01 January 2004

Intellectual Freedom

by Rebecca Hindman

The History of Intellectual Freedom and Censorship

Threats to intellectual freedom have existed since the printed word. History has seen bitter censorship battles over what should and should not be published, sold, and read. The fight for intellectual freedom has been long and complex, and many agencies have been involved in the process. For example, in 1954, libraries had difficulty importing materials from behind the Iron Curtain. The post office had taken on the role of the censor and had labeled certain papers "unmailable" and refused to deliver them (Newsletter, January, 1954, 7). The Civil Rights era was also a difficult time for our country, and libraries were not exempt from its pressures. On August 11, 1962, a federal court ordered the public library in Montgomery, Alabama to desegregate its reading and browsing areas. The very next day in Albany, Georgia, "several Negro youths went into the public library, [and] the building was immediately closed 'indefinitely in the interest of public safety'" (Newsletter, October, 1962, 1). Even as late as 1962, intellectual freedom was still a dream. There was not equal access to information. The reaction of this library actually impeded the access to all users in an attempt to discriminate against the few.

We believe rather that what people read is deeply important - that ideas can be dangerous - but that the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society.

Today the ALA takes the stand of anti-censorship, but as illustrated, that was not always the case in the United States. In the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, librarians felt it their duty to restrict access to library materials to children and adults. Librarians were admonished "to obtain only the most wholesome materials. As Dewey (1876) noted, 'only the best books on the best subjects' were to be collected, and there was considerable debate as to whether patrons should be exposed to such works as romances" (Rubin 152-53). Librarians were expected to endorse and indeed censor the materials they provided for their patrons. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn provides a good example of a librarian's thinking at the turn of the century.

"The novel excited controversy from the outset, when the Concord (Massachusetts) Public Library banned the book in 1855, charging that the [book] was 'trash suitable only for the slums.' Denver (Colorado) Public Library banned the novel in 1902, and Brooklyn Public Library removed it from the children's room on the charge that 'Huck not only itched but he scratched, and he said sweat when he should have said perspiration."' (Karolides, Bald, and Sova, 336)

Richard Rubin further explains that "the women who were hired as librarians at the end of the nineteenth century were expected to represent the values of polite middle-class society and to steer individuals from good to better books" (153).

By 1948 the view of the librarian was far removed from that of the early 20th century librarian. The librarian's role began to shift from being a gatekeeper to a provider of information. The librarian today has a professional responsibility to be as fair, just, and equitable as possible to try to give all library users equal protection in guarding against violation of library patrons' rights to read, view or listen to materials and resources protected by the First Amendment. Libraries similarly have an obligation to prevent library collectors from removal of material based on personal bias or prejudice and to select and support free access to the material available (Hull 14).

Current Issues in Intellectual Freedom

One issue currently facing librarians deals with conflicts of interest. Librarians often experience "conflicting moral, ethical, personal, social, and legal obligations" (Rubin 147), all of which contribute to the actions a librarian takes in a given situation. When an adolescent wants to check out material on suicide, should the librarian intervene? When a child asks for a book that contains explicit photographs, should the librarian refuse to help the child locate the material? When a foreigner is searching for material on how to build a bomb, should the librarian alert the police? According to Rubin, "It is not being suggested here that librarians should act as censors, but it is to say that considering the effects of information on the patron lies well within the domain of ethical deliberations, and that intellectual freedom issues, although clearly intimately related, do not exhaust the important considerations when making ethical decisions" (274). There are a variety of issues that each librarian must work out issue by issue, situation by situation, always maintaining the integrity of the discipline.

Privacy is another issue of great concern to librarians. In the wake of September 11, issues of library patron privacy have come to the forefront. There is a great concern within the library profession that as patrons lose privacy in regards to their library activities, they will be less likely to seek out information, especially if the subject is controversial in nature. The USA PATRIOT Act was passed shortly after the terrorist attacks with little revision or debate. As a result, "across the nation, FBI investigators are quietly visiting libraries and checking the reading records of people they suspect of being in league with terrorists" (Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, September 2002, 185). Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act is of particular concern to libraries in that it "gave the FBI authority to obtain library and bookstore records and a wide range of other documents" on any patron (Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, September 2002, 185). Despite the act and the threat it poses to intellectual freedom and the right to access whatever information you seek, "The American Library Association affirms that rights of privacy are necessary for intellectual freedom and are fundamental to the ethics and practice of librarianship" (Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, September 2002, 191). The ALA also "opposes any use of governmental power to suppress the free and open exchange of knowledge and information or to intimidate individuals exercising free inquiry...ALA considers that sections of the USA PATRIOT Act are a present danger to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users" (ala.org--from ALA's Resolution on the USA Patriot Act). Due to many of the concerns of the library field, many aspects of the USA Patriot Act are being reviewed and will possibly be appealed and amended in the near future.

In October 1998, Congress enacted the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) with the intent of researching ways to protect children online, including filters, labels, rating systems, and age verification. The Commission on Child Online Protection Act reported that no single method will protect children on the Internet. There are quite a few concerns regarding filtering Internet access. First of all, many public computers and libraries are open to both children and adults. Filtering material deemed inappropriate to minors would violate an adult's right to view the information. Further, filters may inadvertently block sites that are desirable and not block all sites that are inappropriate. In fact, computer software companies are hesitant to provide the filtering software to public libraries for fear of certain sites coming up despite the filter and the legal responsibility inherent in the flawed software. A national study by the Digital Media Forum has shown overwhelming support for filters in public schools (Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, January 2001, 5). Though this clearly violates the basis of intellectual freedom, Dhavan Shah, assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Wisconsin at Madison claims that "it's not perceived as censorship, but rather a protection, or barrier" (Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, January 2001,5). Once again librarians come face to face with the need and desire to uphold intellectual freedom while holding fast to ethics and meeting the needs of society.

Future Trends

All disciplines change over time and library science is no exception. The laws and issues relating to intellectual freedom will have an impact on the future practice of librarianship. As a result of the USA PATRIOT Act, many libraries have done away with record keeping altogether, in a desperate effort to protect the privacy of their patrons. The University of Arizona Library, for example, does not keep circulation records. If a student wishes to obtain a history of books he or she already returned, it is impossible. The library simply does not keep such information.

The University of Arizona library never gave out or retained patron information to begin with. According to Marianne Bracke, assistant librarian at the University of Arizona, virtual librarianship and chat reference have changed the face of libraries forever. User privacy is of the utmost importance at UA. Despite tight budgets, the library opted to buy a software package that allows them to control the transcripts of the patrons and librarians, rather than use a free software package that does not allow such control. It is University Library policy to delete all transcripts (from chat or emails) after 7 days. When initial transcripts are stored, the software automatically strips the correspondence of an email address, always ensuring confidentiality and privacy.

Additional actions to protect privacy are being implemented nationwide. Many libraries are no longer using sign-in sheets for computer labs. There is also concern about remote access to a library's website. When on campus, patrons can access the sites without entering any identifying information. When off campus, however, students, faculty, and staff must enter some sort of ID number in order to access certain materials. Though records are not consciously kept, there is concern that somewhere in the computer lies a record of who has visited the library site and when. This concern may lead to some sort of change in remote access in the future.

Scholarly communication poses yet another challenge to intellectual freedom and providing access to materials. Journal subscriptions go up 10-15% per year. Because the university library serves faculty members who are working for tenure, these faculty members must publish in certain journals. The UA library is forced to pay these increased fees year after year. As a result, in conjunction with Arizona Research Libraries (ARL) and Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), the University of Arizona is striving to create alternate but parallel journals. The first journal attempted is the Journal of Insect Science. Publishing a journal with the same integrity as other journals allows professors to contribute to their fields while maintaining costs within the library. This also prevents buying back journals from publishers. After a professor turns the rights to an article over to a publisher, the university has to buy back the journal its own faculty have contributed to. The UA Library wants to provide all journals; however, limited resources do not make this possible. The Scholarly Communications Team is also working with publishers and authors to create a Bill of Rights in order to make their relationship more beneficial.

Other future issues in intellectual freedom involve copyright and fair use. Due to e-reserves and the easy access to materials, copyright issues have recently come under scrutiny. The UA Library currently provides access to articles and audio files, and in the future, Bracke would not be surprised to see video files available as well. This ability to share and provide information to a large mass of information seekers calls into question the copyright law, which only allows 1/10 of work to be copied for academic purposes. The future of this issue remains unknown.


In closing, one can see that censorship and intellectual freedom are complex issues that will continue to dominate to the library field. Intellectual freedom is a world-wide problem and is very complex. It includes all forms of information, access to all users, and censorship. Librarians face many pressures when dealing with users and providers of information. There is pressure from parents, religious groups, administrators, and government agencies to restrict access to certain materials. Sometimes they win and sometimes they lose, but librarians "do not state these propositions in the comfortable belief that what people read is unimportant. We believe rather that what people read is deeply important - that ideas can be dangerous - but that the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours" (From the Freedom to Read Statement as quoted in Rubin 161). Librarians continue to fight for that freedom today.

Rebecca Hindman was born and raised in the now-infamous Modesto, California. She began the SIRLS program as a non-degree seeking student in Fall 2003 and was officially accepted into the program Spring 2004. She currently works in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Office of Academic Programs. Rebecca lives in Tucson with her husband David, who is also pursuing graduate studies at UA. They enjoy hiking in the desert, day trips, and reading.

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