“Articulate the ethics, values and foundational principles of library and information professionals and their role in the promotion of intellectual freedom.”

It is easy to conflate the library and the notion of intellectual freedom, and assume they go hand in hand. The library provides information and access, granting its patrons their own independence and freedom. However, as prospective library professionals, we need to be aware of the past relationship between libraries and censorship if we are to keep libraries a stalwart ally of intellectual freedom. Censorship can come in many forms. It can be dictated by the state as a tool for propaganda or control. Alternatively, it can come from well-intentioned community groups and citizenry seeking to improve their community. However, either source of censorship and control is equally pernicious. Likewise, all types of libraries need to create a transparent, clear system to develop their collections to avoid the hint of bias in their decisions.

Library ethics, censorship and intellectual freedom are perhaps the most persistently thorny set of issues that a librarian needs address. In fact, amongst the arguments as to why the librarian role should remain a professional class is that it ensures that librarians are prepared to approach this issue cogently, with political savvy and with respect for their patron’s rights. Libraries require individuals capable of critical thinking and the willingness to stand up for the rights of their patrons. While there are real and perceived issues in academia, mandating a certain level of education remains one of the few ways the profession can continue to ensure its practitioners have these vital skills.

Censorship by the State

The Information Professional should have a strong understanding of the historical legacy of libraries in order to understand the nuances of these issues. Libraries have existed nearly as long as the written word; the earliest organized collections of written materials date to the Sumerian and Babylonian periods in Mesopotamia. These early efforts were superseded in size and organization by the library built by 7th-century BCE King Ashurbanipal of Assyria. From his palace at Nineveh (near modern Mosul, Iraq), this great ruler controlled territory stretching from Egypt to western Iran. Ashurabanipal was a distinctive monarch; as a young man, he trained with the palace scribes and knew how to write both Akkadian and Sumerian in cuneiform scripts. This was highly unusual for nobility of that era. He took great interest in writing and the arts, and while the library was not a new idea in his time, he expanded upon it and built the most significant library the world would see until the Great Library of Alexandria, centuries later.

What is noteworthy about the Library of Nineveh from a library ethics perspective is how it was different from our modern library ideal; this library not only practiced censorship, censorship was one of its chief purposes. Ashurbanipal understood that the written word was a powerful tool for propaganda. His library was not limited to tax records and other matters of state. It also included great epics and legends about his Babylonian and Assyrian forbears, to which he likened himself. To this collection he added a new poetic epic he purportedly wrote by his own hand, about his conquest of Elam, a vassal state in what is now modern Iran. Meanwhile, any criticism of him or the Assyrian state was wiped out, leaving only a record of his accomplishments. The library existed to serve the will of the king – the will of the state – and the librarians served his will without question or independence. While scholars and scribes could consult the contents of the library, access was strictly controlled by his whim. It was a tool from which Ashurbanipal derived a part of his power, much as he did from his chariots and his war machines.

When later in his life his empire did crumble, his fall went unrecorded, and modern historians don’t know the names of the Babylonian and Elamite warlords who defeated him. They took pains to destroy all copies of Ashurbanipal’s “Conquest of Elam”, however, in their attempt to erase his accomplishments from history. They too understood the power of the written word.

My point in discussing this ancient example is this: our modern, utopian library ideal as the standard-bearer of Intellectual Freedom and anti-censorship activism is not universal to history, it is a relatively contemporary phenomenon. In fact, we needn’t look back three millennia ago to see examples of this. The history of our own American Public Library movement is steeped in what we’d consider now to be ethical transgressions, born out of a fallacious notion of civic improvement.

Control by the Community

From its start in the middle 19th century, the American public library movement was tied to ideals of uplifting the citizenry above mundane squalor, sin and licentiousness. Many early library advocates were allied with temperance activists. Early librarians stocked their shelves not with the widest possible range of popular works but rather only materials they thought would somehow “improve” the “workingman” and draw him out of the tavern or brothel. As such, many public libraries would refuse to collect works of fiction, or would only purchase a very limited collection of fiction (only those deemed “classics”, as opposed to popular works). Any books with a sexual or politically radical tone would be censored outright. While many of these controls existed for a perceived improvement to society, we can now appreciate what a limiting and damaging effect such censorship has on art, ideas and democratic institutions.

The collections were not the only area in which ideas and access were limited: early public libraries only allowed women in during very limited hours to ensure their “safety” from the men, while non-white races were often barred entirely. Most stacks were closed, forcing patrons to request books through the librarians and pages (and thereby forcing them to deal with any potential embarrassment based upon their request; this serves as another form of control). Opening stacks, allowing women and people of color, and collecting regardless of controversial content were innovations of the 20th century — not that long ago.

As evidence of my understanding of the historical background behind these relevant issues of library ethics and intellectual freedom, I am attaching a research paper I wrote on the founding patrons of the San Francisco Free Public Library. The paper explains at some length the censorious and racially-divided environment in which the library was born. Through my understanding of this historical legacy, I hope to establish my understanding of the issues as they relate to today.

Applying History to Today’s Libraries

When we look through the prism of our library history, we understand better how important it is for us to uphold egalitarian and democratic ideals. Fortunately, this code of library ethics now pervades the ethos of the American Library Association, as seen in their published Library Bill of Rights. But this Bill of Rights was only established in the middle of the 20th century, and only as a result of the professionalization of librarianship. As newly educated MLIS students,we need to appreciate how hard fought that battle was. It would also be easy to allow either overt or subliminal control over collections and access to creep back in, whether it be government officials trying to exert control over the public or by politically-savvy community groups trying to “protect” the citizenry or children.

Fortunately, the ALA also promotes its annual “Banned Books Week” to celebrate controversial works and defend our 1st amendment freedoms in our libraries and our schools. While the Library Bill of Rights remains a strong statement of principles, it takes action to catch attention in our constantly revolving media environment. An annual activity like the Banned Books Week is a way of generating positive publicity for library activism that gains more attention than the Bill of Rights. I recently wrote a personal opinion piece on Banned Books Week on my blog The Pinakes, and I submit that post as evidence of my perspective on contemporary issues in library ethics.

Academic Freedom

Another aspect of library ethics to consider is the intellectual freedom of scholars, students and researchers. This is especially relevant on University campuses and other research libraries. It is important for institutional credibility that any researcher have equal access to important materials and support regardless of their personal opinion or their scholarly intentions. I believe that if a library or archive adopted a certain viewpoint regarding their materials, or only permitted access to certain approved researchers, it would negatively impact the scholarly environment. This is as substantial an issue to the academic library as censorship can be in the public library.

In addition, avoiding bias (real or perceived) is important in the collecting of materials. An academic library needs to have clearly stated guidelines on how the institution will select materials for a given collection and what criteria they will use. This serves as a safeguard for the library and University against accusation of bias. As evidence of my proficiency handling these issues, I am submitting a Collection Development Policy prepared for LIBR-266 with David Midyette. The Policy is for a fictional collection of medieval studies materials.

This document includes a passage on intellectual freedom that assured that collection decisions would be made free of bias. Other sections established a specific framework for the decision making process that provides the transparency required by a public University. Both elements are important for maintaining a library’s integrity.

My Statement of Ideals

As a librarian, I will protect the independence and freedom of my patrons, assure their unfettered access to uncensored materials, maintain their privacy, safeguard their personal records, and assist them in their searches for information regardless of my personal feelings on the subject. If we as a profession do not value these principles, they will be forgotten and once again the library will become a tool for censorship and control.

While this post only touches on a few of the issues relevant under the rubric of library ethics (other questions revolve around social justice, privacy, the Patriot Act, computer filtering…), it articulates  some of the most pressing and enduring questions a librarian must understand and address.

Censorship and the control of ideas, whether they be politically motivated or derived from some sense of civic virtue, are a danger to democracy. Ashurbanipal knew in the Bronze Age that information was a source of power. In order to continue this American experiment during the Information Age, and bring it closer and closer to a true democracy, we need to ensure we adhere as closely as possible to a neutral, non-judgmental and uncensorious philosophy of librarianship.

Exhibit A-1: The Character(s) of a Library: A Biographical History of the Founding of the San Francisco Free Public Library and the Men Who Built It | Available upon request

Exhibit A-2: Banned Books Week (blog post on The Pinakes).

Exhibit A-3: Fictional State University: Njalsen Medieval Studies Collection | Available upon request

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print this article!
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks