I recently received an invitation from Niche Academy offering a free webinar to interested library employees: Practicing Intellectual Freedom in the Library, where the foundations for understanding and practicing intellectual freedom as a librarian were laid out. The webinar was presented by assistant professor in the School of Information Science at the University of Kentucky, repeat presenter at many academic conferences, and multiple publishee (is that a word?) in professional journals like Library Quarterly: the illustrious Shannon Oltman.
For the more experienced scholars and librarians, I’m sure the webinar offered fresh research/analysis of the subject. For myself and other “underlings” interested in climbing the proverbial rungs of the librarian world ladder, it presented a solid introduction to intellectual freedom. For those that missed out on the fun, allow me to summarize …
Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.American Library Association (ALA)
Intellectual freedom is essential to our fundamental right of freedom of speech and how that freedom plays out in the communities we serve as librarians.
If you forgot your US Constitutional Amendments, the First Amendment spells out our right to freedom of speech, FYI.
Thus, intellectual freedom and freedom of speech go hand in hand since freedom of speech is absolutely meaningless without the right to access information. Accessing and receiving information is vital in forming and expressing your own opinion. Expressing your opinion => FREEDOM OF SPEECH.
One thing to remember is that the right of intellectual freedom is for ALL. This fact is illustrated by many relevant court cases over the past 75 years:
As all these cases are fascinating and should be researched further. I invite you to dig a little deeper into the foundations of our right to intellectual freedom and how it relates to freedom of speech.
One of the cases in particular struck major interest in me: 1982’s Board of Education v. Pico, where the school board attempted to remove several books that they claimed were “anti-American” and “just plain filthy” from the district’s junior high schools and high schools. A sample of these “inappropriate” books include The Fixer by Bernard Malamud (U.S. National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize) and Laughing Boy by Oliver LaFarge (Pulitzer Prize). A group of five high school students led by Steven Pico filed a lawsuit against the school board claiming a violation of First Amendment rights. The students ultimately won. The Supreme Court decided that school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.
The ALA created a formal Bill of Rights to govern all libraries, which serves as a guide in determining and implementing services offered to library patrons and emphasizes the concept of intellectual freedom. Although these basic principles should chaperon the service of all libraries, questions do arise regarding the use of these principles in the specific practices of the different types of libraries.
Every library serves a community – a group of people. This community as well as issues involving the interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights and how it pertains to intellectual freedom varies among the different types of libraries: public libraries, school libraries, academic libraries, and special libraries. For instance, public libraries generally serve a town or county and may come across issues involving minors in the library and how it affects intellectual freedom. On the other hand, academic libraries (like mine) serve faculty, staff, students, and sometimes alumni/local public and may sometimes come across an issue with collection development and how it touches intellectual freedom.
Sidebar, it is extremely important to have a collection development policy in place for your library, regardless of the type of library in which you work. Not only does this policy provide guidance for the creation of a library collection, it also honors the right of intellectual freedom. This includes “controversial” items. Ensure that an item is not rejected immediately because it may be controversial to some of you patrons by setting out to create a diverse and appealing library collection with multiple perspectives. It’s perfectly acceptable to not like something in your collection, but your personal feelings on the material cannot be the basis for exclusion. I’m not going to include the collection development policy for the Troy University libraries because it is quite lengthy, but is accessible at www.troy.edu/libraries if you feel so inclined.
This, of course, was just a brief overview of the concept of intellectual freedom. Shannon Oltmann has a book coming out this year, though, that will delve into all the deets involving intellectual freedom. Please keep an eye out for it!
You’re probably wondering what this topic has to even do with my current role in my library. After all, I am only a library assistant. Collection development is not in my wheelhouse. The materials that I order for our acquisitions have already been determined according to our collection development policy. AAh, but I do manage our lease book account. The Dothan campus of Troy University (where I work) takes part in a lease book program with one of our vendors: we can select 10 new popular books to keep in a specific section of our collection for about 2 years before they must be returned. I collect faculty and staff requests, and when there is extra room in the 10-book monthly limit, I add the popular books that I believe students will potentially want to read. Sometimes, a popular fiction book by Stephen King or George R. R. Martin makes the cut. Sometimes, it is a popular political book.
As librarians, we are selectors, not censors. We look for reasons to provide access, not curtail or limit access.Shannon Oltman
Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. All viewpoints. Even if I don’t follow one. I can’t exclude it just because I don’t like it as long as it follows our collection development policy and the Library Bill of Rights. When asked during the Q&A section of the webinar about how to best reconcile with yourself the possibility that certain materials – that may be thought of as “controversial” or something that you personally don’t agree with – may incite bad behavior, Shannon responded by saying that silencing these “negative” voices may not prove to be a fair solution. Instead, it is important to challenge this by still providing these voices but adding more of the positive voices. Great thought-provoking words. I’ll admit, sometimes I need this reminder when selecting (in particular) political books for our patrons for our lease book program. Below is a sample of what I mean.
This is a current selection of some political books that I have ordered for the popular books section of our library. As you can see, I try to keep all opinions visible and represented to keep the objective of presenting all viewpoints of a debate alive. This is not the easiest thing in the world – Shannon‘s message in this intellectual freedom webinar IS and WAS a needed and essential reminder of our roles as librarians in the world.