The Situation Today | Who is a Censor | Intellectual Freedom Considerations for Selection | Handling Challenges to Materials in Your Collection | Local, Historic, or Rare Materials | Internet Use Policies | Further Information | Self-Assessment #14
The Situation Today
The concept of intellectual freedom involves protecting the rights of all individuals to pursue the types of information they want and to read anything that interests them. Attempts by a member of the community to remove materials from a library collection or to restrict access to them may be the most common challenges to intellectual freedom that a small library will face.
The origins of intellectual freedom can be traced back to Socrates, who believed in the value and benefits of free discussion. The American Library Association (ALA) has been interested in intellectual freedom for a long time, with the first Library Bill of Rights written in 1939. The Library Bill of Rights has been modified several times over the years with the most recent version available from the ALA web site. While the Library Bill of Rights does not provide legal protection (legal protection comes from the First Amendment), it does provide a set of principles to guide libraries and librarians in dealing with issues of censorship and intellectual freedom. For a variety of resources related to intellectual freedom, such as information on how to deal with community concerns over library materials and the role of librarians in intellectual freedom and the Internet, visit the Intellectual Freedom page of Washington Library Media Association Online. Your own state library association’s web page may also have a link to excellent IF (Intellectual Freedom) resources. You can find an extensive listing of First Amendment web sites including important court cases as well as library-related resources at ALA’s First Amendment site.
Intellectual freedom advocates oppose censorship, which places "… restrictive controls on the dissemination of ideas, information, or images transmitted though any communication medium." (American Library Association’s World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services) Censorship of ideas and information has been practiced in various forms throughout history, starting with the earliest civilizations. As Gutenberg’s first movable-type printing press enabled the spread of the “radical” ideas of the Reformation, censorship also flourished. Today, censorship is practiced in many ways, both obvious and subtle.
This section discusses some common sources of censorship, intellectual freedom considerations for selection, ways to handle challenges to materials in your library, and the role of Internet Use Policies in libraries.
Who is a Censor?
There is no single source of censorship, with forms of censorship found at various levels in society. The government, local communities, and individual librarians can all be considered to practice censorship in various ways.
Government censorship influences our legal definitions and interpretations of the issue. For many years the 1873 Comstock Act regulated materials considered obscene that were sent through the mail in the United States. The 1957 Roth decision by the Supreme Court changed the idea of what could be considered obscene. A three-part test for obscenity was established. First, was a “prurient interest in sex” the theme of the work? Second, was the work a threat to the standards of the community? Third, was the work without any social value? The 1973 Miller decision by the Supreme Court modified the three-part test of the Roth decision. The first part of the new test asked whether an average person applying community standards would find that the work applied to “prurient” interests in sex. The second asked whether the work described sexual activity, against state law, in an offensive matter. The third asked whether the work lacked any literary, artistic, political or scientific value. This shifted the responsibility for defining obscenity from the national level to the community level.
Censorship can also occur at the local level. Threats to community standards are often cited in issues of censorship. Identifying those standards may be difficult for the librarian, especially in a community with a diverse population that has a range of needs and interests. Local religious groups, “concerned citizens” or a school board may object to certain materials and attempt to censor them. There are many Internet sites that identify the most commonly banned books due to community disapproval. See for example: Banned Books Online
- The Most Frequently Banned Books in the 1990s lists fifty books that were the most frequently challenged in school and public libraries between 1990 and 1992. While this list is now at least 15 years old and predates the Harry Potter books, it still provides an interesting overview of the variety of materials that people have tried to censor recently.
- Banned Books On-Line provides an excellent history of censorship around the world and through time. It is not comprehensive but there are useful examples of important historical events and some famous censorship attempts.
- Challenged and Banned Books is an ALA site listing the top ten most banned books and the top ten most challenged authors for the previous year as well as providing links to other associated information such as ideas for celebrating Banned Book Week.
Some forms of censorship are not often discussed outside the library world: self-censorship and selection as censorship. Self-censorship occurs when a librarian deliberately avoids selecting materials that might cause controversy in the community, or materials with which they personally disagree. A collection development policy that specifically aims for a balance of views can help the librarian make selection decisions without self-censoring. In some cases of self-censorship, the librarian does not make information available to the community based on his or her own judgment of the materials. At some level, however, the librarian must always judge materials in order to choose the highest quality and most reliable sources. Based on this decision process, some people argue that librarians routinely perform a type of censorship by selecting one information resource over another for inclusion in the collection. Ultimately, each librarian is responsible for following the collection development policies at his or her library and for monitoring his or her own actions to avoid placing intellectual freedom and the First Amendment at risk. Censorship is a very slippery slope and even one small allowance can often result in wide-spread control of information in totally unforeseen ways. Remember that you are entitled to your own personal opinions and preferences but you (and the library) are not entitled to imposing those opinions and preferences on others. The library as an institution is in the business of providing information in as neutral an environment as possible.
Intellectual Freedom Considerations for Selection
Given the possibilities of censorship by the government, the community, and the librarian, it is critical to establish guidelines for protecting intellectual freedom (such as the Library Bill of Rights) and to consider potentially controversial collection development issues. Any and all of these issues affect small local libraries as often, if not more often, than they affect big urban libraries and school districts. Here are some issues to consider:
Should materials be labeled for content? Libraries routinely use “finding aids” to help patrons when they browse the shelves. A common example is labeling books by genre, such as westerns or mysteries. Even this type of labeling is not without its difficulties since what one person may consider a mystery may be considered espionage by another reader. Still, libraries try to help clients identify materials of interest although the system is not perfect and the consequences are minor. Carrying this one step further, should materials containing profanity or sexual content be labeled? Labeling can be a slippery slope: soon the whole collection may be labeled, and censors may find it very easy to condemn entire sections based on those labels, rather than considering content. Labels are a subjective judgment, and it is not the responsibility of the librarian to serve as a rating system. A related concept is restricted access. Sometimes access to materials is restricted because they are fragile or likely to be vandalized or stolen; in other situations access is restricted due to the content of the work. Should materials be separated from the main collection if they are controversial or considered obscene? According to the principle of intellectual freedom, neither the library nor the librarian should be responsible for determining who may have access to materials held by the library. This does not mean that one cannot protect fragile material but access to such material must be freely available to all qualified users.
What constitutes pornography? Many art books contain nude figures; how do those books compare to magazines such as Playboy or the many other “adult” magazines? Defining pornography and debating the value of restricted access, especially for children, are common issues in libraries. Although in the United States, pornography is generally defined in law as “community standards” and therefore will vary from place to place.
This is another complicated debate, since people may have different definitions of what is racist. Should blatantly racist materials be considered for selection? Some racist materials have great historical value for research. Changes in societal values can affect the perceived value of materials that were written in different times. As an example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain has recently been labeled racist by some people who feel that it negatively portrays African Americans; when it was originally published, however, it was considered controversial because a Black slave was the book’s hero. Other racist materials, such as the recent book The Bell Curve by Richard J. Herstein and Charles A. Murray, propose “scientific” theories to explain race relations.
The collection should provide materials representing both sides of controversial issues. Examples of balance are discussed under “Gender/Sex,” “Questionable Truth,” and “Popular Materials.”
Should material that presents stereotypical sex roles be considered, such as women as good housewives or homosexuals as deviants? What about materials discussing sexual aberration or manuals such as The Joy of Sex? Whether we approve of it or not, not everyone conforms to what is considered “normal,” and censoring materials that portray “alternative” lifestyles is a challenge to intellectual freedom. One of the first children’s books to come under fire for portraying homosexuality as an acceptable life style was Daddy’s Roommate. Groups who wanted the book censored found an alternative title, Alphie’s House, which called homosexuality a curable disease. The concept of intellectual freedom says that both books have the right to be in a library, regardless of personal opinions on the issue of homosexuality. This relates to the earlier issue of balance. Protecting intellectual freedom does not mean that a book cannot be rejected for other selection criteria reasons, such as the quality of the material.
Should material on making drugs, making bombs, or instigating an armed rebellion be considered for selection? What someone might do with information should not be the librarian’s main criteria for selection decisions. An example is the still on-going debate over whether the game Dungeons and Dragons and similar role-playing fantasy games promote Satanism. Another controversy centers on books that present methods of committing suicide.
This topic includes outdated science, medical plans such as diets that are unproven, and Holocaust denial literature or other revisionist history books presented as factual. People who lived through the Holocaust, or have relatives who did, may object to books such as The Hoax of the Twentieth Century by A. R. Butz. As controversial as it may be to include such a source in the collection, it is important to provide a range of perspectives. Another example is material about the theories of evolution and creationism. Despite how the librarian may feel about the issue, material again needs to present balance.
Popular fiction (i.e., best sellers, romance novels, science fiction and fantasy and horror novels or other works with violence) may really boost circulation figures, but does this type of material have any literary merit? The importance of this question depends on your goals for the collection. A work with little literary merit should not be excluded if it helps serve the mission of the library and is in demand by the clients. The community’s desires have to be considered, and definitions of what is literary are subjective. One might wish to review the section of this website on Selection Principles for more on this topic.
Items likely to be stolen
A source with nudity or beautiful illustrations may be subject to mutilation or theft, and may be of interest to the community for only a short while. Examples include Playboy or Madonna’s book, Sex. Should librarians exclude materials that are common targets for theft from consideration for selection? While your decision should be based on your collection development policy, a librarian may find it difficult to justify purchasing an item that may only be a passing fancy. In the selection process one is always reviewing over-all priorities in an attempt to meet the needs and interests of the most people in the community while staying within the constraints of available resources—especially money and physical space.
Handling Challenges to Materials in Your Collection
In the unfortunate circumstance that your library is confronted with a challenge to an item in the collection, there are many things that you can do. The Intellectual Freedom Manual for Arizona Libraries outlines procedures that you should follow which are summarized here. Other state library associations, as well as the American Library Association, provide extensive practical information about handling challenges. ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Issues page provides links to many topics of related interest including links to the Intellectual Freedom Toolkit and sample policies. It contains extensive information to help you develop appropriate policies, handle challenges, and operate the library in accordance with First Amendment Rights. One of the most important things to remember is to be prepared. Do not wait until you are faced with a challenge to devise a strategy! Plan ahead, have guidelines in place, and make sure everyone who works in the library understands these procedures. Library boards and school officials should be reminded of the procedures and policies regarding Intellectual Freedom at least once a year.
- Keep your policies and procedures current.
This is especially important considering the popularity of the Internet. Monitor news and developments in ALA, especially any changes to the Library Bill of Rights, or the Freedom to Read Statement regarding labeling and electronic access. Most state library associations cite the above mentioned documents as the essential elements for a local library’s policy. The American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Foundation is dedicated to helping libraries and librarians preserve the right of ordinary citizens to read, and therefore think, as they wish without censorship or coercion from others.
- Have a formal policy to handle complaints.
Complaints should be written down and then submitted to a review process. It is a good idea to develop a standardized form that requires the patron to answer questions about the material and why they object to it. You can find many examples of complaint forms on library websites. Here are some examples of questions to ask on a complaint form:
- What do you object to and what are the specific page numbers (or other identifying information for location) of the offensive content?
- For what age group do you think this material is appropriate?
- Did you read/view/listen to the whole work? If not, which parts did you read/view/listen to?
- What do you consider the effects of reading/viewing/listening to this material?
- What about it is good?
- What is the theme?
- What do literary and/or film critics think about the work?
- What action should the library take? Should the library withdraw the work from the collection or move it to another location in the collection?
- What source would you recommend to replace this item or to provide another view of the same topic?
- Have open lines of communication with local community leaders.
If the community leaders are familiar with your library’s collection goals and collection development policy, they will be more understanding when materials in your collection are challenged. You should make sure your local leaders understand that the Library Bill of Rights stems from the First Amendment. Build coalitions with businesses and others who are also supporters of intellectual freedom. These usually include local newspapers and other media along with bookstores.
- Communicate the library’s position on intellectual freedom to the public.
By explaining what intellectual freedom means (that it is a broad set of principles intended to guard against censorship), you may gain more community support. It might be a good idea to post the library’s own version of the Library Bill of Rights in the library or make it available in a pamphlet.
Local, Historic, or Rare Materials
Gift items that might deserve special attention include books by local authors, local photographs of historical interest (if the subjects or places are not identified, perhaps some long-time residents might be able to lend a hand), yearbooks from local schools, local newspapers of historical importance, and local memorabilia. The section of this site concerning the selection of materials for Special Collections will provide further guidance in this area.
Keep in mind that old photographs may need special (possibly expensive) treatment to prevent them from deteriorating; color photocopies on acid-free paper may be a good option. Likewise, old newspapers and scrapbooks of newspaper clippings should probably be photocopied, laminated (in multiple pieces, if necessary) and/or microfilmed before they become useless. See the Preservation section of this site for more information.
Internet Use Policies
Information available over the Internet is unregulated, varies widely in quality, and contains many sites that are sexually explicit or are otherwise unsuitable (especially for children). Given this, should there be restrictions placed on Internet access?
The American Library Association (ALA) believes that individuals have the right to make their own decisions about what information is appropriate for them and that access to information, including electronic information, should not be restricted. As noted above, ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom provides extensive information about intellectual freedom issues including those related to Internet use in libraries, filtering, the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), elements for an Internet use policy, and other topics of concern to libraries of all types.
Filtering software, although greatly improved since first introduced, still basically blocks sites from the computer upon which it is being used. Filtering software blocks sexually explicit and other offensive material by applying a ratings system or searching web sites for specific keywords that are deemed inappropriate. The problem with filtering software is that some sites are blocked that contain valuable information, and other sites are not blocked that ought to be.
Given these concerns, it is essential that every library develop an Internet Use Policy to state the library’s position on who has access to the Internet and what kinds of materials can be accessed. Many libraries, especially school libraries, have adopted what are known as Acceptable Use Policies (AUP). An Acceptable Use Policy is usually a written agreement that outlines permissible uses of the Internet, rules for online behavior, and access privileges. Such policies often include an explanation of the Internet and how it will be accessed, an outline of the patron’s responsibilities while using the Internet in the library, and a statement that lets the patron know that using the Internet is a privilege and not a right. An example of a very complete Internet Use Policy statement that includes the Internet, Wi-Fi, and filters as well as consequences for violation of the policy is that of the Pima Public Library. The links to ALA sites above will also provide you with information and examples of Acceptable Use Policies for different types of libraries. It is up to you and your board with consideration of your community standards and clients to determine what the Acceptable Use Policy for your library will be. It is likely to need to be reviewed at least once a year.
For Further Information
Curry, A. (1997). The limits of tolerance: Censorship and Intellectual freedom in public libraries. London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Evans, G. E., & Saponaro, M. Z. (2005). “Chapter 18: Censorship, intellectual Freedom, and Collection Development.” In Developing library and information center collections. 5th ed. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.
Intellectual freedom manual. 7th ed. (2006). Chicago: Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association.