The Relationship of Librarians and Intellectual Freedom


Intellectual freedom is lauded as one of the core principles of the librarian profession. It is a noble ideal, a solid foundation for an information based field and partner to the underlying altruism that seeks to provide for any who ask. Yet, over time when I’ve read about it or see peers invoke it in print or online disagreements (especially when it comes to opinion pieces), I am perplexed by the conceit that intellectual freedom is a simple, binary supposition. I find intellectual freedom to be anything but simple; it is a nuanced, contextual, and complex ideal that could be (and should be) a constant inner struggle for every librarian. In grappling with it myself, I began reflecting how the ideal and the practice actually work.

From the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q&A, this is the definition offered of intellectual freedom:

Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive 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.

On paper, I certainly have no qualms with this definition. It is a wonderful articulation of the ideal principle. But when it comes to implementation, the perfection portrayed above is harder than it appears.

By our very own biological makeup, human beings both censor and filter information. Consider our nervous systems, a series of neural pathways designed to conduct the signals of our senses (including the largest one, touch) to the brain. Our brains are hardwired to ignore a vast majority of input signals that are being reported all over our body. It’s why we aren’t constantly distracted by the way our clothing feels on our body, the sound or pace of our own breathing, or any number of mundane body sensations. We can bring to our conscious thoughts (if my writing about those kinds of operations didn’t do that already), but otherwise it doesn’t get past the brain stem unless it brings something urgent or new to the situation (such as a pinched finger or a cold breeze).

There’s some very good (and biologically necessary) reasoning for stopping the majority of signals and it is one that librarians should be able understand: information overload. Our brains simply can’t handle all of that information and run a body with any degree of success. We would be bombarded by a cacophony of sensations that could prove distracting to the point of being fatal; how my jeans feel on my knees is not information I need to know when changing lanes on the expressway.

Even within our conscious mind, there are censoring or filtering factors in our thoughts that manifest in ideological irrationality (the ability to rationalize or set aside facts in favor of beliefs). Under this concept, humans edit the information they receive from the world around them to match their perspective. There have been multiple studies over the year about how people can rationalize or ignore their way out of cognitive dissonance. These are not ideologues of the extreme nor fanatics blind in their devotion, but ordinary people from all walks of life. While we have the capability of changing our opinions or knowledge on the basis of new information, we have the same capability to explain it away or simply ignore it. It’s illogical, it’s irrational, but it is also perfectly normal and par for the course when it comes to being human.

On top of this selective information mess, our days are full of making selections and judgments based on our biases, experiences, and a whole host of internal and external influences contained within our lives. It is embedded in our choices of what to wear, what to buy, what to cook, who to talk to, what emails to respond to, and any number of decisions that we make on a constant basis. It drives us to buy that particular brand of peanut butter, to chose a particular color to paint our bedroom, and tells us what we are looking for in an ideal mate. At this point, human beings have a whole host of conscious and subconscious inclinations that move us to and fro in our existence.

It’s not that I am saying that people cannot be objective, logical, or rational. It’s that I believe it is a lot harder than it appears to be when it comes to supporting and defending the principle of intellectual freedom. It involves setting aside a great deal of biology as well as our own psychology to reach an objective state. Nor am I suggesting that every collection decision be open to second guessing as to what the true motivations for making those choices; that would lead to a lockdown of the decision making process. No, judgments about the collection have to be made; the library must continue to grow and move with the times. It’s just a matter of examining and being mindful of the context in which those decisions are made.

Will Manley recently made a statement in a blog entry which conceals a question in the middle, In leading up to the passage I am quoting, he makes a list of books he would never want to see in the library, such Holocaust denial or bomb making. “I am sure that you can think of other types of books that contain ideas that are destructive to human beings.  I am also sure that you would not want these types of books in your library.  I know I do not want the books described above in my library.  Does that make me a censor or a selector?  It’s a fascinating debate. Basically it comes down to this:  If you’re a librarian, you’re a selector; if you’re a patron, you’re a censor.”

If there is one thing I learned from my year stint in law school, it’s that the best answer to any question like this is contained thoughtfully within the two word statement, “It depends”. I believe it has less to do with the position you are in (whether you are a librarian or not) and more as to the underlying motivations as to why a book was chosen (or not chosen) and why a book was challenged.

It’s one thing to say that a book was added to the collection because it is written by a popular author, a well followed series, or an established expert in their respective field; it’s clearly another to exclude material on the belief that the person is an blithering idiot, a partisan hack, or a certifiable quack. And if you are asking yourself how you can tell the difference (as I have asked myself while writing this), then you can see part of the conundrum that the principles of intellectual freedom present in practice. I don’t have a clue as to how it can be unraveled unless someone is quite opaque and forthcoming in their inclusion/exclusion reasoning. Unless it is stone cold obvious, such exclusions can be rationalized away or otherwise dismissed. It just becomes part of the fodder for never-ending debates on the how or why we choose collection materials.

It’s also one thing to say that a book is being challenged on the ground of maturity (in that the subject matter is advanced for the age group); it’s another to say that the book is morally corruptive, racist/homophobic, or otherwise a bad influence. These subjective charges of the latter embody the most obvious foe to intellectual freedom as they directly clash with its working definition as listed above. In their most basic form, these challenges seek to limit or squash another expression or viewpoint because it runs afoul of another moral or social sense. Only by examining the context and the underlying rationale of the challenge can selectors (or in the case of the first example in this paragraph, deselectors) be separated from the censors. This is not without its own related discussions that revolve around what is right or wrong for a library to possess and the influences (both good and bad) it may engender.

In considering current librarianship when it comes to making collection selections, I think there is a fine balance that every librarian should consider as it relates to intellectual freedom. Within the last few years, there has a notion suggesting that librarians position themselves as knowledge scholars who impart bibliographic instruction and educate people as to the best tools for information evaluation. As a profession, we can provide people with the best tools to make their own decisions about the data and information in their lives and research.

At the other end of this balancing act is the explosion of the digital content and communication that has created the greatest mass of data in the history of mankind. As members of a greater society, we demonstrate and justify our value by sifting through this information space and pulling out the best materials for our users. In applying our knowledge of popular culture, science, art, or any number of subjects, librarians can ensure that leading theories and thoughts as well as their competition or leading dissents are accessible. While not all viewpoints are included (a clear violation of intellectual freedom), librarians can make the best case for those expressions that are part of the collection.

This balancing act is the constant struggle I contend with when I think of intellectual freedom. I want to provide as many viewpoints as I can, but I don’t believe that all viewpoints hold equal weight (or in some cases, any). I want my users to be able to consider sources objectively, but I know they also want me to narrow down the choices to the best materials. In essence, I want to provide for my users in the greatest number of ways possible, but I know of all the limitations of the collection, the budget, the building, and myself. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I think it’s foolish not to acknowledge the deeper struggle contained within intellectual freedom.

I think it’s the right relationship for librarians and intellectual freedom to have: “It’s complicated.”

4 thoughts on “The Relationship of Librarians and Intellectual Freedom

  1. Andy, great post. There’s a few comments I take exception to (‘If I’m a librarian, I’m a selector’ is one of them. The intellectual struggle to select and not censor is the core of selection. What makes something ‘best’? What is the point of your collection? A book on Holocaust denial can and does belong in a public library, because (1) it’s important to know all sides of an argument (2) silencing is censorship (3) Intellectual freedom: a library is not in a position to guess why someone may want to read something.

    This was all covered in my collection development classes in library school; I’m curious if my class was unique?

    • That really depends on the librarian *taking* a collection development class, though. I never did because it wasn’t a required course in my MLS curriculum and I’m pretty sure it was one of the irregularly offered courses, which made arranging it as an elective difficult.

      In addition, even if I had taken a good collection development course like yours, I would still have to *actively* think about that all the time. It’s easier to adhere to those guidelines for the first few years, but I imagine that as time goes on, you start to lapse back into the natural filtering process that Andy talks about, because those filters really do creep up on you without you noticing.

  2. What a great, thoughtful post. This ties in nicely with something I wrote about yesterday. Just got home from the annual PaLA conference, this year being held in State College. PA. Yesterday, I attended a triple session with Jamie LaRue, Director of Douglas County Libraries in Colorado. He had so many inspiring things to say; however, one thing that he talked about was making libraries essential in the ebook market. Douglas County Libraries has purchased an Adobe Content server for $10,000 so that they can purchase and OWN their own e-content. LaRue envisions public libraries acting as “publishers” for those self-published authors going directly to the ebook market. The Adobe server can accommodate some crazy number like 2.7 million titles published in epub format. LaRue made the point that it will be impossible for libraries to “filter” every title included this way in a library’s collection, and that as a result, it is a certainty that many “fringe” elements will be included, some good, some not-so-good. Since he himself has had to address over 250 book challenges during his time as Director (print, I believe, not including these self-published titles), he was wondering how this sort of forward-thinking, ebook publishing model would affect issues like library collection development, selection, “censoring”, and filtering since any library could not possibly preview every new e-title for quality, content, etc. He envisions some sort of user-based filtering that would depend on reviews of readers, etc. I highly recommend visiting his Web site, which is linked in my post. So much is changing, and there are so many things to think about!

  3. Pingback: The “virtues” of censorship, pt. 3: searching for “safe libraries” « Catecinem

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