It’s no secret that intellectual freedom is a foundational principle of the work we do as librarians. But sometimes, it feels like it is a secret. Sometimes it feels like something we’re frightened of, because we too often equate it first and foremost with challenges to materials. But intellectual freedom is about so much more than challenges. It informs the work we do every day in so many ways. It empowers us to make decisions about library resources that help make sure we’re doing our best to serve everyone in our communities.
These aren’t principles we want to hide. They aren’t principles we’re ashamed of. They are
principles we are proud of, and we should be affirming them to the members of our communities every chance we get.
When someone does have a concern about library materials, the principles of intellectual
freedom, and the policies and procedures that libraries (hopefully) have in place to support them, exist for everyone in the community. Everyone. And that includes the person who may be standing in front of you waving a copy of the young adult novel she just picked up and opened to a sex scene. Or the picture book about a child living in slavery that terrified his four-year-old.
It’s a serious thing to say, “I don’t think anyone should be able to get this from the library.”
What if someone said that about a book or movie the person standing in front of you loved? Would they be upset if it disappeared simply because someone said “I don’t think this should be here?”
The principles of intellectual freedom help make sure that won’t happen. They help make sure that all concerns are taken seriously, and treated fairly and equally. That’s something the public should know.
Intellectual freedom informs not only how concerns about materials are addressed, but how materials are chosen to begin with. It helps make sure that our personal tastes and values don’t limit what ends up on the shelves. It helps make sure that the least visible or least vocal members of the community are as valued by us as those who make their needs and interests known. It demands that we not make assumptions about the members of the community we serve.
And here’s the thing. You don’t have to wait until a concern or challenge arises to articulate and affirm these values. You can do it through your actions every day—in the materials you choose and provide access to, in the small conversations you have, as well as the big ones. In the small ones that really ARE big ones. In the relationships you build with the people you serve.
A librarian I know told me a story a couple of years ago about And Tango Makes Three.
She lives in a small, rural community, and a library regular came up to her with the book in hand. “I’m not sure you know what this book is about,” the woman said. The librarian took a deep breath and replied, “Actually, I do know what it’s about, but I also thought there were people here in our community who might appreciate having this book in the library.” The woman was skeptical, but even though she still wasn’t happy about the book’s presence, she let it go, saying. “Well . . . I guess I’ll have to trust you on that.”
No, it’s not always that simple or that easy. But we aren’t necessarily looking for ways to stop people from expressing concerns about library materials, we are looking for ways to better serve our communities. When we think about intellectual freedom as a principle that empowers us to do a better job of meeting the needs of everyone in those communities, we have placed it back in the position it needs to be: fundamental, essential, foundational. That’s something to shout about.
ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee