Sunday, March 19, 2017

Intellectual Freedom in Libraries and Museums

On Friday, March 17, I presented with Svetlana Mintcheva of the National Coalition Against Censorship on the topic of Intellectual freedom and museums. Bradley Taylor, a professor of museology for the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, has long believed that the value of intellectual freedom has never quite been articulated in the museum world, although it is needed. He held this workshop to start to change that.

Professor Taylor visited me last year to ask me to address what librarians have learned about how to embed this value in a profession. I did some thinking about that, and concluded that there were several steps along the way.

A sign of the times

For the first 60-odd years of American librarianship, our motto was "the best reading for the greatest number at the least cost:" a prescriptive stance that favored serious and canonical reading, mostly non-fiction. But in 1938, amidst a rising tide of anti-immigrant and anti-ethnic fervor, Forrest Spaulding of the Des Moines Public Library articulated a "Library's Bill of Rights" that spelled out for the first time an underlying principle of our work: to provide all points of view, regardless of background, view, or national origin; to resist censorship. The following year, the Intellectual Freedom Committee of ALA (the American Library Association) revised and adopted it. There is a parallel between then and now, a rising populist, nativist sentiment that sparks resistance. 2017 may be museums' 1938.

Professional committees

But note that the IFC was already in existence back then. So the formation of a specific (or several) values-centered committee(s) within a profession starts to coalesce some leadership. (ALA also has the Intellectual Freedom Roundtable, and a Committee on Professional Ethics, which articulates intellectual freedom as a professional responsibility.) If there is a committee, it's going to do some programs at professional conferences. People are going to start writing about it. And so the idea spreads simply by paying attention to it.


Another point to note about the IFC is that it began to step into the same role regarding interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights as is served by the United States Supreme Court regarding the First Amendment. The IFC didn't just talk about intellectual freedom, they discussed and made statements about various issues of the day through the lens of a foundational document, keeping it fresh and alive.

A dedicated office

In 1967 - 50 years ago! - another key step occurred. Judith Krug founded the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), a department with ALA dedicated to the fight against censorship. While there are many library associations around the world, OIF remains the only dedicated office within librarianship, and other library associations respect it. Followed shortly afterward by her creation of the Freedom to Read Foundation, this created two interrelated organizations that began to establish normative documents and expectations within the profession, and weren't afraid to take intellectual freedom issues to court. The library world owes a huge debt to Krug and those who joined her.

Public events

Since 1987, the OIF has also sponsored (with publishers and other free speech advocate groups) an annual Banned Books Week. This event, with its many displays in libraries around the country, helps brand librarians as fierce defenders of the right to read, to receive knowledge. Every year, we reach literally millions of ordinary people about ongoing efforts to restrict those rights, and the importance of resisting censorship.

Policy and procedure infrastructure

Next came the essential infrastructure of policy and procedure. Among those policies (that might again track along with museums) were a collection development policy, and statements regarding patron access, exhibits, programs, and meetings. Intellectual freedom should be embedded in all of them: calling out the mission of the institution, and how these services support it. In each case it should be made clear that museums, like libraries, don't endorse the views expressed by collections, programs, or speakers at meetings; they present them to further greater understanding and knowledge. These policies - created by staff, reviewed and adopted by boards - are one of the most powerful tools libraries have found in the defense against censorship. They align staff and governing body, and create a public expectation. Policies make the rules clear.

The next most vital step is the adoption of a process through which complaints about collections or programs can be challenged, and thoughtfully considered. Complaints are inevitable. In the moment, particularly if one is worried about fundraising, it's easy to back down - to withdraw the offending exhibit, to cancel the controversial speaker. But if there a formal "reconsideration" process, decisions are more deliberate and focused. There is less public embarrassment through too-hasty reversals.

Request for Reconsideration Process

The steps of that process are as follows:

- the concern is made explicit (there is a written form asking for a precise description), 
- there is an independent review of the concern against the mission and policies of the institution, 
- the review committee makes a recommendation to the director, 
- the director makes a decision, and formally communicates it to the original complainant, again citing institutional mission and policy, and
- there is  the possibility of a appeal of the director's decision to the board, whose decision is final.

That appeal might also have the possibility of a more public hearing. The idea isn't to hide the conflict. Rather, the purpose is to give everyone time to think it through, to make better decisions, not just react to angry outbursts and accusations.
Finally, values are embedded in a profession by ongoing professional resources: manuals (like the OIF's excellent Intellectual Freedom Handbook, 9th edition) which then become the basis for ongoing training. 

Parting thoughts
Museums and libraries are complementary institutions. We share many things: a passion for exploration, learning, and education. We are cultural "memory" institutions, and so contribute to the knowledge of both individuals and communities.
We are also different. I admire the artistry and science of museum exhibits, and think libraries could learn a lot from them. Too, Svetlana Mintcheva made a compelling case for the advance work some museums do before bringing in a controversial exhibit, incorporating a broader range of viewpoints in a way that also engages the community.
I concluded my remarks by saluting our museum colleagues, and urging them to continue their work to call out and institutionalize the value of intellectual freedom within their profession. For one thing, that organizational clarity of purpose means we are more likely to succeed, and less likely to be highjacked for more negative messages. For another, the intellectual freedom community, while large and vibrant, can always use another player.
My thanks to professor Taylor for the opportunity to discuss the topic. I hope it gains some traction.

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