Intellectual freedom and the role of the librarian

banendbooksAs Banned Books Week nears, I got to thinking about intellectual freedom and the role of the librarian. This topic is basically a minefield for new librarians, but one I haven’t professionally encountered yet. No one has come to me asking to have a book banned. But it is important to realize the extent to which the idea of intellectual freedom pervades librarianship – for good or ill.

The support for intellectual freedom is codified into our professional ethics by the American Library Association:

“The ALA promotes the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinions even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those viewpoints to all who wish to read them.”

“Eradicating” books

The most publicized affect the intellectual freedom debate has on libraries is the challenging and/or banning of books. Challenging occurs when an individual requests (or frequently demands) that a book be removed from a library or school collection. Banning occurs when a governing body obeys the request, thus removing access to that book. There are tons of examples of both, from elementary schools to public libraries and even at universities, where you’d think students were too old for a book to be challenged. For example, a community college student challenged four graphic novels on a syllabus for a college English course, saying she wanted them “eradicated” from the syllabi and the university bookstore. The challenge was denied, with university officials stating:

“Students have the opportunity to study controversial issues and arrive at their own conclusions and faculty are to support the student’s right to freedom of inquiry.”

The problem with challenging and banning, then, is that you are removing the right of anyone to access a book, as opposed to just yourself. No one person should have the power to limit someone else’s ability to consume and analyze information in this way.

Those pesky fuzzy areas

Supporting the freedom of an individual to access information, form opinions and express those opinions seems pretty solid, right? You might even consider it a perfect example of librarians using their powers for good. But is there a line you can draw in the sand? Does our defense extend to those wishing to view porn (it is information, even if it takes that particular form)? What about those wishing to learn how to build a bomb or figure out the best way to commit suicide? How about holding a Ku Klux Klan recruitment meeting in the library? On which side do our ethics say we should stand?

These are questions we all need to ask ourselves. Even if you are never in the position at your library where you are answering these questions, you should still understand how you stand on them yourself. This is because your professional ethics play a huge role in who you are as person. Your professional ethics might not match your personal ethics all the time, and that clash might turn into a nationwide news story, such as when Kim Davis refused to perform her job’s duties due to conflicts with her own moral code. If your personal ethics clash with your professional ethics, you will need to decide now what that means. For some, it is a matter of separating professional actions from personal beliefs. For others, this may mean you cannot reconcile the two and you need to leave your position.

Is knowledge power?

One of the many reasons we are so stridently in favor of defending the right of an individual to access information is that information is knowledge and we believe knowledge is power. But what if it isn’t power?

The Embedded Librarian asked this question, arguing that information or knowledge alone is not where power lies. Instead it lies in the context or use of that information. What does that mean for librarians? We should, of course, continue supporting the right of access, which we do in many ways, from providing Internet service as well as denying requests to ban books. But we should also focus on helping patrons evaluate information. In the evolving world of librarianship, we are no longer the gatekeepers of information. What we need to become are the guides. We will continue to show people how to find information, but we also need to help our patrons find the right information for them, to contextualize that information so that they can apply it powerfully. For example, they need to know the difference between an opinion piece and a factual article on a political candidate, and how to apply that information to how they will decide to vote. Only then does knowledge become power.


2 thoughts on “Intellectual freedom and the role of the librarian

  1. This is such a great post. I recently started an MLS program and we’ve been talking a bit about censorship. I had not really been previously aware that a part of a librarian’s duties is to field censorship suggestions (or demands, as you say). Especially since I am living in a pretty conservative area, I’m sure the librarians at my local library have to deal with this more than most. As a moderately conservative person myself, it is something that I’ve been struggling with recently. I definitely believe in the freedom to read whatever you want to read–I don’t think it’s good for anyone to make that decision for someone else–but how can I feel good about providing a book that I would not read myself on moral grounds? Your suggestion to separate your personal ethics from your professional ethics makes so much sense and is not something that I had thought of before. Thank you so much for this post, I really appreciate it and I feel like I’ve really gained a lot from reading it.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. It’s best to think about these issues before you are forced to so that your decisions can be made swiftly and confidently. Good luck in your MLS! I hope you get to take an ethics course as part of your degree. I did and the resulting discussions with fellow students were eye-opening and helpful.

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