Intellectual Freedom

rubin_fullsize_rgbIn Chapter 9 of Foundations of Library and Information Science, Richard Rubin explores the concept of Intellectual Freedom (IF). IF has its roots in nineteenth-century political theory as well as the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, the right to free speech invariably means having the freedom to think, believe, and form new ideas without outside impedance from the government or any institution under the law. Therefore, it would seem that IF in libraries is a foregone conclusion. But Rubin admits that this is “one of the most difficult aspects of library work” (491).

The four factors discussed by Rubin that tend to restrict access to IF are (1) personal values, (2) community values, (3) the desire to protect children from harm, and (4) the need to ensure survival of the library. Conversely, three factors that promote IF in libraries are (1) the need to educate future generations, (2) adhering to professional standards, and (3) protecting democratic rights. These last three are easy enough to abide by if an LIS professional assumes an impartial attitude toward various ethical situations that may arise within the library. But this is not easy to do if one is concerned with the physical and emotional safety of others, especially children.

Rubin noted that the level of formal education among library staff correlated with the lessening of censorship. Censorship is obviously more of a problem in public and elementary school libraries, where there are children who are not yet adults. The trickiest issue for a librarian in this instance is withdrawing their personal values and allowing minors to check out library materials that have morally questionable subject matter (violence, language, sexual content). Religious background usually is a big factor in what many deem appropriate.

Even in the adult world, however, there can be instances of hesitancy to allow some materials to circulate. For example, we just passed the 22nd anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. I read about a connection between William Powell’s The Anarchist Cookbook being used by Timothy McVeigh to perpetrate the attack. The cookbook was written by Powell as an experimental foray into chemistry, as he was a chemistry teacher, but it had deadly implications. With any material that has practical or idealogical advice that can be used for evil purposes, it is immensely difficult to reconcile the right to read against possible evil outcomes. This is why the Freedom of Information Act after 911 made it possible for the government to have access to patron library records.

These are tired examples. Still, I believe in the principle of intellectual freedom. Society is made better when it has unrestricted access to ideas, for the sake of recreation, enlightenment, and progress.

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