Public Libraries and Intellectual Freedom

Gordon M. Conable



If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all—except the censor. We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors. For the Bill of Rights is the guardian of our security as well as our Library.—John F. Kennedy

Gordon M. Conable is the Vice President of West Coast Operations for LSSI in Riverside, California. He served on the Board of the Freedom to Read Foundation 1988–95, and 2002–3 and is currently the Foundation’s President. He was Chair of the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee 1989–91and served on the Committee from 1987–91.


American democracy is dependent upon a belief that the people are capable of self-government. To secure our basic rights, we believe that “governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In this country, we have taken this to mean “informed consent.”

The concept of informed consent only has meaning if the full range of human ideas is accessible to the people. The proponents of the various points of view must be able to make their cases fully and openly, however popular or unpopular they may be, before the individual and collective judgment of their fellow citizens.

This principle is embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which protects the free expression of ideas:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

By providing the information and resources necessary for open, free, and unrestricted dialogue on all issues of concern, the public library preserves these freedoms.

It is the genius of the American system that we base our liberty on the broadest protection of each individual’s rights to free expression and on the corollary right to access the expression of others. It is the genius of the American public library to be an institution dedicated to promoting the exercise of these rights.

American public libraries flourish out of a commitment to the principle that knowledge and access to information empower the individual. Libraries embody the firm belief that information must not be the exclusive province of a privileged few and that it should be widely and freely available to all

At the time the public library movement began, books and education were scarcer commodities. Today, the quantity of information that is generated and distributed is increasing exponentially. The issue of scarcity is superseded now by new problems of access. But the essential function of the public library is unchanged: to offer knowledge and information to the average citizen who cannot afford, with individual resources alone, to secure all the information necessary to meet his or her self-defined needs in a complex and challenging world. In this way, public libraries provide tangible commitment to free speech, self-government, and self-education by collecting, organizing, preserving, disseminating, and protecting everyone’s rights of access to the richness of human expression in all its recorded forms. This responsibility goes further to justify the existence and support of public libraries than any of the many other roles and functions that public libraries fulfill within their communities.

Libraries are storehouses and access-distribution-and-retrieval centers for an exploding body of human knowledge and opinion. They serve as neutral ground for opposing positions. Human beings, after all, are very different from each other. Those differences sometimes motivate individuals to attack the messages that elucidate, represent, or advocate ideas that seem to threaten their own beliefs, way of life, sense of security, understanding of the world, or desires and aspirations. Thus the contents of libraries may become targets for censors who seek to have particular items removed from the library collection, restricted as to access, expurgated, labeled, or otherwise censored. A public librarian cannot remain unconcerned, but must understand the nature of censorship, the motives of censors, and what yielding to them means.

Such attacks are often well-intentioned; they are also frequently emotionally charged. They may represent the personal distress of an individual coming in contact with material that he or she is unprepared to deal with or finds frightening. Fear—often expressed as concern about harm that could be caused to children through exposure to certain books, films, videotapes, recordings, or ideas—motivates many complaints. Such a response is quite natural and human; parents are expected to protect their offspring. The concern may be real, but the requested response—the censorship of library materials—is an inappropriate means of dealing with perceived danger to children. Calm discussion will frequently provide the opportunity to reassure concerned parents, support the parents’ role in guiding their own children’s—and only their own children’s—reading, and assist them in finding library materials that meet their own family needs.

It is appropriate for parents to guide their children’s reading, television viewing, and exposure to media as they see fit. The public library can assist in this process by providing reader’s advisory services, booklists, and other related services in a positive, pro-active manner. What they library should not do is act in loco parentis — in the place of the parents — either by limiting access to materials or services solely on the basis of the user’s age or by attempting to enforce parentally dictated controls.

The librarian must be able to respond sensitively to any complaints about collection materials without compromising the rights of others or the integrity of the library collection and its policies.

Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis spoke directly to the stakes involved: “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burned women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” Others have feared ideas and burned books. It is the function of libraries and librarians to protect ideas and books and access to them.

Some attacks on libraries or their collections represent the calculated political agenda of sophisticated, well-organized individuals or groups who see the issue of material in the library as a means of advancing other social or political interests within a broader framework. These are rarer than the spontaneous outrage of the individual reader, but they can be more difficult to handle.

Regardless of the motive or the specific target of the censor, the function of the library and the task of the librarian are the same. It is our duty to stand firm against such pressure. This is our trust and this is our purpose. With common sense, honesty, and an open approach based upon accountability and not defensiveness, reason and not ideology, many complaints about books can be handled without either escalating them into major public controversies or giving in to pressure.

When the occasional controversy does erupt, the process can provide a healthy demonstration of democracy and free speech in action. It should be approached in this manner and the library should utilize the experience as a means of making its point about the importance of the underlying issues of free expression. This can provide a wellspring of community support and good will that can last long after the shouting has died.

Reviewing the astonishing range of materials that have come under attack in public libraries in recent years, it is impossible to predict or anticipate which items may arouse anyone’s wrath. Chaucer, the Bible, and generally acknowledged classics have come under the would-be censor’s fire, but so have innumerable works of less literary merit, less recognized authority, and less successful authorship. The librarian must be willing and able to defend them all, for to sacrifice the trivial, the controversial, or the distasteful means sacrificing the ability to defend anything.

Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black put it like this: “It is my belief that there are ‘absolutes’ in our Bill of Rights, and that they were put there on purpose by men who knew what words meant and meant their prohibitions to be ‘absolutes.’” The First Amendment must apply to everyone or it will protect no one.

Living up to the public trust embodied in professional standards relating to intellectual freedom requires courage, creativity humor, determination, wit, patience, and commitment. Those who would shirk these standards should seek other employment.

Joanne Goldsmith has said:

The librarian who quietly removes a book from the shelf because of a noisy complaint is more guilty of restricting intellectual freedom than the complainant. The librarian has responsibility to a tradition, a body of law, and to the procedures established and approved for dealing with complaints. Worse, once the librarian has surrendered on a single occasion, he or she is the first target in future assaults. Extremism feeds on success. It is made bolder and more demanding by victory.

The issues with which public libraries must deal relating to intellectual freedom are varied and complex. In addition to the defense of challenged materials, the range of related issues includes, among others:

Fees: The imposition of service charges may provide a significant economic barrier to information access. As libraries embrace automation, electronic media and connectivity, the temptation to impose fees may increase, but it should be resisted.

Formats: Many libraries and librarians are committed to and effective in defending nonillustrated, printed material. Philosophical assumptions, cost, or ambivalence based upon other factors may lead to practices in the handling of video, sound recordings, film, or other nonprint formats that violate basic intellectual freedom standards.

Facilities: Libraries that provide public meeting rooms and display or exhibit facilities may be subject to pressure if the subject matter of meetings, exhibits, or displays is deemed controversial or offensive.

Political agendas: Supporters of particular causes may seek to have opposing points of view excluded from the library or may charge the library with bias or censorship if their viewpoint is underrepresented. The library which actively seeks representative material from across the full political spectrum and which actively solicits user suggestions and responds to them with purchases, not only serves its function better, but also develops reservoirs of good will which help negate charges of bias in collection development.

User confidentiality and privacy: Failure to protect the rights of library users to utilize library materials and services privately can limit the practical exercise of First Amendment rights. Incursions of this sort—which are illegal in many jurisdictions— have been attempted by the FBI, police agencies, marketing firms, religious missionaries, the press, and others. Protecting confidentiality in an automated, networked environment provides new challenges for libraries. Security becomes an issue not only to insure the integrity of the library’s own databases and computer operating systems, but also to protect users’ privacy rights.

Public libraries operate in a public arena. The legal structures that establish and finance library service, the reasonable requirements for public accountability, and the realities of the political process provide the context in which libraries must carry out their mission. This context may appear to add to the pressures that librarians face in opposing censorship. If properly understood, however, these factors provide significant tools for librarians in defending their collections and services from the censor’s attacks. Law, the rights and protections of public employees (which in many ways surpass those offered to private employees), and the protection that comes from an open process and public debate can all work to the librarian’s advantage in exercising his or her ethical responsibilities.

Censorship pressure can come from both sources external to the library and sources within the library itself. The external sources include:

Parents. Either singularly or in groups, parents may seek the removal of materials from a library’s collection. Their concerns often center around materials that deal with sex in an explicit or realistic way, but they may also attack books dealing with witchcraft and the occult, and books that differ from their vision of the traditional family structure. In recent years, there has been an increase in challenges to pictures books.

Religious groups. Either individual members of a religious group or the group as a whole may attack material. Moral issues, sexual issues, the role of women, “demonic” or “satanic” material, or the presentation of religion in a manner perceived to be negative are all common reasons for challenges.

Political groups. These people may charge a library with political bias on the basis of perceived imbalance within the collection or they may charge that material representing their political viewpoint is being systematically excluded by librarians with differing political views. Material describing communist societies still comes under fire.

Protected minority groups. Material that is considered racist or which presents specific ethnic groups in stereotyped ways or inaccurately treats their culture or history frequently comes under fire. Similar attacks on sexist or other stereotyped materials are also common.

Patriotic groups. These groups may protest materials criticizing the government or national traditions, or which outline alternative interpretations of American life and history.

Emotionally unstable individuals. Some individuals who are emotionally unstable may focus on any of the above causes as outlets for their frustration. It is important, however, to determine whether the underlying cause is a real intellectual confrontation of differing ideas and philosophies or an emotionally upset person who is striking out against the public library as a convenient target.

It is important to note that people who complain about materials are not themselves censors, unless they are in a position to actually limit access to material or censor it by their own actions. Complaints and protests are not censorship, and those who object to material in libraries are exercising their own free speech rights. It is those very rights that librarians defend when they protect challenged material. Censorship only occurs when libraries and librarians respond to complaints about and challenges to collection materials by removing or restricting books or other items. Such actions, carried out by librarians or by their governing bodies or institutions, are the censorship and it is the public officials or employees who do them that are the censors, not the original protesters.

Sources of censorship from inside the institution may include the following:

Trustees or governing bodies. Since such groups are the policy-making bodies, they may build censoring devices into policy. If the board demands the removal of a book because of local pressure, it has established a precedent severely limiting the materials that may be included in a collection. On the other hand, with the support of the board, the librarian can stand up to any would-be censor.

Library staff. One of the most difficult kinds of censorship to combat is that imposed by the library’s own staff. Staff members are frequently in a position to censor materials either overtly or covertly, by direct action or by omission. Professional ethics constrain library staff to be wary of the temptation to impose their personal viewpoints and beliefs on library collections. Library staff may be offended by material the same as anyone else. If material remains unordered, uncatalogued, uncirculated, or is expurgated or stolen simply because certain staff member(s) object to it, censorship has occurred.

Management. If top administrators shy away from controversial issues, they set the tone for the rest of the staff and this may have a chilling effect on library acquisitions. They may also establish procedures or recommend policies for board adoption that limit access to materials on the basis of age, sequester controversial materials in locked cases or rooms, or take other steps that negate accessibility.

Selection policies. A library’s selection policy can be misused to restrict intellectual freedom. Policies that are inclusive, that are based upon the First Amendment, and that successfully balance the issue of collection diversity and demand buying are much stronger than those that narrowly limit collection scope on the basis of purely subjective factors such as “quality” or “popularity,” which require outside endorsement in the form of reviews or recommended lists to justify every acquisition, or which are written in a way to justify the exclusion of controversial material from the collection.

Circulation, access and interlibrary loan policies. Some libraries still limit children’s borrowing of materials from the adult collection or limit their access to certain informational formats and sources such as the Internet, videotapes or other audiovisual materials. Along the same lines, ILL services are sometimes denied to children or children’s materials may be excluded from bibliographic databases that are searched to obtain materials from other libraries. Such barriers are a form of censorship and violate professional standards.

Public libraries need to remember that with proper groundwork, preparation, and training, censorship attacks from without can be withstood and that individuals and groups exist in the community who will defend the library. Thoughtful determination and self-awareness are required to confront censorship issues from within.

The active advocacy of intellectual freedom is a challenge that all librarians accept when they join the profession. It lies at the heart of the public’s trust, and it is the librarian’s highest duty.