Libraries and Intellectual Freedom

“Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”—Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, “The One Un-American Act”. Nieman Reports, vol. 7, no. 1 (Jan. 1953): p. 20.

What is intellectual freedom?

As one of the core values of the American Library Association (ALA), intellectual freedom is the right to seek, receive, hold, and disseminate information from all points of view without restriction. “It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause, or movement may be explored” (Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q & A).

ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Manual (7th edition) states that, “Censorship to restrict or suppress information for almost any reason (e.g., moral guardianship or political purpose) is absolutely opposed to the principles of intellectual freedom. Censorship flourishes when no one safeguards intellectual freedom.” The ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee defines censorship as a “change in the access status of material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives. Such changes include exclusion, restriction, removal, or age/grade level changes.”

Why do librarians defend intellectual freedom?

What’s acceptable material to one person may be offensive to others.  It is only natural that people will have differing opinions.  And in America we welcome free and open discussion, thanks to the Founders, who understood the importance of free speech and guaranteed this right for us in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. So it’s not just that librarians believe that everyone has a right to read what they want to and determine what is appropriate to read and view -- free speech is the law. And that’s why librarians defend intellectual freedom.

When people find some materials available at the library offensive, they challenge why the library allows access to these resources, hoping to take them out of the library, or at least to restrict their access to adults.  Most challenges involve parents, guardians, and others claiming that certain materials are inappropriate or harmful to children (see Banned Books Week  for why the “most challenged books” are challenged!).

What is the ALA Library Bill of Rights and how does it protect intellectual freedom in libraries?

To address concerns about library materials, ALA encourages libraries to create their own collection policies, using The Library Bill of Rights as a basis. The ALA Library Bill of Rights constitutes its basic policy on intellectual freedom.  It remains “a vibrant statement of principle and a useful guide to action for librarians in all library settings.”  To answer questions arising from how to apply these principles to specific library practices, ALA also provides Interpretations to the Library Bill of Rights. These policies address such issues as access to library resources and services regardless of sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation; diversity in collection development; access to libraries for minors; labels and rating systems; access to meeting rooms; and privacy.

How do librarians protect children from sensitive materials?

ALA believes that it is “the responsibility and the right of all parents and guardians to guide their own children’s use of the library and its resources and services.”

In this light, ALA recommends through its many resources that if parents or guardians find something they don’t approve of in the library (e.g., graphic novels; see “Dealing with Challenges to Graphic Novels”), they can ask to speak to a librarian.

Librarians want to know their concerns, and are confident they have or can get materials that meet parents’ and guardians’ needs. The library also has a formal review process if they wish to put their concerns in writing and in some cases a formal hearing may be necessary. (e.g., “Dealing with Concerns about Library Resources”).

If they want to protect their children from materials they deem offensive, ALA suggests that parents and guardians visit the library with their children. If that’s not possible, they should ask to see the materials their children bring home. One way to accomplish this is to set aside a special shelf for library materials. If there are materials on it parents and guardians don’t approve of, ALA encourages them to talk with their children about why they would rather they not read or view them.

In addition, most libraries provide suggested reading lists for various ages. And librarians are always glad to advise children, parents, and guardians on selecting materials they think families would enjoy and find helpful. It’s important to understand, however, that children, like their parents and guardians, also have First Amendment rights (“Minors’ Rights to Receive Information Under the First Amendment"). For more information on children’s rights, check out ALA’s “Free Access to Libraries for Minors: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights”.

Of course, censorship attempts at the local level reflect only one kind of censorship.  There are also attempts at the federal and state levels to restrict speech, which can be addressed effectively by library advocates (I Love Libraries: Take Action).

What can you do to defend intellectual freedom and oppose censorship?

There are a number of ways library advocates, including young people and other First Amendment proponents, can promote and defend intellectual freedom. These include:

  • Advocate support for the library’s role in preserving intellectual freedom. 
  • Talk to local library and school boards, the media and elected officials at all levels of government. 
  • Educate friends, family, and others about the importance of intellectual freedom and how the changing information and technological environment is making the need for intellectual freedom in libraries even more critical. 
  • Stay up-to-date on legislation and court cases that could affect intellectual freedom in libraries
  • Network with civil liberties groups and other organizations (e.g., Bill of Rights Defense Committe) in your area that are dedicated to intellectual freedom principles. Your support for them will mean increased support for libraries. 
  • Be a leader. Start a local group dedicated to ensuring that intellectual freedom in libraries is preserved.
  • Take action to oppose legislation affecting intellectual freedom in libraries (I Love Libraries: Take Action).

In closing, to elaborate on ALA’s “Libraries: An American Value”, by embracing intellectual freedom principles, library advocates can “contribute to a future that values and protects freedom of speech in a world that celebrates both our similarities and our differences, respects individuals and their beliefs, and holds all persons truly equal and free.”