February 17, 2018

The Long Good Fight: Libraries at the heart of intellectual freedoms | Editorial

Rebecca T. MillerLibrarians and libraries are essential to discourse about intellectual freedoms. Now we have more work to do in light of violent efforts to curtail such rights, perhaps most notably the January 7 attack on the offices of Paris’s weekly Charlie Hebdo. For me, these events brought our work to date into high relief but also intensified a sense of urgency about what librarians can do to defend a richer understanding of the value of freedom of inquiry and expression.

American Library Association (ALA) president Courtney Young’s statement on the attacks framed the library ethos: “Such attacks are counter to the values of access to information with diversity of views—and to the values of civic engagement, which encourages people to read and discuss these views without fear.”

Libraries, in an important sense, exist to help remove fear from our culture: fear of the other, fear of the unknown, and fear of the differences of opinion that make us human. They do not exist to remove those differences. Our libraries hold and foster access to countervailing opinions, information about worlds beyond our own, and insight into cultures we have never experienced, as well as awareness of people living right next door. They are full of words answered by words—sometimes divisive ones—that together shape our evolving way of life.

Librarians are often out front in this freedom fight, perhaps most noticeably when it comes to book challenges. I think of acts of censorship as existing on a continuum of sorts. Acts of terror sit at one extreme but are still related to nonviolent attempts to use leverage of some kind to force a limitation on what others can say or read. Libraries have a mandate to exercise the muscles that counter the censor’s impulse early and often.

And they do. This becomes apparent when reading intellectual freedom advocate Pat Scales—I was in the final stages of preparing a collection of her School Library Journal Scales on Censorship columns for a book forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield when the Paris attacks occurred. Librarians run up against censors daily, and many are passionate defenders. Often, however, they can be caught off guard. “I live in fear that someone will challenge one of our books,” a librarian once wrote to Scales. Scales responded with resources and strategies and a charge to do the work ahead. “Don’t be frightened,” she answered. “Just get prepared.”

As librarians strive to maintain a society noted for free inquiry they may also need more support. The librarian who expressed her fear of a challenge said that she felt unprepared by her library school and in her library setting. Such gaps must be addressed through training, helpful policies and processes, and a focus on core principles and educating the public.

Libraries should be ready to expand the discourse. They hold the products of our culture but are ultimately spaces for people to learn and can be forums, too, to enable dialog. The professionals in them set a tone of inclusivity daily, as they build the collections their communities will share and develop programs that address needs large and small. They should also help their communities gain the perspective, information, and skills needed at best to embrace difference and at least to tolerate it.

This isn’t necessarily easy, but it is essential. As R. David Lankes noted in his blog post on what libraries can do after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, libraries should lean into the problem. “It is crucial for librarians to actively try to change the world and make it a place for fewer abominations like yesterday’s attack,” he wrote. “Doing that is scary. We were not trained as grief counselors and no one chooses easily to run towards conflict. Yet if we believe that librarians and libraries should make our communities better (more knowledgeable, more capable, more empowered) then we cannot shy away from actively helping.”

In Connecticut, Darien Library’s Mallory Arents, for one, did not shy away. “Our patrons were talking about it,” Arents, the relatively new head of adult programming, said. “I wanted to respond to that.” She quickly pulled together a panel of two lawyers, a daily news reporter, and me to open a forum for that community on January 21. Some 76 people came despite the tight timing, and discussion ranged widely from legal precedents to the role of libraries to perspectives on global tensions. We all learned something, though no one had all the answers.

Noted Arents, “I think we could have gone another several hours and people would have still remained engaged.”

In an echo of Lankes, Arents added, “Librarians have never been passive; we’re radical change agents.” It’s another example of what librarians do, and must keep doing, every day.


This article was published in Library Journal's February 15, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.