intellectual freedom in the library, part 1

One of my classes this term is Intellectual Freedom and the Library. It's absolutely terrific, and I thought I'd share some of it with you.

The class is an elective, but I honestly think it should be required for the i-school's library stream. I think without it, I'd be missing a crucial part of my library education.

The purpose of the class is to build a well-defined, well-defended personal philosophy of freedom of expression in the library, so when there are challenges in your library - when outraged library customers want a book banned, or a film removed from the catalogue, or more filters on the internet - you know how to deal with it.

In Canada and other non-US countries, intellectual freedom in the library comes with a twist. The American Library Association bases its position on freedom of expression on the First Amendment of the US Constitution, a nearly absolutist position. (We're talking theory here, not practice.) The Canadian Library Association, Ontario Library Association, and all the other such organizations in Canada take their positions from the ALA.

However, freedom of expression has greater limits in Canada, the UK, Germany, Australia, South Africa, and other western democracies, based on prohibitions on hate speech and a more broadly defined concept of human rights. (Again, this is on the legal, theoretical level. Which country actually enjoys more freedom of expression is open to debate.)

In other words, the CLA's position actually contradicts parts of the Charter - which creates an inherent conflict for Canadian librarians. That's what the class is meant to explore.

* * * *

In the first half of the term, we read and discussed various legal and Constitutional analysis. The prof has a great system: each student studies one article and summarizes it for the class. So we each read one article in depth and prepared a summary and presentation, then read summaries of all the others, and participated in discussions. Much less work, plus an additional compelling reason to do a good job, as your colleagues are depending on you for the content.

This culminates with a paper outlining our personal philosophy of intellectual freedom in the library, especially as it relates to some of the contentious issues, like hate speech and pornography. I thought I might post the paper here, because it deals a lot with hate speech, something we've discussed on wmtc.

In the second half, we'll be examining and analyzing case studies, as a group project. Mine will be on pornography, erotica and obscenity.

* * * *

Our most recent class was amazing. I knew that a former public library board member was addressing the class about a challenge her library experienced - but I had no idea how intense it would be.

Right around the time we moved to Canada, Karla Homolka was released from prison. If it wasn't for that, I probably never would have heard of the Paul Bernardo case. And as I was new to the area, I had no idea where it occurred.

Bernardo is a serial rapist and murderer. Assisted by his wife, Homolka, he raped at least a dozen women and girls, and murdered at least three of them. One of the victims was from St Catharines, and the murder took place in Burlington - not far from where I live now.

The Burlington Public Library had included in its catalogue one of the many books about the case, which contained details that were not published in Canadian newspapers. The challenge came from the mother of one of the victims.

And how did the victim's mother learn the book was in the library? It had been included in the new books display! Ordering the book for the catalogue, fine. Including it in a lobby display? Very poor judgement, to put it mildly.

Obviously, this was no ordinary challenge.

Complicating it further, a library employee, acting on her own with no authority or consultation, pulled the book from the shelves and expunged the record from the catalogue. Media excoriated the library for censorship... the public excoriated the library for insensitivity... a massive, politicized, public campaign launched against the library. The town's mayor threatened its funding, which got the Canadian Civil Liberties Association involved, which further inflamed some members of the community.

Our guest speaker described something of what she experienced living in the eye of this firestorm, the personal accusations and attacks she suffered, the irrational nature of the arguments. For example, there were several other books about the murders, but the public campaign focused only on this one. The book was available in many other places - but no one was picketing Chapters, only this one library. More than 100 holds had been placed on the book by library customers, but the public campaign insisted that no one wanted to read such a book.

In the end, after a long and tangled process, all parties agreed to a compromise. The book remains in the Burlington Public Library and in its catalogue, but it's not in the stacks. Library customers have to request it.

The speaker described the compromise as "something she could live with". And that was the point of the class.

* * * *

Our prof says, "It's not enough to be aghast or outraged at a challenge. As the manager of the library, your role is to understand why the challenge exists and manage it."

We are urged to respectfully listen, to validate the patron's point of view, to situate the library within the community (not opposed to it), and above all, to take a professional approach to managing the situation. But our role is also to uphold freedom of expression, and not allow one person's sensibilities to override other people's access to information.

Challenges occur all the time. The two most recent challenges in Canadian libraries were both in 2009: one to To Kill A Mockingbird (although not for the usual reasons) and one to The Handmaid's Tale.

Right now, in places in the United States, communities are fighting against corporate-sponsored children's books, which teach things like learning to count... using name-brand breakfast cereal! Elsewhere, a citizens group is calling for content labels on books, warning readers about subversive ideas and so-called obscenity - but they skirt accusations of censorship by not calling for a ban. How does a librarian handle those challenges? Dismissing them as nuts is not enough!

The professor holds that it's necessary to understand the whole spectrum of the philosophy of free speech in order to respond to these challenges rationally, compassionately, and professionally. And the way you handle the challenges will partly determine how your community views the library.

Our guest speaker, the woman who lived through the firestorm in Burlington, urged us that every library must have a policy for challenges in place. The policy, she said, must be established when you least need it, in times of calm rationality, then periodically revisited and reviewed. Every staff member and volunteer must accept it: an understanding of intellectual freedom should be part of the interview and hiring process. There must be an appeals process, so the challenger feels she is receiving a full hearing. In other words, there has to be a framework already in place, not thought up on the fly during a whirlwind of protest.

As I said, this should be a required course!

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