The role of libraries is to provide access to information with the intent of increasing individual knowledge. The more effective access to information a library can provide, the better it fulfills its role. This may be achieved through a large, varied collection of materials, helpful and knowledgable staff, and big soft couches (to provide an environment more conducive to the casual absorbtion of new ideas). There are many factors that determine how effectively a library turns its limited resources into information that can be effectively utilized by its constituents. Yet probably the most important factor is having a balanced collection of a variety of resources. Libraries have long believed in providing a informational smorgasbord and so granting users the intellectual freedom to choose their resources and form their own ideas.
The first good reason to provide access to all types of ideas is that the librarian (or anyone else for that matter) cannot objectively, unequivocally determine what is True. This conflicts somewhat with our Western, scientific notion of an objective, external reality. In such a world view, those states of affairs which correspond with reality are true.
However, such correspondence is not so easily determined. First off, any knowledge of an external reality reaches consciousness only through our senses (neglecting ESP, religious inspiration, or innate reasoning). Thus, any knowledge is tainted or restricted by the aspect of our senses.
Secondly, even those things that do reach our consciousness are affected by our mental classification schemes and world view. Even the empiricist view that all human knowledge derives from experience basically assumes, a priori, that effects follow causes, that the world is consistent, and that we can induct what tomorrow will be like based on the events of today. There is always some knowledge structure into which we organize our information. And this structure, or paradigm, in turn determines what information or experiences are important.
Thirdly, even if we could objectively know reality without being influenced by our own senses or knowledge structures, it seems that reality may not itself be that separate and objective after all. Eastern religions have held this to be relatively self-evident [6,7]. Yet even in our culture, quantum physics has shown that the very nature of matter (electrons in one specific example) change depending on whether they are observed .
Please excuse me for painting the metaphysical picture in such broad, brief strokes. But I hope I have at least demonstrated that even something as basic as what is "real" is not a black and white issue. And, without knowing what is real, we cannot hope to begin to determine that a thing is true based on how it corresponds with what is real. (There are other possible criteria of truth we could use instead, such as how usefulness a belief is, but these other theories all have their problems too. The paradoxical difficulty with theories of truth is that you first need a theory of truth to use in determining which theory is true!)
On a somewhat more tangible level, intellectual freedom is upheld in the US in accordance with the principles of the Constitution. By the first amendment, we are granted the right of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. As the ALA eloquently states: "The freedom to express one's beliefs or ideas, through any mode of communication, becomes virtually meaningless, however, when accessibility to such expressions is denied to other persons." 
I do not believe that simply having a right to free speech imposes a requirement on everyone else to listen. Yet limiting access to free speech after granting the freedom to give it seems contradictory. As public institutions, libraries should live in the spirit of the law as much as resources allow, and provide access to a variety of different beliefs and expressions.
The American Library Association has also long supported intellectual freedom. Initially, the focus of American public libraries was to "elevate the taste of their readers" or to maintain collections of only factual, morally upstanding, or aesthetically pleasing works . However, for nearly a century now, ALA has primarily encouraged free thought in library users and wide ranging library collections.
As item II of their current Library Bill of Rights bluntly states:
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 doctinal disapproval.
For many, maintaining the ideal of intellectual freedom is simply a personal choice. Such people enjoy the wide range of human opinions and are energized by a free debate of ideas. They are amazed at the complexity of human thought and intrigued by the beliefs of a variety of different cultures and subcultures. They prize above all an open-mind. To them, censorship seems a lobotomy of the communal mind. As one classmate so simply stated her desire for intellectual freedom: "I want to wipe out ignorance in the world."
Finally, history gives us good reason to protect free access to information. Control of information has often been associated with the tight control of a conservative government, from book burning and Jewish libercide in Nazi Germany , to censorship of newspapers in the Middle East, to George Orwell's fictional world of 1984. These are large scale examples; censorship happens on a smaller scale every day around the country . Fear of intellectual freedom arises whenever a society is in turmoil, when there is doubt, when one group desires power over another . Censorship and book destruction are usually early signs of worse things to come in a society. Though upholding intellectual freedom may not cure the underlying ills of society, it may at least prevent one ideology from completely dominating another.
It is invigorating to talk about libraries as bastions of freedom and unconquerable realms of the free mind. Of course, in reality (if there is such a thing!) this is not always the case. In the past, intellectual freedom was less frequently the dominant goal of libraries. Instead, record keeping, archiving, and preservation of knowledge were more important.
Today, despite the new primary focus, librarians still succumb to censorship pressures, either in anticipation of patron requests or because of them . Though not the most desirable course of action, this is at least understandable. Librarians are people too and are not impervious to social pressure. Alienating the community over a single book may not seem the best way to increase the use of the library.
Aside from such obvious censorship, there is a more subtle filtering that occurs under the title of "collection development." This too is understandable. Libraries have limited resources. Though they may well strive to include as many views as possible, there is a limit to what they can achieve. Also, there is the issue of "quality" -- libraries tend to purchase those materials that are the most authoritative or representative or factual on a topic and do not include others. A library simply cannot hold every work ever published, and so it must frequently choose one resource over another.
With the emergence of the World Wide Web, the "collection development" excuse is no longer an option, control over quality goes out the window, and the strain of maintaining intellectual freedom grows.
First off, libraries have no longer selected all the materials in their collection. By setting up an Internet terminal, they include, for better or worse, all the information contained therein. Of course, they may promote certain sites by cataloging or linking to them, but the rest are still accessible. Filtering, even if termed something like "Internet collection development," is not an option. This is because collection development is a positive activity. Librarians select a number of resources from those available. The number of resources is limited by budget or space considerations. Censorship and Internet filtering, on the other hand, are negative activities. Of all the resources that could be available at no additional cost are removed solely for political or ideological reasons. This certainly violates intellectual freedom!
Secondly, the World Wide Web means a loss of quality control. Practically anyone can publish a web page, and it doesn't necessarily have to be accurate information. On one hand, this means librarians have a greater opportunity to act as information navigators. Though the public rarely recognizes it, this is exactly their area of expertise. On the other hand, it means the level of information literacy required by library users increases exponentially. User now have to determine not only what they're looking for, but how to find it among the more than one billion other pages and then how to determine if it is a worthwhile or reliable resource.
Finally, libraries will get a lot of flak from more community-oriented people. Providing a portal to anything a human mind can post to a web site is a great step in intellectual freedom. Yet this also means the library can now be seen as containing child pornography, hate group propaganda, idiotic drivel, pirated software, copyright infringing material, and instructional materials for any number of illegal actions. Though they are only opening the door and offering to guide the user, they are often seen as being responsible for what lies on the other side.
I have an analogy. Libraries of the past were like small parks on the edge of a village. There the librarian-gardner planted a great variety of beautiful flowers. Of course, not everyone agreed on which flowers were the best--some were "too bright," some smelled "too sweetly," some lacked "sufficient vitality." Some gardeners even planted cacti, poison ivy and Venus fly traps, to demonstrate the variety in botanical form. So, though these gardens seemed sunny and idyllic, you still had to watch you step. Yet there seemed some small niche for nearly everyone, whether it was a favorite flowerbed, lounging by the goldfish stream, or chatting with the gardener about the landscaping.
Including a connection to the World Wide Web in the library is like knocking a doorway in the back wall of this garden. Through this doorway now lies a magnificent and rugged wilderness. You can still ask your gardener for directions, but there's no telling what you might find out there: brambles, quicksand, wild boars, mosquitos, treacherous cliffs, breath-taking views, ancient forests, sunny meadows. Some of it is heartache, some of it is joy. But it is all unadorned and it grows wild. This is part of its beauty. There are graceful wildflowers such that have never grown in a green house, but perhaps they grow only on the shores of fetid swamps. To walk through the back door of the garden is to take all of this in, to be open to all the possibilities of nature.
Trying to filter the Internet is like requiring your gardener to tend all of this wilderness in the same way as he does the garden. But this dynamic wilderness cannot be tamed! The wildflowers cannot be separated from the mud; they cannot be ordered from greenhouses and planted in identical pots. At best, your gardener can only blaze a few safe trails, or teach you basic survival skills to prepare you for the journey.
Intellectual freedom, at least for the past 80 years, is the founding principle of libraries. There are good metaphysical, Constitutional, organizational, personal, and historical reasons for upholding this ideal. With the introduction and explosive growth of the Internet, intellectual freedom has an open medium in which to flourish. However, libraries are likely to face even greater opposition in providing access to it. For the ideological good of all, I hope intellectual freedom continues to be upheld.
(Click on an endnote number to return to the associated point in the text.)
1 Tomaszewski, Zach. "The Role of Libraries." <http://www2.hawaii.edu/~ztomasze/roleoflibraries.html> 12 Mar 2001.
2 Kirkham, Richard L. Theories of Truth. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992.
3 Lakoff, George. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
4 Hauser, Larry. Class lecture on David Hume. PHL112: Survey of Western Philosophy II. Alma College, Alma, MI. Fall 1996.
5 Dixon, Nick. Class lecture on Thomas Kuhn. PHL305: Philosophy of Science. Alma College, Alma MI. Fall 1997.
6 Watts, Alan. The Book. New York: Vintage Books, 1966.
7 Massanari, Ron. Class lectures. PHL217: Wisdom of the Far East. Alma College, Alma MI. Fall 1998.
8 Gribbin, John R. In Search of Schrodinger's Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality. New York : Bantam Books, 1984.
9 Vann, Sarah K. "The American Library Association: In Defense of Intellectual Freedom." Intellectual Freedom: The First Amendment and the Right to Know. Publisher and Date Unknown. p72. Quote from ALA's Intellectual Freedom Manual, p vii.
10 Vann, Sarah K. "The American Library Association: In Defense of Intellectual Freedom." Intellectual Freedom: The First Amendment and the Right to Know. Publisher and Date Unknown.
11 ALA Council. "Library Bill of Rights." <http://www.ala.org/work/freedom/lbr.html> 10 Mar 2000.
12 Morris, Robin. Class discussion. LIS 610. University of Hawaii-Manoa, Honolulu, HI. 02 May, 2001.
13 Knuth, Rebecca. Guest class lecture. LIS 610. University of Hawaii-Manoa, Honolulu, HI. 02 May, 2001
14 Wirth, Eileen. "The State of Censorship." (Sept. 1996): American Libraries, 44-8.
15 Vann, Sarah K. "The American Library Association: In Defense of Intellectual Freedom." Intellectual Freedom: The First Amendment and the Right to Know. Publisher and Date Unknown.
16 Wirth, Eileen. "The State of Censorship." (Sept. 1996): American Libraries, 44-8.
LIS: Intellectual Freedom
|Last Edited: 10 May 2001|
©2001 by Z. Tomaszewski.