Intellectual Freedom as a Human Right : The Library’s Role in a Democratic Society


[Versió catalana]

Valerie Nye

Library Director
Institute of American Indian Arts



Objective: Libraries have been called on by international organizations to avoid censorship and to provide access to diverse points of view. Public libraries are partially defined by their unrestricted services to patrons regardless of a person's nationality, social status, or beliefs.

Methodology: This article will review the documents that describe the role libraries have in providing and protecting intellectual freedom. Specific organizations, educational practices, ethical statements, and polices in the United States will be reviewed.

Results: Librarians in all library types (academic, school, public, and special libraries) need to create and maintain two important policies for their libraries in order to protect against censorship. These policies are a collection development policy and a request for reconsideration policy.


Objectiu: les organitzacions internacionals han demanat a les biblioteques que evitin la censura i que donin accés a opinions diverses. Les biblioteques públiques es poden definir, en part, perquè ofereixen serveis il·limitats als usuaris, independentment de la nacionalitat, de l’estatus social o de les creences que tinguin.

Metodologia: aquest article revisa els documents que descriuen la funció que tenen les biblioteques a l’hora d’oferir i protegir la llibertat intel·lectual. S’analitzaran els casos d’organitzacions concretes, pràctiques educatives, declaracions ètiques i algunes polítiques dels Estats Units.

Resultats: en qualsevol tipus de biblioteca (biblioteques universitàries, escolars, públiques i especials) els bibliotecaris han de crear i mantenir dues polítiques importants per protegir-se de la censura: una política de creació de fons i una de reconsideració.


Objetivo: las organizaciones internacionales han pedido a las bibliotecas que eviten la censura y que den acceso a opiniones diversas. Las bibliotecas públicas se pueden definir, en parte, porque ofrecen servicios ilimitados a los usuarios, independientemente de la nacionalidad, del estatus social o de las creencias que tengan.

Metodología: este artículo revisa los documentos que describen la función que tienen las bibliotecas a la hora de ofrecer y proteger la libertad intelectual. Se analizarán los casos de organizaciones concretas, prácticas educativas, declaraciones éticas y algunas políticas de Estados Unidos.

Resultados: en cualquier tipo de biblioteca (bibliotecas universitarias, escolares, públicas y especiales) los bibliotecarios deben crear y mantener dos políticas importantes para protegerse de la censura: una política de creación de fondo y una de reconsideración.


1 Introduction

Many cultures and countries believe that the freedom of information and an individual's right to privacy are key components of personal growth, cultural understanding, and a peaceful world. People who explore the world widely and question norms have the ability to explore and question commonly accepted beliefs, find new answers to challenges, and invent methods for improving life on earth. An educated free thinking society can develop new scientific understandings, create innovative technologies, and advance new ideas that move the world's communities forward. This belief in the importance of intellectual freedom was strongly agreed to by many countries after World War II. Following that war there was a powerful recognition that governments, through acts of war, had destroyed societies and decimated cultures. World leaders worked together to attempt to secure world-wide lasting peace by forming the United Nations and creating guiding documents.

In December 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) recognized the importance of intellectual freedom when it adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The formation of the United Nations and the creation of this document mark an important moment in world history when diverse war-torn countries were committed to finding a common good in order to maintain world-wide peace (United Nations, n.d. a). The countries that worked to form the UN reached consensus believing the best way to maintain peace was to allow people to live freely, without oppression. One of the important aspects of living a free life without oppression is intellectual freedom. Article 19 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines the intellectual freedoms inherent to all humans. These rights include: "the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers" (United Nations, n.d. b).


2 Supporting Documents for Libraries

The UN's agency, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), specifically pointed to public libraries in 1994 when it approved a document entitled the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto. The manifesto recognizes public libraries as places where individuals should be allowed to find and explore information freely. The document defines public libraries, and states that public libraries should provide access to all members of a community; that no one should be excluded from services based on his or her "age, race, sex, religion, nationality, language or social status" (UNESCO, 1994). The document goes on to state that public libraries should create inclusive collections and should be free of censorship and influence. "Collections and services should not be subject to any form of ideological, political or religious censorship, nor commercial pressure" (UNESCO, 1994).

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) approved a statement in March 1999 that provides even more direction to libraries and librarians in all types of libraries. The document is known as the IFLA Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom and includes ethical statements that provide guidance to professional librarians as well as statements that declare and affirm the concepts outlined in the Universal Deceleration of Human Rights. "IFLA asserts that a commitment to intellectual freedom is a core responsibility for the library and information profession. IFLA therefore calls upon libraries and library staff to adhere to the principles of intellectual freedom, uninhibited access to information and freedom of expression and to recognize the privacy of the library user" (IFLA, 1999).

The IFLA document echoes the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and includes these statements: "IFLA declares that human beings have a fundamental right to access expressions of knowledge, creative thought and intellectual activity, and to express their views publicly. IFLA believes the right to know and freedom of expression are two aspects of the same principle. The right to know is a requirement for freedom of thought and conscience; freedom of thought and freedom of expression are necessary conditions for freedom of access to information" (IFLA, 1999).

Finally, the IFLA statement calls on librarians and the libraries in which they work to be active in many areas. "Libraries contribute to the development and maintenance of intellectual freedom and help to safeguard basic democratic values and universal civil rights. Libraries have a responsibility both to guarantee and to facilitate access to expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity. To this end, libraries shall acquire, preserve and make available the widest variety of materials, reflecting the plurality and diversity of society" (IFLA, 1999).


3 Organizations that Support Librarians in the United States

In the United States, the American Library Association (ALA) is the national professional organization for libraries and librarians. The members of ALA created (and periodically update) a series of documents that have been formally approved by the organization's governing body. These documents provide an ethical foundation to librarians working in American libraries. The ALA's Library Bill of Rights finds its basis in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and aligns with IFLA's statements. The Library Bill of Rights recognizes that a library is a public forum where learning takes place, and where ideas are shared and understood. Sections II and III of the Library Bill of Rights state, "Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment" (American Library Association, 1996).

Another document that offers guidance to librarians, authors, and booksellers in the United States is the Freedom to Read Statement. The statement was initially created in the 1950s when a faction of the US government censored discussion, ideas, and creative work. The ALA worked with the American Book Publishers Council to create a common statement that was agreed upon by librarians, booksellers, and publishers (Magi ; Garner, 2015, p. 23). The statement has been updated with some changes since its creation in 1950 and today the foundational statement reads, "It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expression, including those which are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority" (American Library Association, 2004). This statement is seated in the belief that minority voices may hold a truth that is new and/or important for society's majority to understand. It also supports the belief that citizens in a democracy should have access to all information so that each person can decide for themselves what they believe.

One of the important ways librarians find support on intellectual freedom issues is through the ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF). This national office supports library employees by offering advice and support when censorship is threatened in a library. Librarians may contact the office in the midst of a challenge to library material or during an intellectual freedom crisis. Librarians may confidentially share information with OIF employees about issues occurring in their library or community. OIF staff members will, in turn, offer resources to help support librarians through a challenge.

The OIF works closely with the Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF), a non-profit organization that, "supports the right of libraries to collect – and individuals to access – information" (Freedom to Read Foundation, 2017a). FTRF also participates in legal action to protect intellectual freedom in all areas (not just libraries), as a party involved in litigation or by submitting amicus curiae1 briefs when lawsuits align with the organization's mission (Freedom to Read Foundation, 2017b). The OIF and the FTRF are both committed to providing continuing education to librarians about intellectual freedom's ever-nuanced landscape through trainings at conferences, online sessions, blogs, and the recently launched Journal of Intellectual Freedom and Privacy.

The OIF coordinates two national awareness events every year that advocate for intellectual freedom and library patron privacy; Banned Books Week and Privacy Week. The office produces logos and brochures to supplement the material and programming that libraries offer locally. The material created and shared by the OIF helps publicize the important work librarians do to prevent the censorship of library material. Academic, school, and public libraries across the country celebrate Banned Books Week every year during the last week of September by providing a variety of events and material for library patrons including local displays, readings, film screenings, and panel discussions.

The word "celebrating" in combination with "banned books" may seem like an oxymoron for those defending intellectual freedom. Librarians in the United States, however, have embraced the idea, and use the week to recognize the books that have been challenged or banned.2 The week provides a platform for librarians to talk about the difficult and controversial work that the profession does to protect material when community members try to remove it from libraries and schools. The week also allows for librarians to make connections with the media and politicians; to discuss intellectual freedom and the important role intellectual freedom has in the democratic process. There are often stories in national and local media outlets about libraries, censorship, banned books, and the role librarians have in preventing censorship.


4 The Role of Graduate School Education in the United States

All the documents and professional organizations discussed at the beginning of this article are the foundation for the ethics and intellectual freedom curricula that is offered to professional librarians as they earn their Master's Degree in library fields in the United States. Graduate library schools may offer courses that specifically address intellectual freedom and the ethical tenets of librarianship or may include it throughout the school's curriculum. At the University of Iowa School of Library and Information Science, the required course, "Cultural Foundations" includes professional ethics as part of the core curriculum (University of Iowa, 2017). Graduate schools may also choose to embed the ethics of librarianship within the entire curriculum of the program. For example, San Jose State University's School of Information embeds aspects of intellectual freedom throughout the core curriculum while offering specific elective (optional) courses such as "Intellectual Freedom Seminar" (San José State University, 2016).

There have been recent concerns about the ethics education librarians receive in graduate school. For this reason, the ALA's Committee on Professional Ethics recently conducted a survey of Master's programs offering degrees in library science in the United States. The goal of the survey was to determine if ethics are being consistently taught to new professionals entering library science fields. The survey responses from the participating graduate programs indicate that ethical issues and library ethics, such as intellectual freedom, are included in coursework throughout programs, but are not a significant focus of the library Master's degree offered in the United States today. The report stands as a call to action to the library profession and library school educators, concluding, "In order for those values and ethical responsibilities to be embraced by future generations of library workers, they must be a central learning outcome of any library education program" (Garnar, 2016, p. 10).

Since ethics and intellectual freedom are not currently consistently taught in graduate school curricula and not all library staff members have graduate degrees in library sciences, the continuing education opportunities offered by the American Library Association, the Office of Intellectual Freedom, the Freedom to Read Foundation, and other local and national organizations are critical to building a national professional understanding and dialogue about the important role library staff members have in protecting library material from censorship.


5 Collection Development Policies

In order to integrate the ethical statements made by UNESCO, IFLA, and ALA into the day-to-day work of the library, librarians create collection development policies that are specific to each library's community and mission. Collection development policies are created by all library types: academic, school, public, and special libraries. Libraries in the United States are not required by national law to have collection development policies, but funders may require up-to-date collection development policies as a gateway to providing funding to a library. Professional librarians and library funders have come to recognize that a well-written collection development policy is the sign of a strong well-run library. These policies are public documents that help patrons and community members understand the role the library has in the community and the commitment the library has to purchasing and providing access to materials that support aspects of the entire community. Collection development policies are created as a point of transparency to allow the library to be clear about the material it will collect and the methods librarians will use to evaluate material for inclusion in the collection. To provide the greatest transparency possible, collection development policies are often posted on a library's website and/or made available to patrons upon request.

Collection development policies are unique to each library. The document usually begins with a description of the community that the library serves and outlines the diversity found in the community. The policy includes a description of the collection and describes the library's goals for the collection. It outlines the material that will be collected by a library and the review process librarians will use to make decisions about purchasing material for the collection. The policy is approved by the library's governing board, overseeing office, and/or overall supervisor. American libraries frequently include the full text of the Freedom to Read Statement as part of a collection development policy, justifying the policy's national professional support and validity.

One example of an inclusive, tested, current collection development policy for a public library may be found on the Pikes Peak Library District website. The document describes the library's role in the community: the library's "service commitment is to the people within its service area including people of every age, education, background, personal philosophy, religious belief, occupation, sexual orientation, economic level, ethnic origin, and human condition." When describing the library's collection mission, it states in part: The library "seeks to develop an outstanding collection for a large and diverse population, within the constraints of budget allocations and shelf space. [The library] strives to provide materials reflecting a variety of perspectives, with emphasis on new and popular materials…. Materials purchased for the collection are not an endorsement by [the library] of either the content or viewpoint presented in them" (Pikes Peak Library District, 2016).

Collection development policies are understood by professional librarians in the United States to be one of the most significant documents in the operation and management of any type of library. In the 2012 book, True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries; librarians provide case studies about challenges they have experienced while working in libraries. As part of their stories, librarians reflected on their experiences and offered advice to other librarians working through a person's or group's attempt to remove material from the library's collection. In these reflections, librarians time-and-time again commented on the strengths and weaknesses of libraries' collection development policies; and advocated for having an up-to-date policy that is read and understood by the entire library staff (Nye; Barco, 2012).


6 Reconsideration Policies

Another critical policy that many libraries in the United States create is a reconsideration policy. Librarians recognize that in a democratic society, the citizens a library serves have the right to voice opposition to items in a library's collection. The reconsideration policy provides an avenue for library patrons and/or community citizens to describe their concern about material that is available in the library and request that the library remove the material. Reconsideration policies become active when a person makes a formal request for a library to remove material from the library's collection. Most libraries define "formal request" as a request made directly to the library in writing for specific material to be removed from the collection. Well-written reconsideration policies include procedures that patrons must follow to make a formal challenge, and the steps the library staff must follow once a formal request for reconsideration has been received.

The Pikes Peak Library District provides good examples of language and procedures for requests for reconsideration. Part of the library's statement is: The library "believes in the freedom of information for all and does not practice censorship… Selections are not made on the basis of anticipated approval or disapproval, but on the merits of the material and collection needs… A formal process has been developed to assure that complaints and requests for reconsideration are handled in an attentive and consistent manner" (Pikes Peak Library District, 2016).

In order to help ensure all complaints about material are handled the same way, some libraries require that a patron's challenge be made using a library-created form that outlines the information a person must provide about the item that they would like removed from the collection. The form usually requires basic contact information from the patron, basic information about the item being challenged, a statement about why they want an item removed from the library, and a specific description of why the material is offensive.

Once a formal challenge has been submitted, the library must follow the procedures it has outlined for itself in the policy. It is important that the policy is followed and all complaints regarding library materials are handled fairly, no matter who makes the request. Inconsistent handling of complaints can lead to a political and/or public relations disaster for a library. The policy for reconsideration usually requires the library director to review the material in question and make decisions about the material. The process can also involve input and decisions made by an appointed committee, a library's governing board, and/or the office/s that oversee the library.

The reconsideration policy created by the North Kansas City Public Library provides an example of the types of procedures that should be outlined in a reconsideration policy. The policy allows a person to make a formal challenge by filling out a form. The policy explains that the form is reviewed by a staff committee that is appointed by the library director. The library director will respond in writing to the person making the challenge with a decision about the material once the committee has made its decision. If the person is not satisfied with the committee's judgement, the policy outlines the manner in which a person may submit a series of appeals. The policy states the final decision within the appeals process belongs to the library's board (North Kansas City Public Library, 2005).


7 Policies and Professional Organizations Limit Censorship

Collection development policies and reconsideration policies are critically important to libraries because materials in public institutions are challenged frequently, and librarians rely on the policies to keep challenged materials in libraries. The State of America's Libraries 2017 from the American Library Association reports that there were 323 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2016 (American Library Association, 2017, p. 16). The ALA reports that 49% of the challenges to materials were made in public libraries and 50% of the challenges happened in schools and school libraries. "Parents" were the initiators of challenges 42% of the time and "patrons" were initiators of challenges 31% of the time in 2016. The most frequent reasons that items are challenged in the United States are because a person challenging the item believes the material is sexually explicit; has offensive language; describes violence; or has a character or story related to a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender issue. Due to library policies, education, community outreach, and professional support; only 10% of the reported challenges in the US end with material being removed from a library (American Library Association, 2017, p. 19).

The statistics that the ALA collects are important for gauging the landscape of book challenges in the United States, but reporting challenges to the ALA is not mandatory. While reporting challenge information to the ALA is anonymous, the ALA acknowledges and believes that only a portion of the challenges that happen in the United States are formally documented in the national database because librarians fear that reporting an incident to the national organization may make their job more difficult. Those librarians who do contact the ALA report a positive experience getting information and receiving support defending books in their libraries. One librarian involved in a very public book challenge reported, "I contacted the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom in Chicago, the ultimate source for all intellectual freedom concerns. Their outstanding staff of lawyers, advisors, and other hardworking activists is a resource anyone may call upon" (Christos, 2012, p. 81).

Many librarians who have made use of collection development policies and reconsideration policies during a censorship challenge advise librarians to write and keep their library's policies up-to-date. Matt Nojonen in True Stories of Censorship Battles in America's Libraries provides an example of how a collection development policy and an educated library board helped his library retain a book in the collection. In his story, a patron filed a request for reconsideration at a public library for a book entitled Mastering Multiple Position Sex. Nojonen explains, "The library's board fully endorsed the concept of intellectual freedom in the library's mission statement and policies addressing circulation, collection development, and acceptable use of the Internet. Our collection development policy incorporates standard language, including the Library Bill of Rights, Freedom to Read Statement, [and] Freedom to View Statement… These documents guided our approach and served as an excellent framework for communicating our philosophies and goals to the individual involved and the public at large" (Nojonen, 2012, p. 65). In Nojonen's case, the library had a well-written collection development policy and an established reconsideration policy. The library's board was well-educated about the important role libraries serve in supporting intellectual freedom, and was able to rely on the library's established procedures and national documents to retain the book in the library's collection.


8 Conclusion

Educating all people about intellectual freedom and free access to information is one of the most important roles librarians have in democratic societies. The belief that intellectual freedom is a human right and that freedom to access information is a key component of intellectual freedom, however, depends on the beliefs and convictions of the people who live in our communities. The Knight Foundation is a non-profit organization in the United States committed to understanding how well-informed communities create well-functioning democracies. The Foundation has learned through its research that the way intellectual freedom is defined and understood from generation to generation, "is neither universal or stable: it rises and falls during times of national crisis" (Newton, 2006, p. 1). The Foundation's surveys, however, show that intellectual freedom values can be taught and the more frequently students are exposed to intellectual freedom issues, the stronger they are in supporting intellectual freedom.

The Knight Foundation surveys indicate that librarians not only have an important role in ensuring that their colleagues, boards, governing committees, and patrons are informed about the professional ethics that protect intellectual freedom, but also have a significant role in educating all people about the important position intellectual freedom has in preserving human rights. Part of this education requires that librarians and teachers highlight intellectual freedom beliefs and issues because intellectual freedom is often integrated into democratic societies so seamlessly that it becomes invisible or is taken for granted. Knowing that the cultural understanding of these freedoms is "neither universal or stable" is a call to action for all citizens, and specifically librarians. Librarians should not be silent about the responsibility the profession has in maintaining this cultural keystone. Librarians need to work hard to make sure professional ethical statements and library policies align and strongly support intellectual freedom as a human right. Librarians must encourage community members to engage in thoughtful communication about the value of intellectual freedom by supporting and celebrating the ongoing work librarians have protecting democracy and the right that humans have to live in peace.



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1 Legal statements that offer information to the court regarding a specific lawsuit.

2 The American Library Association defines a "challenge" as an attempt to remove an item or restrict material by a person or a group. An item is "banned" when those materials are removed (American Library Association, 2017).



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