An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights
Freedom of expression is an inalienable human right and the foundation for self-government. Freedom of expression encompasses the freedom of speech and the corollary right to receive information.1 Libraries and librarians protect and promote these rights regardless of the format or technology employed to create and disseminate information.
The American Library Association expresses the fundamental principles of librarianship in its Code of Ethics as well as in the Library Bill of Rights and its Interpretations. These principles guide librarians and library governing bodies in addressing issues of intellectual freedom that arise when the library provides access to digital information, services, and networks.
Libraries empower users by offering opportunities both for accessing the broadest range of information created by others and for creating and sharing information. Digital resources enhance the ability of libraries to fulfill this responsibility.
Libraries should regularly review issues arising from digital creation, distribution, retrieval, and archiving of information in the context of constitutional principles and ALA policies so that fundamental and traditional tenets of librarianship are upheld. Although digital information flows across boundaries and barriers despite attempts by individuals, governments, and private entities to channel or control it, many people lack access or capability to use or create digital information effectively.
In making decisions about how to offer access to digital information, services, and networks, each library should consider intellectual freedom principles in the context of its mission, goals, objectives, cooperative agreements, and the needs of the entire community it serves.
The Rights of Users
All library system and network policies, procedures, or regulations relating to digital information and services should be scrutinized for potential violation of user rights. User policies should be developed according to the policies and guidelines established by the American Library Association, including “Guidelines for the Development and Implementation of Policies, Regulations, and Procedures Affecting Access to Library Materials, Services, and Facilities.”
Users’ access should not be restricted or denied for expressing, receiving, creating, or participating in constitutionally protected speech. If access is restricted or denied for behavioral or other reasons, users should be provided due process, including, but not limited to, formal notice and a means of appeal.
Information retrieved, utilized, or created digitally is constitutionally protected unless determined otherwise by a court of competent jurisdiction. These rights extend to minors as well as adults (“Access to Library Resources and Services for Minors”; “Access to Resources and Services in the School Library”; and “Minors and Internet Activity”).2
Libraries should use technology to enhance, not deny, digital access. Users have the right to be free of unreasonable limitations or conditions set by libraries, librarians, system administrators, vendors, network service providers, or others. Contracts, agreements, and licenses entered into by libraries on behalf of their users should not violate this right. Libraries should provide library users the training and assistance necessary to find, evaluate, and use information effectively.
Users have both the right of confidentiality and the right of privacy. The library should uphold these rights by policy, procedure, and practice in accordance with “Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” and “Advocating for Intellectual Freedom: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”
Equity of Access
The digital environment provides expanding opportunities for everyone to participate in the information society, but individuals may face serious barriers to access.
Digital information, services, and networks provided directly or indirectly by the library should be equally, readily, and equitably accessible to all library users. American Library Association policies oppose the charging of user fees for the provision of information services by libraries that receive support from public funds.3 All libraries should develop policies concerning access to digital information that are consistent with ALA’s policies and guidelines, including “Economic Barriers to Information Access: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” “Guidelines for the Development and Implementation of Policies, Regulations and Procedures Affecting Access to Library Materials, Services and Facilities,” and “Services to Persons with Disabilities: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”
Information Resources and Access
Libraries, acting within their mission and objectives, must support access to information on all subjects that serve the needs or interests of each user, regardless of the user’s age or the content of the material. In order to preserve the cultural record and to prevent the loss of information, libraries may need to expand their selection or collection development policies to ensure preservation, in appropriate formats, of information obtained digitally. Libraries have an obligation to provide access to government information available in digital format.
Providing connections to global information, services, and networks is not the same as selecting and purchasing materials for a library collection. Libraries and librarians should not deny or limit access to digital information because of its allegedly controversial content or because of a librarian’s personal beliefs or fear of confrontation. Furthermore, libraries and librarians should not deny access to digital information solely on the grounds that it is perceived to lack value. Parents and legal guardians who are concerned about their children’s use of digital resources should provide guidance to their own children. Some information accessed digitally may not meet a library’s selection or collection development policy. It is, therefore, left to each user to determine what is appropriate.
Publicly funded libraries have a legal obligation to provide access to constitutionally protected information. Federal, state, county, municipal, local, or library governing bodies sometimes require the use of Internet filters or other technological measures that block access to constitutionally protected information, contrary to the Library Bill of Rights.4 If a library uses a technological measure that blocks access to information, it should be set at the least restrictive level in order to minimize the blocking of constitutionally protected speech. Adults retain the right to access all constitutionally protected information and to ask for the technological measure to be disabled in a timely manner. Minors also retain the right to access constitutionally protected information and, at the minimum, have the right to ask the library or librarian to provide access to erroneously blocked information in a timely manner. Libraries and librarians have an obligation to inform users of these rights and to provide the means to exercise these rights.5
Digital resources provide unprecedented opportunities to expand the scope of information available to users. Libraries and librarians should provide access to information presenting all points of view. The provision of access does not imply sponsorship or endorsement. These principles pertain to digital resources as much as they do to the more traditional sources of information in libraries (“Diversity in Collection Development”).
1Martin v. Struthers, 319 U.S. 141 (1943); Lamont v. Postmaster General, 381 U.S. 301 (1965); Susan Nevelow Mart, The Right to Receive Information, 95 Law Library Journal 2 (2003).
2Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969); Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, (1982); American Amusement Machine Association v. Teri Kendrick, 244 F.3d 954 (7th Cir. 2001); cert.denied, 534 U.S. 994 (2001)
3ALA Policy Manual, 50.3 “Free Access to Information”; 53.1.14 “Economic Barriers to Information Access”; 60.1.1 “Minority Concerns Policy Objectives”; 61.1 “Library Services for the Poor Policy Objectives”
4ALA Policy Manual, 53.1.17, "Resolution on the Use of Filtering Software in Libraries"
5“If some libraries do not have the capacity to unblock specific Web sites or to disable the filter or if it is shown that an adult user’s election to view constitutionally protected Internet material is burdened in some other substantial way, that would be the subject for an as-applied challenge, not the facial challenge made in this case.” United States, et al. v. American Library Association, 539 U.S. 194 (2003) (Justice Kennedy, concurring).
Adopted January 24, 1996; amended January 19, 2005; and July 15, 2009, by the ALA Council.
References to cited policies have been updated on November 6, 2018.
See Also: “Questions and Answers on Access to Digital Information, Services and Networks: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.