I am a Teen Librarian. Part of my job is to pay attention to what teens are talking about and make sure the teen section has something to offer on the topic. So when for three weeks in a row all my teens could talk about at our weekly teen event was the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, I decided to investigate.
I was a freshman when the book 13 Reason’s Why came out. And I was an avid reader, so it didn’t take long for the book to hit my radar. I read it, and enjoyed it. I was disturbed by the things that happened in the book, but I felt impacted by it. So impacted that 20 years later when the tv show came out, I still knew exactly what the book was about. I didn’t remember all the details or all the characters but I didn’t have to ask anyone “was that the book about…” because it was the kind of story you couldn’t just forget. Not entirely.
The biggest thing I remembered (besides the fact that it was about a girl who killed herself because she was bullied by her classmates) was that I liked the book. So when my teens started talking about the show and how good it was I found myself eager to watch it.
So I watched it.
And I liked it.
I watched the whole thing in a matter of days, staying up later than I intended to several nights because I HAD to watch just one more episode…
I knew going into it that Hannah was going to die, that she was technically already dead despite her frequent appearances. And yet I found myself filled with sadness at the fact that she wouldn’t get to go to college and that she and Clay wouldn’t get a chance to try being in a relationship together. That she would never get through everything she was dealing with to find light on the other side.
I could barely watch the scene where Hannah killed herself. And I sobbed when her mom found her dead and wanted so desperately to save her.
And when the show was over I felt bereft. I was pleased by what a good job had been done making a book I liked into a tv show I liked, and even though I knew that was where the book ended, I wanted there to be more.
But almost immediately after finishing the show I started seeing articles and posts and comments all over the internet about how harmful and inconsiderate and just plain bad the show was.
I read a lot of them. First out of confusion because I didn’t understand what they were talking about. And then out of interest because I wanted to know more. I wanted to know what other people thought.
I didn’t agree with everything that I was reading, but in that moment where I first felt myself becoming riled up because I didn’t agree with what someone was saying about this show I liked I forced myself to stop and take a step back.
I took a step back because it occurred to me that maybe my opinion wasn’t the one that mattered here. I definitely had opinions, but they were just opinions, I didn’t have any authority on the subject, and maybe I wasn’t qualified to decide what was right and what was wrong in this situation.
So I talked to a friend and I read more articles. More posts. More opinions formed by people who suffered from and dealt with things I’d never had to deal with.
Because I have never struggled mental health. I have never struggled with thoughts of suicide or cutting.
So maybe this show wasn’t harmful to me. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t harmful to other people. And I don’t want to use my position of privilege to drown out the voices of people with experience.
But like I said at the beginning, it’s my job to make sure that the library has something to offer when the teens are excited about something. And although my teens are only a small sample of teens overall, none of them had expressed any concerns or disapproval of the show. They loved it. They wanted more. And it was my job to give it to them.
But the teens that come to my programs aren’t the only teens in the library. And its my job to look out for all the teens whether they attend programs or not. And I didn’t want to hurt anyone while trying to give my teens what they wanted.
So I compromised. I made a display offering a selection of books with stories about suicide and bullying that would be similar to 13 Reasons Why.
And on the other side I put non-fiction books about suicide and bullying and bookmarks I made with lists of resources anyone could use if they needed help.
I did this because what I decided was that it didn’t matter if the show was good or bad. That wasn’t the point. Not in the library anyway. The point of the library is to offer any and all materials. We don’t censer what we offer to the public, and our personal opinions on materials doesn’t affect its availability on our shelves.
I didn’t put up a 13 Reasons Why display because I thought that the people speaking out against the show were wrong. I put up the display because it was relevant to teens and it was what they wanted.
And I put out materials to help people get help because I want the library to be a safe space that doesn’t neglect anyone, or put anyone’s needs before anyone else’s.
My job is to serve the community. The community is diverse. It’s made up of all different kinds of people from all different walks of life. People with all different home lives and school experiences. And it’s my job to serve all of them.
I think, and I hope, that I did the best I could.