Six impossible things before breakfast.

A library science student's perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Intellectual Freedom

Our first amendment rights are tied explicitly to the freedom to read, and libraries have the responsibility to support this right by refusing to limit or censor the materials they make available to their patrons. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom to read are inseparably intertwined, and all are essential to the ideal of democracy. The American Library Association has a division specifically designed to protect these rights, the Office of Intellectual Freedom.

In my opinion, mission statements and statements of purpose are often overtly showy but fundamentally empty expressions, but the OIF's Freedom to Read Statement is a horse of a very different color. I had highlighted practically half the document by the time I finished reading it and wanted to consolidate some of the key paragraphs here.

The OIF begins a list of propositions by asserting that "It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority. Creative thought is by definition new, and what is new is different. The bearer of every new thought is a rebel until that idea is refined and tested." 

ALA addresses the issue of censorship with the belief that "Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not believe they are prepared to sacrifice their heritage of a free press in order to be "protected" against what others think may be bad for them. We believe they still favor free enterprise in ideas and expression."

In America we're supposed to be all about Change these days, right? "Freedom keeps open the path of novel and creative solutions, and enables change to come by choice. Every silencing of a heresy, every enforcement of an orthodoxy, diminishes the toughness and resilience of our society and leaves it the less able to deal with controversy and difference."

Going on to consider the effect of censorship on creativity in a quote worthy of Oscar Wilde, "To some, much of modern expression is shocking. But is not much of life itself shocking? We cut off literature at the source if we prevent writers from dealing with the stuff of life."

As a writer I heartily concur with the statement that "The written word is the natural medium for the new idea and the untried voice from which come the original contributions to social growth."

It's important to acknowledge that everyone will not agree all the time (or any of the time) but what is civil disagreement but one of the most basic applications of freedom? "Freedom is no freedom if it is accorded only to the accepted and the inoffensive. It is inevitable in the give and take of the democratic process that the political, the moral, or the aesthetic concepts of an individual or group will occasionally collide with those of another individual or group."

At its core, the ALA is standing up for the value of books, of libraries, and of open access to information of every kind. "We believe that what people read is deeply important; that ideas can be dangerous; but that the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours."

Excerpts from the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom's Freedom to Read Statement

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