Intellectual Freedom in Practice

The post about intellectual freedom and equal access got me thinking of a couple of times I’ve actually personally dealt with this issue. Once, when I was working at a library at Adams County, a patron wanted to have the childrens’ book And Tango Makes Three banned because he was so upset that his kids had brought it home.I was surprised at how much compassion I showed for the man, even though I disagreed with him. I guided him through the complaint/appeal process surprisingly calmly, and I think that actually helped him to calm down too.

Also, as a used book buyer at the Tattered Cover, customers bring in books all the time that I find personally offensive (Conservative-leaning books that are anti-gay, or that assert that the ACLU is anti-American, etc.). After much soul searching I decided that a) The ACLU would tell me to buy even the anti-ACLU books, and that b) it’s not my business to decide what books we should make available to people.

Do you guys agree or disagree? Have you ever had any similar experiences?

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What’s a face book?

Working in a public library for the past three years, I have seen and heard a lot of interesting things. The most fascinating thing for me though, has to be how willing our library patrons are to exposing themselves and their personal information online.  The American Library Association clearly states their devotion to patron privacy in terms of their user information and library records, “We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.” But what about the kinds of privacy issues that we don’t have control over, yet are still occurring in our institutions every single day.

I’ve noticed a trend even in the last three years, of an increase in the library patrons using the public computers less and less for any kind of research purposes, and more for social networking devices. Now, of course I’m not the first one to notice this trend, social networking has been around for awhile now, and keeps attracting more and more users every day (there are currently over 500 million Facebook users today). Facebook claims that they are devoted to privacy and that they provide simple and powerful tools that allow people to control what information they share and with whom they share it.  You can see more of Facebook’s privacy policy here.

In April 2010, Facebook came out with a new feature called “instant personalization” which is a way to access your social graph in more places online. Basically, Facebook is trying to “become the web” by linking into various websites and using your information to “personalize” the kind of info that reaches you. Founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg explains instant personalization as such:

“We are making it so all websites can work together to build a more comprehensive map of connections and create better, more social experiences for everyone. We have redesigned Facebook Platform to offer a simple set of tools that sites around the web can use to personalize experiences and build out the graph of connections people are making.

This next version of Facebook Platform puts people at the center of the web. It lets you shape your experiences online and make them more social. For example, if you like a band on Pandora, that information can become part of the graph so that later if you visit a concert site, the site can tell you when the band you like is coming to your area. The power of the open graph is that it helps to create a smarter, personalized web that gets better with every action taken.”

I actually stumbled upon this new feature on accident, and it is what got me thinking about this topic. I was playing around on my Pandora account the other day, and noticed that when the Avett Brothers came on, it would pop up a picture of one of my friends from Facebook and say “So-and-So likes this band”. I was so freaked out by this, because I had no idea how it was getting access to my information, and wriggling it’s spidery fingers into my Facebook account. Once I read about this instant personalization feature, it made more sense, but I am still quite bothered by it.

Zuckerberg also commented that “people have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.

Okay, but what about for those of us who are not comfortable with sharing all of our personal information online? They don’t necessarily make it easy to “like” more control over your privacy. Seeing as so much social networking is going on in our libraries, it only seems right to make our patrons aware of certain privacy factors when they go online. I’ve seen and heard a lot of compromising situations concerning privacy occur in my library. People willingly providing their credit card details to untrusted sites or people posting their address and phone number for everyone to see. I feel like so many users are ignorant to the fact that they shouldn’t be revealing so much personal information about themselves, and I feel like it is somewhat our duty, as information professionals, to educate our library patrons about the various privacy issues for when they go online.  Some possible suggestions would be providing a flyer/pamphlet for online safety or to direct them to this site from the Center for Democracy and Technology.  Any other thoughts/suggestions on this matter?

Also, here is an article that I thought you all might find interesting which pertains to the topic of personalizing the web using Google Instant.


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Social Responsibilities of Archivists

I don’t think anyone here would argue with the statement that the main responsibilities of archivists are preservation and access. But is that all? Are archivists mere custodians, as Sir Hilary Jenkins said? Or do they have a greater responsibility to the public–not just maintaining the “official” historical record, but making sure that record is complete and unbiased?

In a speech to archivists in the late 1970s, Howard Zinn described this problem, arguing that the government, the military, large corporations, and the rich have the greatest power and influence in our society, and their records are the often the ones that make it into the “official” record of history. Archivists who believe they are “just doing their job” help reinforce this institutional bias by not questioning it, and thereby becoming complicit. He cited the Oral History Collection at Columbia University as a prime example:

“It will spend much time interviewing members of the Eisenhower Administration, based on a $120,000 grant from the National Archives. Has the Project interviewed Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Mississippi, or Eldridge Cleaver or Dave Dellinger? Did it go to the Poor Peoples’ March and interview the people camped out there in the mud? Has it interviewed Vietnam veterans in the rehabilitation hospitals? Does it go into the ghetto around Columbia University?”

Societal attitudes about inclusiveness and diversity have certainly changed since the 1970s. There are now archives documenting the achievements of people in the gay community, as well as scholarly reports on the biases inherent in the construction of some records (such as court documents). But responding in full to Zinn’s example–and accusations–would go one step farther. Today that might mean an archive pursuing and/or sponsoring an oral history project in which they interview people at Tea Party rallies, people who have been foreclosed on, or people who have been unable to find work for over a year.

Now that we’ve entered the digital age, the issue of Archival “activism” has become more complicated. There is, for example, the still-rather-controversial idea of archivists taking an active role in record creation. The idea is that with so many records now born digital, archivists within larger organizations (corporations, governments, universities) should set the guidelines for the creation of these files, so it’s easier to preserve them, rather than just trying to figure out what to do with dozens of different file types after they’ve already been created, used, and handed over to be archived.

There is also the question of all the different types of media being created now: public figures like artists, journalists, and politicians are using social networking sites and building personal web pages. Do these merit archival attention? Should the National Archives download a copy of President Obama’s Facebook page, or the Speaker of the House’s Twitter?

What do you all think? Should archivists take on more active roles? Should they seek to gather information rather than just recording it? Should archives revise their collection policies to address digital media, or even take part in the creation of it?



Zinn, Howard. Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest. Midwestern Archivist Volume II, Number 2 1977 p. 14-27,

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Self-Service Holds: Privacy versus Efficiency?

We live in an era in which convenience is of utmost value to most people. Almost everyone feels crunched for time in their daily lives, so anything that allows people to save a few minutes is lauded. Libraries have caught onto this need among their users, and have attempted to enhance services to be as time-efficient as possible. Among these enhancements are self-service holds in public libraries, which garner a good deal of conversation among LIS students and professionals.

Self-service holds essentially allow customers to walk into the library and pick up items being held for them off the shelf without having to ask a librarian to retrieve the items for them. Most libraries mark the items with the first three letters of the user’s first and last name to maintain privacy. For example, my holds would be marked as “BRO ALE,” which stands for Alexandra Bronston. While this level of privacy is sufficient for most users, for some it does not feel private enough. And this is where things get tricky for libraries.

The ALA Code of Ethics says, “III. We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.” It also states, “I. We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.” Self-service holds are intended to uphold both of these values by combining respect for the user’s privacy with a high level of efficiency of service, but it’s not that easy when some users feel that their identity is compromised when their holds are publicly displayed in the case of self-service holds.

On the other hand, some library users feel that self-service holds are more private because the librarian or circulation clerk no longer sees who checks out what. With the advent of self-checkout machines, a customer can enter the library, pick up their self-service holds, and use the self-checkout without having to interact with library staff at all. For some library users this is the ultimate in convenience and privacy, but some users, particularly older ones, may find this system confusing, inefficient, and impersonal.

Finding a balance between providing efficient services, protecting privacy, and meeting the needs of all types of users is a constant challenge for libraries, and I suppose all information organizations must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of every new technology they introduce to their customers. This issue in particular provokes discussion, particularly in regards to public libraries and how they can best utilize resources and serve their customers, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut solution, at least at this juncture.

–Post by Allie B.

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Access to One, Access to All

Lately I have been thinking a lot about my politics with respect to the ALA’s position on intellectual freedom and access. I am a left of left liberal, a champion of the working class, a bleeding-heart, tree hugging “everybody get together try to love one another,” child of the hippie generation. That being said, I take a lot of issue with information that I think fosters hate and discrimination. I know that as a librarian I am going to have to put aside my ideals and serve each individual without prejudice. But do I think that is possible? How does one tolerate hate?

In considering the latter I came across an article about a situation in which a white supremacist group was meeting in a room at a local library. After one of the meetings a fight broke out in the parking lot and the police were called in to resolve the matter. No one was hurt and the matter was taken care of quickly. When asked if she would continue to allow the group to meet at the library, the librarian said, “if I don’t let them have access, I can’t let anyone have access.” My reaction to her statement surprised me, because although I abhor white supremacist ideology and have known several people who have been very hurt by this group, what I felt was pride. She was so brave, I thought, to continue her responsibility to intellectual freedom when the group she was protecting was so disdainful. I felt proud to be associated with a profession that upholds its commitment to intellectual freedom and access. So, in that situation I strongly disagree with the principles of that particular group, but in another situation I might be protecting the rights of an oppressed populace. I might be fighting to keep a library open so that people are not so separated by the digital divide. I might be pushing for an increase in Spanish language books or protecting the religious texts of Muslim patrons. If a librarian can stand up for the access rights of a group white supremacists, I think we can accomplish almost anything.

No matter how difficult it is to consider that I may one day be in the position where I am protecting the rights of someone who proliferates hate, it makes me feel so privileged to consider myself a warrior in the fight for intellectual freedom.

J. A. Lee

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No Reader Left Behind: eBook Extremes

NPR aired a story last year about a boarding school in Massachusetts that decided to rebuild its library as a fully digital environment. That is, Cushing Academy no longer has any physical books. The stacks are gone, and students instead have access to millions of digital books via the school’s circulating Kindles. Although many institutions, including school and public libraries, have begun to adopt eBooks as a component of their collections, Cushing Academy is one of the most extreme examples of a library literally doing away with their stacks.

The stated mission of the American Library Association (ALA) is “To provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.” The introduction of eBooks to libraries may be interpreted as an “enhancement,” and, indeed, few librarians reject the notion that eBooks provide benefits to many collections by supplementing the capacities of print materials. However, the story of Cushing Academy highlights some of the complexities of taking new technologies to the extreme.

Camila Alire, past President of the ALA, said of Cushing Academy’s drastic renovation, “Students learn differently, and some students will take to digital resources and information technology like a duck takes to water…And then there are other students who learn by turning the pages, by handling the materials” (Antolini, 2009). Alire makes an important point: although part of the library’s responsibility is to stay abreast of new technologies, libraries also function to meet the learning and information needs of diverse users. If an organization gets rid of an entire range of materials in favor of another, it runs the risk of ignoring the needs of a faction of the user population.

In LIS programs we like to turn to S.R. Ranganathan to simplify the general mission of libraries because his “Five Laws of Library Science” are simple yet powerful. “Every reader his book” may be the one that relates most explicitly to the discussion about eBooks (Gorman, 1998, p. 21). A component of the mission of all information organizations is to connect every user with the best information for him or her. For some users, an eBook may be the best format, while others may want to view information via microfiche. In any case, it is the responsibility of the information organization to meet each user’s individual needs. This is not to say that every information package must be available in every possible format, but what we sometimes lose sight of is the fact that different users learn in different ways. This is what Camile Alire speaks to in her comments about Cushing Academy.

In general, it is an interesting time to be an information professional and try to navigate the murky waters of new technologies. It’s important for us to remain aligned with the ALA’s mission of enhancement and improvement, and it is of course vital that libraries of all kinds strive to remain relevant. However, it’s also important that we look critically at our options and keep all users in mind when we acquire new technologies.


Antolini, Tina. (November 9, 2009.) Digital school library leaves book stacks behind. Retrieved from

Gorman, Michael. (1998.)  The five laws of library science: then and now. School Library Journal, 44:7, p. 20-3.

–Post by Allie B.

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Advantages of the Soft Profession

It sometimes seems that since the beginning of library science, librarians have been striving to become full professionals and stand alongside doctors, lawyers, clergy, and others.  While it is important to distinguish a librarian as a professional, it is perhaps not so important to strive for the same standards as doctors or lawyers.  There are, in fact, distinct advantages to remaining a soft profession.

As a soft profession, one of the advantages of library science is the ability to borrow from other professions.  Librarians come from a variety of backgrounds and bring knowledge with them.  This type of diversity allows adaptation and growth.  Principles from other fields of study, such as sociology or computer science, can also be gleaned and applied institutionally or individually.  If the American Library Association had the same types of strict guidelines and practices as other professions, it would be much harder for librarians to incorporate this kind of knowledge into their work.  It would have to be molded to fit the strict guidelines of the profession instead of simply adapted to a new use.

Librarians also have the chance to connect directly with their communities.  Strict professions create a dividing line between the people and the professional.  People see doctors when they are sick and lawyers when they have legal issues.  People visit libraries for everything from serious research needs to curiosity about the local cultural festival.  Librarians are able to provide space and support for events beyond their professional realm through their professional environment.  This kind of involvement would be curtailed if the role of the librarian were strictly defined and enforced.  Worse yet, it may require the librarian to participate in community outreach in situations where those activities may not be to the benefit of the community.

In working towards the good of the community, librarians are able to experiment with new techniques, technologies, procedures, and programs.  In this area, librarians have a distinct advantage by remaining a soft profession.  If libraries were to have enforced guidelines, failed experiments could be met with fines or job loss.  Libraries as a soft profession encourage experimentation and growth.  In a strict profession, much of the growth and research comes from related fields or outside organizations.  In libraries, growth comes from the librarian.  This allows librarians to direct the ways in which libraries advance.

The types of enforcements and requirements a strict profession places on a professional would be crippling to a library.  Librarianship as a soft profession allows the use of knowledge from other professions, a strong connection with the community, and encourages librarians to try new ideas without fear of repercussions.

– J. Cox

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