Federal Libraries and Intellectual Freedom

Bernadine Abbott Hoduski

Bernadine Abbott Hoduski retired as Professional Staff Member for Library and Distribution Services, Congress of the United States, Joint Committee on Printing in 1995, founder of the Government Documents Round Table of the American Library Association and is currently an author and consultant on government information issues and programs.



The federal library community is composed of a variety of libraries comparable in type to those in the library community as a whole. Federal libraries range from the one-of-a-kind Library of Congress to small school libraries on Native American reservations and to specialized libraries serving executive agencies.

Federal libraries have censorship problems just like other libraries, but these are seldom brought to the attention of the library profession or the public. Many federal librarians feel there is no problem with censorship in government libraries. Others do not agree. Most of them do agree that positive steps should be taken to help prevent possible censorship situations.

Even though federal libraries differ in many respects, they do have some things in common: (1) They must function according to a number of federal laws and regulations; (2) Their mission is usually dictated by the agency to which they belong; (3) Since they are supported by federal taxes they are answerable, directly or indirectly, to all U.S. citizens. Since many federal libraries are contracted out to private vendors, it is important that the federal official legally responsible for seeing that the library function as a federal entity be involved in developing the library’s policies.

Federal libraries can prevent many problems, including censorship, by following some simple procedures:

  1. With the assistance of the agency’s lawyer, it should be determined which laws and regulations govern the agency and the library because regulations differ from one agency to the next.
  2. An order describing the purpose, functions, and policies of the library should be written, thus officially establishing and protecting the existence of the library. This order should be signed and distributed by the secretary of a department or the administrator of an agency.
  3. Librarians should take every opportunity to educate the secretary of a department, the agency administrator, the staff, and the public as to the policies of the Library.
  4. Federal libraries should cooperate with each other, comparing policies on materials selection, access to the collection, and other issues, including policies about information in electronic and audiovisual formats. Such comparisons can be used as examples in establishing policies and educating the agency’s staff.
  5. Library directors should determine whether and how the Freedom of Information Act affects the library. Some federal libraries serve as the agency’s public reading room in order to fulfill the requirements of the law, which states that the public must have reasonable access to documents issued by an agency. If the library is the official repository for agency documents, these have to be accessible to the public. If the library keeps classified and unclassified documents, some provision will have to be made to keep these separate. The library should also have an agreed upon plan for providing documents once they are declassified. This should be done in consultation with the agency’s attorney.
  6. Library directors should determine what policies they should follow if they are a federal depository library. If the agency requires secrecy or denies access to the public, the library will be in direct conflict with the laws governing depository libraries. The agency will have to explore ways of complying with both requirements or risk losing their status.
  7. If possible, a library committee representing all elements of the agency should be established so materials selection, access policies, and other practices will be fair to all. In turn, the library committee can help educate the rest of the agency employees and support library policies.
  8. The library should have a written access policy, not favoring one group in an agency over another. If the library circulates material to the public, it should do so for everyone, not just for a select few. Libraries may decide to loan through another library rather than to individuals. If so, this decision should be publicized. Some agencies have regulations which do not allow those outside the agency to use their library.
  9. The library should maintain a written materials selection policy. Even though the subject area is often determined by the mission of the agency, the diversity of views in that subject area must be guarded. An obvious example of censorship would be refusal to buy publications critical of an agency.
  10. Finally, the library should develop and implement a policy protecting the confidentiality of library users. Records associating individuals with the materials they borrow should never be released to others—whether requested by employers or colleagues—without the written consent of individual in question.

Because federal libraries are important information links in the decision-making process of the U.S. government, and because citizen access to information about that process is crucial to the preservation of a free society, federal libraries must be protected from censorship.