The ALA Intellectual Freedom Manual describes intellectual freedom as “the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.” For most Americans, this concept sounds fairly reasonable and consequently not of particular significance in our daily lives. Even for those of us in the library world, intellectual freedom is certainly recognized as a core value but rarely a primary concern as we go about our duties. Of course there are the dramatic moments, such as with recent campus protests, when the issue of free speech takes over our news and sparks our interest or even a good debate or two. However, most of the time intellectual freedom is not prioritized in our professional or personal lives.
As the new ILA Intellectual Freedom Committee, this reality has been a quandary for us as we try to discern not only our responsibilities for this group, but also identify issues of value to Idaho. In starting our work, we’ve been looking at a variety of resources and have begun to outline a few topics of interest.
Access to information and ideas– even ideas with which we may not personally agree– is a cornerstone of the role libraries play in our society. Last summer a group of community members in Coeur d’Alene attempted to have John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novella Of Mice and Men removed from the ninth grade curriculum. They cited the work’s use of coarse language and “dark themes” related to the Great Depression as reasons why it should be kept from students. Fortunately, their motion was defeated by a 4 to 1 vote by the school board.
Some patrons do not like profanity in library materials. Others do not like depictions of violence, sex, anti-capitalism, religion, homosexuality– the list goes on and on. Still others object to people accessing certain websites or digital materials within the library. As the ILA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, we stand firmly against censorship in our libraries, but as librarians we recognize that even as we battle attempts to control or restrict library materials, we must also continue to work with the patrons who are most adamant about removing “offensive” materials. We know what we believe; how do we spread those beliefs throughout the community? That is a question we hope to answer by working with other librarians in Idaho.
One good way to make our beliefs known is through clearly stated policies regarding intellectual freedom, censorship, etc. These can be difficult to craft! As your Intellectual Freedom Committee, we want to start reaching out to Idaho librarians to offer our assistance in making strong policies. Whether we can serve you best as a sounding board or if you need examples of other library policy statements, we are here. In the future months we will be offering webinars on this very subject.
Responsibilities and Capacity Building
In exploring these issues, it is important to acknowledge the complexities and deeply held personal beliefs that create challenges to intellectual freedom. Most librarians believe information can enlighten, but it is also reasonable to believe that information can be used to discriminate or even victimize. Whether it’s micro-aggressions, hostile workplaces, propaganda, or an attempt to groom a victim, words can hurt. How do we enable intellectual freedom while not ignoring the harm that can be done?
Yet if we desire to achieve the great ideal of intellectual freedom, how can we realistically increase capacity within the state’s library workforce to handle these intellectual freedom situations. Even a basic question like, “The Library Bill of Rights: What’s in it and does anyone ever really use it?” can be a challenge. What topics are of interest to you? What issues would you like training on? What resources would be valuable to you?
As your state’s Intellectual Freedom committee, we exist to assist you. If you encounter any challenges to materials in your libraries, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can offer explanatory materials and operate as a liaison between your library and the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. However, you don’t have to wait until a challenge arises to get involved! This winter we are offering our first (of many!) Google Hangouts for Idaho librarians to connect with one another and discuss their understanding of the intellectual freedom challenges we face today. More information will follow soon on the ILA Facebook page. Please join us, so we can start building a strong consensus among librarians in our state about how we can best protect the right of our patrons to access material and have their personal information protected. We are excited to start working with you!