Academic Libraries and Intellectual Freedom

Barbara M. Jones

Barbara M. Jones is Head of the Rare Book and Special Collections Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and author of Libraries, Access, and Intellectual Freedom: Developing Policies for Public and Academic Libraries (ALA: 1999).

Traditional library practice defined intellectual freedom issues very narrowly and relegated them to public and school libraries. But then in 1987 the FBI began visiting academic libraries. In an effort to uncover what they suspected to be subversive gathering of information and recruiting of operatives by foreign agents, FBI agents pressured library staff to disclose the reading habits of “suspicious looking foreigners” and asked to see circulation records.

In the twenty-first century academic library, the concept of intellectual freedom has broadened to include such library issues as fee-based services, donor restrictions on manuscript collections, reference interviews, and purchasing “politically incorrect” materials. Not to mention the Internet’s impact. This major vehicle for scholarly communication has raised important First Amendment issues on college campuses-including the problem of explicit content offensive to some, and campus network use policies that sometimes conflict with the Library Bill of Rights.

College and university campuses are hosting increasing numbers of high school enrichment programs so that academic library users are often minors. While the ALA’s “ Free Access to Libraries for Minors” interpretation calls for unrestricted access, academic libraries could well begin to experience the kinds of book challenges so familiar to K–12 and public libraries.

Academic librarians are often in an ideal position to lend support to beleaguered colleagues in school and public libraries. College and university collections often contain book reviews and other supporting information for “expert” testimony in the face of a challenge to a library book. It is ever important for librarians in all types of institutions to form coalitions for broad-based support of intellectual freedom.

Many academic libraries depend on the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) academic freedom principles as sufficient backup in case of a First Amendment problem. However, library intellectual freedom issues have become so complex that complementary statements, based on ALA’s intellectual freedom principles, need to be part of any campus’ comprehensive policies on academic freedom.

For publicly funded academic institutions and the libraries therein, the obligation for upholding the First Amendment is particularly important. However, most private college and university libraries also follow ALA’s guidelines and principles. Good students and faculty in most disciplines, quite frankly, will expect intellectual freedom to be the foundation for library collections and services-regardless of whether the institution is private or public. Otherwise, it will be very difficult for them to do scholarly research that will be respected and published by their peers.

The legal concept covering all publicly funded libraries-and that includes publicly funded academic libraries-is that of a “limited public forum.” In such a forum, users have a right to receive information, and librarians have a right to provide it. And yet this forum can set limits; it need not be as “free-wheeling” as a soapbox in a public park, for example. As a “limited” public space—which extends to cyberspace-libraries are free to set reasonable regulations in order to achieve their mission of providing information and other services. Such regulations might include the establishment of hours and definitions of appropriate patron conduct.

However, any regulations on must be applied equitably to all users. Disheveled students (and there are many during finals week!) must be granted the same quality of library service as their well-groomed friends. If one group of students is asked to be quiet, then all users must be held to the same standard of conduct. If, as in some academic libraries, there are different levels of borrowers and access, care must be taken that these levels don’t discriminate on the basis of physical disabilities, race, gender, or other categories recognized in U. S. civil rights legislation.

Academic libraries must devote the time to discuss, develop, write, and update good written policies. While the work is often tedious, such policies are invaluable insurance against intellectual freedom-related problems. They help assure staff consistency in handling intellectual freedom issues, whether with an angry library user or an insistent sheriff. Written policies, held together attractively in a folder or web site, display a library’s professionalism and managerial excellence. Policies are best written by groups within the library who share common interests but bring different perspectives to the table.

While written regulations and policies are necessary in all academic libraries, they are only part of promoting and protecting intellectual freedom. It is equally important that librarians and staff be well-trained and knowledgeable about the principles of intellectual freedom. It is important that prospective library employees understand that academic libraries can be “uncomfortable”-in terms of the ideas contained in much of the information that is purchased, cataloged, or exhibited on computer terminals. Staff should always be protected from any illegal workplace activity, but the library’s contents are most likely constitutionally protected.

Librarians should insist on representation on campus committees dealing with such library-related issues as computer access policies and disciplinary action taken against violations of such policies. In developing a campus computer use policy, computer professionals are understandably more interested in conservation of precious resources than in promoting freedom of expression that might well eat up these resources. Thus they may be more tolerant of restrictive policies on information. Librarians must be at the same table to offer another perspective. When computer centers are in a position to restrict certain electronic information from campus computers, they are performing a type of collection development function, and librarians should be part of that decision making process.

Viewed positively, commitment to intellectual freedom principles should create a proactive learning environment, conducive to promoting access to information. Good interpersonal communications skills have often defused a potential conflict over a censorship issue and prevented costly legal hassles. Such academic libraries promote an intellectually lively environment and can be “fun” places for work and study. It is important that librarians never let their professional right to provide information be eroded.

Where to begin? In addition to library colleagues, policy writers should look to expertise in such academic departments as the law and journalism schools. The campus legal counsel and law enforcement agency should also be consulted at every step. However, librarians should be prepared to bring specific First Amendment applications to library issues to the table. Most attorneys, for example, will be grateful to have the librarian provide the state confidentiality statute, current litigation about filtering, the Library Bill of Rights, and the like. Current information of this kind is on the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom web site. Expertise from the attorney as well as the librarian makes for good policy.

Use ALA Intellectual Freedom Manual. All the policies therein apply to academic libraries. The Association of College and Research Libraries recently established an intellectual freedom committee, and their “ Intellectual Freedom Principles for Academic Libraries” is an important source. 1

Be familiar with specific applicable local ordinances and state laws. Confidentiality statutes regarding patron records, for example, are state legislation. Some states also have obscenity laws of various sorts, and it is important to know if and how libraries and museums are exempt.

The Library Collections

Content-based censorship is one of the primary barriers to intellectual freedom. Written collection development policies should describe an academic library’s subject specialties and priorities. These are an essential component to assure balanced coverage of a particular topic. The policies should follow the Library Bill of Rights interpretations, especially “Diversity in Collection Development” and “Evaluating Library Collections.” However, almost all of the interpretations deal in one way or another with collection content.

Academic libraries are often members of consortia. Often these groups share collection responsibilities systematically in order to pool limited financial resources and to assure coverage of all subjects. Libraries should never use consortia or interlibrary loan partnerships as a way to avoid buying a controversial book. For one thing, such books are often in great demand, and if only one member of the consortium is courageous enough to buy the book, that isn’t enough.

Even in an academic library it is sometimes difficult to collect controversial materials. Sometimes teaching faculty members will pressure librarians to buy books on a particular topic that represent only one “politically correct” view. Another problem arises when a controversial book in high demand is deemed “poor scholarship” by some faculty and therefore unworthy of being housed in an academic library collection. While in most cases academic libraries must make collection decisions based, to a certain extent, on the quality and importance of the scholarship, this rationale should never be used as a way to avoiding the purchase of a book in great demand by the users. A recent example of this dilemma is whether academic libraries should buy Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-semitic fictional propaganda tract that appears to be non-fiction. Such materials sometimes have a place in academic libraries because they appear in the public discourse and researchers want to be aware of the ideas contained therein. In these cases, librarians need to be sure to provide contextual materials, representing many points of view, so that the collections are balanced on any particular topic.


The right to provide information should be embraced by academic librarians. The challenge, of course, is to find the best sources in what some have called the “information glut.” Accuracy and authority on Internet sources is a major problem. Libraries and librarians aren’t liable for providing a “correct answer.” On the other hand, they should try to collect the best reference resources-electronic or paper-and show patrons how to use them. Reference librarians will probably guide patrons to sources which, in their professional judgment, are the best in various fields. At the same time, librarians should be very sensitive to letting personal biases about particular topics or reference sources to act as a “filter” between librarian and researcher. Librarians are uniquely qualified to teach users how to think critically in evaluating information resources. Thus the student can conduct research independently and with a certain modicum of privacy.

Fee-based information services are too expensive for many students. Library administrators should review the budget and try to keep such information as low cost as possible, or provide low-cost alternatives of the same quality. When licensing agreements erect economic barriers, these should be negotatied if at all possible. It is questionable management practice to “hide” the fees of expensive fee-based information services by passing the costs on to the students. Campus administrators will never understand the tremendous financial burden of library information service if it isn’t represented in the budgetary process.

Cataloging records can introduce cultural bias into scholary inquiry. Because research libraries often do original cataloging and thus assign subject headings, it is important to understand the “power” of a subject heading in providing access and index points, especially in an electronic environment where browsing depends so much on language of the headings.


Circulation policies should include the state confidentiality statute. It is especially important to teach student workers how these laws apply, when users request information that may be privileged. For example, a user can request a “recall” of a circulating book, but can’t be told who currently has the book. Reserve book circulation records can’t be shown to professors, who sometimes want to determine which student has consulted which book. Similarly, committees evaluating faculty for promotion and tenure can’t consult circulation records to see what books were consulted.

Library records can’t be turned over to officials without a court-ordered subpoena. Alert student workers to this fact, since they are often on the front line. Investigations of plagiarism also require a subpoena before librarians can reveal the circulation records of a student.

Review all clerical workflow to make sure that printouts of patron circulation or fines information is not re-used, that all information is mailed in an envelope, not on a postcard.

International researchers, regardless of their citizenship status, are protected by the First Amendment in U.S. libraries.

It is questionable practice to keep sensitive materials behind a desk when other materials are on the open shelves. Some students might well be reticent to ask a librarian for such materials.

Many privacy-related situations relate to use of the campus computer network. Most campuses keep transaction logs far longer than libraries keep automated circulation records. Care should be taken to protect the privacy of students on campus networks, in regard to library records, reference questions, and other communications via the Internet. Librarians must not assume that campus network administrators are necessary knowledgeable or sensitive to such potential invasions of privacy. If a network user violates campus policy, he or she should be granted due process.

Make sure when negotiating the public access catalog contract that the vendor spells out the various levels of security. Libraries should be very careful, when assigning security clearance to personnel, that there has been thorough training in privacy issues.

Special collections libraries face particularly difficult situations with intellectual freedom. When negotiating donor agreements, librarians should try to achieve as little restriction as possible, in the interest of comprehensive access. Another difficult conflict arises over the retention of circulation records. On the one hand, special collections libraries want to be able to trace the users of a particular book, if it later turns up stolen or mutiliated. On the other hand, this kind of information could be used in ways that invade a scholar’s personal and research privacy. Another potential problem surrounds the frequently-used registration forms. Such issues should be discussed with campus legal counsel. In any case, no registration form should be shown to another scholar, who may be curious about who is using certain collections, without the first scholar granting permission for that information to be shared.

Another frequent problem facing special collections librarians is deciding whether to provide access to a deteriorating document, or make stewardship of that document a higher priority. Thorough training in preservation issues, as well as written guidelines for making such decisions, protects librarians from accusations of preferential treatment of some scholars over others.

Campus Civility

In recent years, administrators have tried to implement “hate speech codes” to prevent verbal and written attacks on various groups on increasingly diverse campuses. Most of these have been overturned on First Amendment grounds. Libraries are often accused of promoting this problem when they buy materials criticizing certain groups. As a public forum, the library play an important role in promoting civil campus discourse through its collections and services. This can be achieved by providing information and holding exhibits and programs about controversial issues from all points of view.

1Intellectual Freedom Principles for Academic Libraries was adopted by the ALA Council on July 12, 2000, and is now an official Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.