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Chapter 1: Libraries and Intellectual Freedom

My attraction to libraries is inextricably linked to issues of intellectual freedom. We live in a funny age in which there is more and more information available–and available in a myriad of formats and through innumerable outlets–and yet we are also mired in an ongoing and dangerous international trend of anti-intellectualism. As libraries evolve and develop their virtual as well as physical presences, I see the “mission” of libraries as increasingly moral–not in the conservative or religious sense, but in the sense of helping preserve navigatable and free access to information.  Having information blocked from the public dangerously inhibits the health of the nation (as we are finding as we learn about the many secret doings of the former presidential administration), but so does making information difficult to find because there is just so much of it, and so much of it is unfiltered, unedited, unorganized. I don’t see the development of internet as a threat to libraries: rather, I see it as a historical moment that redefines and broadens the “mission”of libraries. Libraries won’t disappear. Instead, they will grow. Already, libraries have become repurposed as vehicles for navigating the sea of information that defines the age. That idea is reflected in Chapter 1 with the comment, “The various missions of libraries highlight their adaptability and their capacity to serve different and multiple purposeses” (p. 4).

In reviewing the history of libraries in this chapter (especially the history of public libraries in the U.S.), I can see that the purpose of libraries developed in tandem with the public schools, which also sought a capitalist-oriented control meant to instill a particular set of values (largely Protestant, by the way, which actually resulted in deadly riots in places like Boston) in lower class and immigrant citizens. That the workforce which emerged with the establishment of libraries was largely female and underpaid (again, this sounds a lot like the teaching profession to which I currently belong) is not surprising. This actually led me to ask whether or not librarians are unionized.  I come from a long line of working class and education-related union folks, and it wasn’t until I read this chapter that I began to wonder if I could remain union-associated and protected should I choose to pursue a non-school media specialty. In New York, public school librarians are unionized (this includes the SUNY system), but a quick google search revealed only a limited number of librarian unions–only five listed for the state of New York, and only one in New Jersey. Perhaps more widesperad unionization will come with the repurposing of libraries and the people who run them. If librarians are to fight for access to freedom, they will need to be protected.

The question of preserving intellectual freedom is to me especially salient. As a high school English teacher, I have frequently grappled with this question. My school system subscribes to a restrictive filter on our computers, which has been the source of an intense, ongoing battle between teachers and librarians, and the administration. Currently, a student conducting research on Harvey Milk would be blocked from information online due to “lifestyle”; of course, we would never ban books on Harvey Milk in our library or in our classrooms. In researching Cum Laude Society as an alternative to National Honor Society, I was blocked from viewing information because the word “cum” categorized such pages as “pornographic”! Our students and faculty are also blocked from youtube, web-based email (I cannot check my Syracuse University email at school), and many other useful and important resources. I think teachers and librarians should fight to have made available to anyone who wishes to access them. My department has documented a long list of anecdotal examples that have helped push a change in our filter for next year, but students and teachers will have different levels of access. Is that right? I think it’s an issue with which we will continue to struggle. Until I read this chapter, I didn’t know there was a Library Bill of Rights. Thank goodness it exists, because we are really going to need it as we forge ahead.

Rubin, E.R. (2008). Stepping back and looking forward: reflections on the foundations of libraries and librarianship. In Haycock, K.  & Sheldon, B. E. (Eds.), The portable MLIS : Insights from the experts (pp. 3-14). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.


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