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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Intellectual freedom

Intellectual freedom is the other major topic for the week. The main themes of this chapter are access to information and books, selection vs. censorship, confidentiality, and ethics. That’s a lot of ground to cover. Here’s what you should take away from the chapter. Libraries, Archives, Historical Societies, and Museums should collect a wide range of materials within their mission and collection development policies, and make those materials available to their patrons. The materials should cover the subject in a balanced manner. For example, if you acquire materials about abortion, you need to include items that support abortion and are anti-abortion. Here’s another example. There was a long and difficult debate amongst librarians about collecting “Holocaust Denial” materials. Should libraries collect materials that say the Holocaust never existed?  In the end, the decision was yes, they should have such materials balanced by all the materials about the Holocaust, otherwise, how would historians and researchers know what the deniers were publishing and arguing.[1] I’m certain you can come up with other topics where you need balanced coverage.

I don’t want my blog to turn into a written lecture, so let me reflect here a little about intellectual freedom. The topic is really about providing access to all types of information, to making certain that those who seek information can find it in the library or archives. Now we may request that individuals come to the library or into our special collections, but the information will be there to share and use. This means that you, the librarian or archivist, need to give the information to the patron. You also need to be neutral in your comments, and to provide balanced recommendations. When I was in library school the prime example was encyclopaedia recommendations. You might give a patron World Book because the articles are simple to read, there are pictures, and the information is easy to get at. On the other hand, Encyclop√¶dia Britannica provides in-depth coverage of a topic at a higher reading level. If a patron wanted to know which was ‘better’, that was the answer. No evaluation, no preference. Today, I’d say the same is true of Wikipedia, it is fast, has pictures, etc, but you need to balance that with whether the links work, go where you expect them to go, and who contributed the article. FYI, the basic info for Wikipedia was from the 1911 Encyclop√¶dia Britannica, imagine that! Can 1911 information be current?  They built up from there.

I think it’s difficult to always be neutral, but that’s what the codes of ethics teach us. We must provide access to all, and balanced information. Perhaps that’s the crux of the matter when we deal with internet access in the library. Should we filter or not? A sticky issue that hasn’t really be resolved.

In the end, we can only be fair, equitable, balanced, and as neutral as possible when providing resources to answer questions. And we need to protect the rights of our patrons who come to the library seeking information and not wishing anyone to know what they sought. Anonymity is important. That’s why circulation systems delete the information about what you borrowed when you return the items, and why librarians fight against the government when they want to know what you borrowed, or who borrowed which books. Intellectual freedom is a hot topic in libraries, especially since 9/11. Protecting the freedom to ask for information is an important component of the field.

[1] For some discussion about the topic see two sites that discuss what holocaust denial,, and one about the premier holocaust denier

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