As a preface, a while back I wrote a post on libraries and neutrality. The post you are currently reading is NOT about library neutrality, but it is possible that readers may need a reminder about how easy it is to misinterpret libraries functioning as intended with libraries being non-neutral.
The post you are currently reading IS about the Freedom to Read Statement, which is foundational to libraries and librarianship. For the origin story of this document, we need to go for a trip back in time to the 1950s. That idyllic, oft-romanticized time when the world was simpler *record scratch* NO. The 1950s were a lot of things. Idyllic wasn’t necessarily one of them, at least not for everyone. And at the heart of it: McCarthyism and the work of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Yup… that 1950s. And what were libraries doing during that decade? That’s right: they were drafting the Freedom to Read Statement in collaboration with the American Book Publishers Council. This statement was drafted at an event convened to discuss that period’s wave of censorship and attacks on books and libraries. It was reaffirmed as recently as 2004 by the ALA and what is now the Association of American Publishers, and you can read it in full here.
So, what does the Freedom to Read statement say, exactly? It starts with this very clear statement: “the freedom to read is essential to our democracy.” That’s a pretty strong statement, and it has been maintained as the opening sentence through multiple revisions. It is a lengthy statement and worthy of a careful read. We wouldn’t do what we do if we didn’t think words have power, and it can be uncomfortable professionally to work with materials with which we disagree, but librarians do it all the time. Here is a quick synopsis of the main points made in the full freedom to read statement.
- Library collections should make the widest possible range of ideas available to the public.
- Librarians don’t need to endorse every idea held within their collections.
- Librarians shouldn’t bar access to library collections based on the personal history or political affiliation of the author.
- There is no place in our society for attempts to coerce tastes or to limit the artistic expression of authors.
- Content labels are a bad idea.
- It is the job of librarians to contest the encroachment of the freedom to read “by individuals or groups seeking to impose their own standards or tastes upon the community at large.”
- It is the job of librarians to ensure that the freedom to read is preserved by providing materials that enrich the quality and diversity of thought and expression.
There are almost certainly folks reading this who are now stopping and saying: “Hey, that sounds a lot like libraries engaging in political, non-neutral activity!” And the response to that is: the writing of this statement codified the fact that response to censorship is an activity that is very much “in scope” for libraries and librarians. It has been the precedent since 1953. And, yes, it was in response to increased censorship that was the direct result of the leadership of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the work of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. And, yes, it is still our job today. It is our job to defend the inclusion of challenging materials in library spaces. It is our job to defend the use of taxpayer dollars to purchase materials with which some (even the majority) disagree. It is our job to pack our libraries so full of conflicting ideas that people are able to access all those ideas and come up with their own conclusions based on their own best thinking. It is our job to defend materials when challenges arise. That is our job. As librarians and as your library system. In fact, the JCLS Collection Development Policy affirms the fact that this library upholds the freedom to read act. So, it’s not just an ALA thing, it’s a JCLS thing.
I’ve been teasing jumping into the current wave of censorship for a while… and I plan to do that in my next post… but I felt like I needed to create a preface to my cliff dive into censorship to express how and why this is very much our job. This is not “activism” and this is not “political,” this is foundational to what libraries are and what we do. This does not always make us popular. It does result in us functioning as intended. We’ll unravel some of the specific nuances of the current wave of censorship in my next post.
Stay tuned. Let’s figure this out together.