Youth and Privacy: ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom Tackles the Issue

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By Megan Schliesman, librarian and administrator at the Cooperative Children's Book Center & originally published for the Friends of the Cooperative Children's Book Center Newsletter (Number 1, 2011).

How do kids today define privacy?  What do they already know and what do they need to know in order to make informed choices about their own privacy when it comes to using the internet and social media? What about respecting the privacy of others?  What are the privacy concerns in their lives offline?  And how can we as adults encourage them to think critically about privacy issues?

Those were some of the questions in the room during the two-day Conference on Youth and Privacy sponsored by the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom (ALA/OIF) in late March.  And they are still on my mind as I reflect on the brainstorming and information sharing we did at the conference, which brought together librarians with individuals who intersect with or work directly on privacy issues.

This work is an extension of an effort ALA/OIF has been engaged in for three years, sponsored by two grants from the Open Society Institute. The annual Choose Privacy Week (May 1-7, 2011) emphasizes creating a national conversation around privacy issues in the digital age, with libraries as a focal point for programming and information. (For more information, go to  Now the aim is to extend efforts with programming specifically geared toward reaching youth, and one goal of the conference was to develop a list of ideas ALA/OIF can consider as it moves forward.

I attended the conference in my role as manager of the CCBC’s Intellectual Freedom Information Services, but I found myself equally engaged as a parent. One of the most provocative questions raised for me was by representatives of the National Youth Rights Association, who ask, how can we expect children and teens to value privacy and think critically about privacy when so many things we do as adults violate their privacy every day? I realized it’s an important question to consider as we strive to make youth aware of their rights and responsibilities regarding privacy.   

And of course there is the broader context of privacy issues as they impact intellectual freedom and free speech.  Beyond the issue of privacy for patrons’ library records, we must think about how free speech may become subdued by the lack of privacy in our society, whether  privacy is compromised by government policy or changing social norms. And at what point does the gradual erosion of our privacy desensitize us to its value, making it easier to infringe upon (and decrease) our privacy rights?

As someone who keeps Facebook settings as private as (I think) possible,  I also found myself wondering  how we have come to a point where social media sites, commercial sites, and other internet venues are able to gather so much data about us without laws that require them to fully disclose (in comprehensible language) what they are collecting, how they intend to use it, and potential uses for it in the future.

Finally, I am a book person, so throughout the two-days we spent in Chicago I found myself thinking of young adult books that offer engaging, sometimes alarming, insight into privacy issues.

Privacy Between the Pages

Many of these books would make great discussion starters for talking about privacy issues with older children and teens, and these might get you thinking about other books, too.  Use the Quick Search box on the CCBC’s web site to read CCBC reviews of most of these titles.

Dystopic Futures

Candor by Pam Bacchorz (Age 13 and older)
Feed by M.T. Anderson (Age 14 and older)
The Hunger Games trilogy by  Suzanne Collins (Age 12 and older)
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (Age 13 and older)
Rash by Pete Hautman (Age 12 and older)
The Silenced by James DeVita (Age 13 and older)
Singing the Dogstar Blues by Alison Goodman (Age 13 and older)
The Unidentified by Rae Mariz (Age 13 and older)

Historical Perspectives

Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez (Age 12 and older)
The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Age 12 and older)
Catch a Tiger by the Toe by Ellen Levine (Ages 9-12)
The Composition by Antonio Skármeta (Ages 9-16)
A Hand Full of Stars by Rafik Scharmi (Age 12 and older)
The Loud Silence of Francine Green by Karen Cushman (Age 11 and older)
Under a Red Sky: Memories of a Childhood in Communist Romania by Haya Leah Molnar  (Age 14 and older)
The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain  by Peter Sís (Age 9 and older)
When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park (Age 11 and older)

Contemporary Realistic Fiction

Out of the Pocket by Bill Konigsburg (Age 13 and older)
Sweetblood by Pete Hautman (Age 12 and older)
The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarity (Age 14 and older)
What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones (Age 13 and older)

Photo captions:

  • Cory Doctorow talks privacy via Skype to questioner Jeffrey Nadel, President of the National Youth Rights Association
  • Tayyaba Syed, writer for the Chicago Crescent, speaks at the Conference on Privacy and Youth, March 24, in Chicago.