State Library Agencies and Intellectual Freedom

Diana Young,  former Public Library Consultant for the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources


The state library agency, as an institution, varies from state to state. Most state library agencies have responsibility for promoting library development and coordinating interlibrary cooperation. In some states, the agency is responsible for maintaining a collection, either to serve state government or to serve the residents of the state. Whatever the state library structure may be, it usually assumes the responsibility of fostering the free exchange of information and ideas. As part of that effort, some state libraries try, as North Carolina did (unsuccessfully), to encourage their state legislature to adopt the American Library Association’s (ALA) Library Bill of Rights.

Whether or not intellectual freedom policy is adopted at the state level, the state library encourages local libraries to make local officials and boards aware of, and usually encourages them to adopt, the Library Bill of Rights, its Interpretation statements and other ALA policies and/or state standards well before there is a need to put them to the test. Local libraries are urged to follow their polices once in place. It sometimes happens that, for example, a local school board is presented with a challenge but their local superintendent didn’t know of or follow their existing policy, perhaps even making public statements contrary to policy — later, the Board and Superintendent both must find ways to explain why policy wasn’t followed. State library agencies not only stress the importance of getting policies in place, but also of alerting local government officials about their policies well before they have a problem. That way, when there is a challenge, everyone is prepared to respond in accordance with the library’s board adopted policies. This is especially important when dealing with censorship controversies.

John F. Kennedy said, “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

Kennedy’s concept can be especially difficult to live by when the censor is at your door, or is friendly with a member of the library board or local newspaper, or is part of an organized group. The pressures imposed on libraries are very real. Recent examples include: an organized group’s persistent attacks on several public libraries in North Carolina cost one director a job and resulted in the delay of a major library construction bond for several years because of objections to the books Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate; a Texas librarian lost her job after a dispute over the presence of Howard Stern’s Private Parts in the library collection; and in Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia, ongoing battles over minors’ access and the presence of materials dealing with the subject of homosexuality continue to plague the library systems.

State libraries help local libraries prepare to handle these challenges in many ways. First, all libraries are encouraged to have policies and procedures in place and adopted by library boards, delineating what to do and when to do it. Sample policies are often collected and made available, and libraries which have recently updated or developed new policies are encouraged to submit them to the state library. Where a state electronic network exists, these policies are often posted over the Internet for review by any library.

Second, many state libraries maintain a relationship with active and supportive intellectual freedom committees of their state’s library association, which can provide assistance and a link to a statewide network of supporters of intellectual freedom willing to come forward in a crisis.

Serving as a catalyst, the state library agency must provide support and assistance in creating an environment that provides citizens with unrestricted access to information. State libraries work to assist library boards of trustees and/or library directors to focus all feasible methods of preparing for and handling the situation. Sometimes it simply means alerting them to channels for assistance, (like the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom), being a good listener, or helping to avoid panic. Librarians facing challenges help each other and those that have survived a challenge freely offer their advice to those in the midst of one.

In working with library staffs and trustees, state agency staff should serve as change agents. Boards of Trustees and library administrators should be encouraged to regularly examine library policies and programs to confirm that they support the fundamental tenets of intellectual freedom.

State libraries develop library standards or performance measures which are a means by which libraries may be evaluated and held accountable. In developing such standards or measures, the state’s libraries need to base them upon the philosophy that every individual should have equal access to information and that the citizens of the state should have the opportunity to access library services as envisioned in the Library Bill of Rights. For example, in North Carolina’s Competencies for Youth Services Librarians, developed by the state library’s Youth Service Advisory Committee, the first section of the notebook indicates that children’s and young adult services librarians should “Demonstrate familiarity with: ALA  Freedom to Read Statement, The  Library Bill of Rights as well as any other intellectual freedom policies and procedures adopted by their library boards.” (State Library of North Carolina, 1988).

In its leadership capacity, the state library agency must assume legislative leadership and coordination roles at both the state and federal levels. It is critical for the state library agency to monitor state and federal legislation, and case law. Librarians, trustees, and other interested individuals need to be kept informed about legislative efforts and new court rulings that have an impact on intellectual freedom. In every state, there are a number of library advocacy groups—library associations, friends of libraries, trustee organizations—that work for the advancement of library services. State library agencies need to work closely with these organizations and be able to rally them when needed in the legislative arena. Additionally, state libraries often work closely with state library associations offering workshops, or producing newsletters, journal articles or sample policies which periodically focus on the topic of intellectual freedom.

As a component of state government, the state library agencies are in a unique position to influence state law and policy. State library administrators are informed about the philosophies of government leaders and knowledgeable about the decision-making processes. Of particular importance is the state library agency’s leadership role in guaranteeing the citizens’ “right to know.” First and foremost, the general public and government officials need to be kept aware of the importance of the free flow of government information. The state library agency needs to monitor the development and implementation of policy and procedure relating to the flow of both state and federal government information. If policies and procedures adverse to the free flow of information are promulgated, the state library agency needs to exert its leadership in changing them.

Technology has provided the means for states to develop sophisticated electronic networks. Since the operation of these networks is costly, there may be a tendency to question the need to make use of these resources at a library user’s request, or the library may charge the user a fee for the service. Some libraries do not understand the intellectual freedom issues involved in networks and are only now waking up to the censorship and access issues which may arise. It is imperative that state library agencies strongly encourage libraries to provide equal access to all types of information resources for all library users regardless of socioeconomic status.

In many states, the state library agency maintains a collection that is used for government research or as a research library for state residents. It should serve as a model for the rest of the state. The collection should be developed from a selection policy that embodies the principles of the Library Bill of Rights. Additionally, the policies governing the use of the collection should be reflective of intellectual freedom principles.

The state library agency in any state plays a pivotal role in the development of library services. A significant part of that role is to ensure that citizens have the best possible access to information. This access will, in turn, help preserve our democratic society as we now know it and will allow citizens to participate fully in the society.