles cover a variety of tough topics, including suicidal ideation, self-harm, emancipation, drug and alcohol abuse, grief, bullying sex, coming out as gay or transgender, and abortion. The program comes at a time when libraries around the country are instituting various programs—classes on financial literacy, late-fee amnesty programs, career counseling—to appeal to wider demographics and to ensure that libraries continue to serve as an information hub. Serious discussion about the Marin program began among the library’s teen committee last year, and the honor system went live early this year. Working with Clara McFadden, the library’s selector, Mr. Elison put together a list of titles that people can feel “freer to take home and read,” said Stinson Beach librarian Kerry Livingston. “These are books that [patrons] might be embarrassed about. They’re a little controversial—they might expose them to other people.” Titles at the Stinson Beach library include “Doing it: Talking About Sex” and “I Have an Alcoholic Parent. Now What?” Bigger libraries like Fairfax have 30 to 40 such books, though most of the West Marin branches have fewer than 10. Mr. Elison noted that the books were not solely intended for teens, though they do reside in the teen section. “If we had somebody suffering from drug addiction or self-harm or [who was] concerned about coming out, whether they are 13 or 30, that person would be able to [take a book],” he said. The honor system collection is “hugely important,” Mr. Elison added, because it protects the privacy of patrons. “When it comes to these extremely delicate and hard issues, we want to ensure that every teen and patron feels safe finding the information they need to make their way through,” he said. Teenagers are often “very concerned about appearance and what people think of them,” he said, and thus might be hesitant to approach a librarian to check out a book on a sensitive subject. Unsurprisingly, the program has received little feedback from its target demographic, but both Mr. Elison and Ms. Livingston said they have noticed titles slipping from the shelves, and parents and educators have commended the system. “It’s really okay if they don’t come back,” Ms. Livingston said, though she added, “it’s great if they do so another person can borrow them.”