Friday, June 21, 2013

Know your library rights? What does the Library Bill of Rights mean?

This post is written by Concordia librarian Nathan Rinne.  What follows is only meant to represent his own view.  Part of our library's mission statement is "evaluate information and its sources critically" and this post is done with just that in mind.

In the United States, we have a Bill of Rights, which is the first 10 amendments to the American Constitution.  Among other things, they guarantee a number of personal freedoms, or rights. 

Since 1939, libraries also have had a Bill of Rights!  Actually, that is not completely true.  The American Library Association – the main professional organization of librarians with whom many libraries affiliate – has their own “Bill of Rights”.  The Library Bill of Rights is their own statement of ethical principles, and does not have the force of law in any sense (and unlike the U.S. Bill of Rights, it has undergone a number of revisions, some more significant than others, since its first appearance)

So what is the LBOR today?  Well, it is quite nice and compact.  Here are 4 of the 7 principals (all can be seen here):

I.             Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.

II.            Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

III.           Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment….

IV.          A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views…

 Here is how librarian Char Booth sums up the LBOR into five core values:

I recently looked into the history of this document – particularly on the topic of academic freedom – and discovered that views such as these only begin to really appear in libraries in the 1930s…

Take the issue of censorship (discussed in III).  This is American Library Association President Arthur E.  Bostwick in his inaugural address at the 1908 ALA Annual Conference:

"Some are born great; some achieve greatness; some have greatness thrust upon them."  It is in this way that the librarian has become a censor of literature… Books that distinctly commend what is wrong, that teach how to sin and how pleasant sin is, sometimes with and sometimes without the added sauce of impropriety, are increasingly popular, tempting the author to imitate them, the public to produce, the bookseller to exploit.  Thank Heaven they do not tempt the librarian.*

 My how the world has changed!   But has it really changed that much?

What do I mean?  I say that because if we really want to know what someone believes, we watch what they do.  I think it is clear that libraries are still very selective about what they obtain, even if the "sins" may or may not change. 

It seems to me that perhaps persons in the past may simply have been more aware of what they really believed and practiced about such issues.  Librarians like to emphasize the importance of critical thinking.  But how willing are we to subject the LBOR itself to stringent critique? Are librarians really eager and willing to not exclude any materials because of the views of those contributing to their creation (#1)?  Do they really try to provide materials and information presenting all points of view (#2)?  What could “a person’s right to use a library should not be …abridged because of… age?” possibly mean (#4)?  Are these statements even good as ideals (or an “aspirational creed”) – much less practical guidelines?

More often than not, it might seem that libraries more or less function like “neutral” tools that help persons do what they want to do.  But what else is happening here?  More questions than those above could be asked as well, and I think it is good for all of us – not just librarians – to think critically and deeply about such matters.  If you think the LBOR sounds great, I recommend the book above as a good place to start considering the deeper issues at play here.


*-American Library Association. (2010). Intellectual freedom manual. Chicago: American Library Association.


James Madison Bill of Rights $5 commemorative gold coin from$5_commemorative_obverse.jpg

Char Booth's summary of the Library Bill of Rights: