Intellectual Freedom

Libraries: Strongholds of Intellectual Freedom

Clearview Library District News


Beyond the Books — the library’s new leadership program — offers community members a monthly immersive and behind-the-scenes look at the Clearview Library District. Each month we’ll offer a recap of the session. In October, Jamie LaRue discussed the role of libraries and intellectual freedom, bringing his perspective as Former Executive Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and Former Director of Douglas County Libraries.

Our world can seem at times unpredictable and deeply partisan. Amidst the storm of political turmoil, the library is the steady rock of our democratic foundation, quietly and firmly upholding Constitutional guarantees through the belief in intellectual freedom.

While not officially adopted by the American Library Association (ALA), the Office for Intellectual Freedom uses this definition: ‘intellectual freedom encompasses the freedom to hold, receive, and disseminate ideas without restriction,’” said Jamie LaRue, Former Executive Director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

The path to which libraries embraced intellectual freedom as a value point is winding. The first libraries in the United States were funded by fee-based memberships, accessed primarily by those with wealth or status. According to the Digital Public Library of America, the first lending library was established by Benjamin Franklin in 1790. Tax-supported libraries soon spread across the nation, giving access to all citizens, regardless of class.

With the rise of public libraries came the question of content, a defining point of which occurred during the leadup and upheaval of WWII censorship.

“[Intellectual freedom] rose as a value in the time immediately preceding WWII, when a midwest library was under attack for Mein Kampf, what we would call ‘hate speech’ today, and Grapes of Wrath, ‘too socialist,’” describes LaRue. “Libraries declared the idea that Americans needed to know what was going on in the world, and that freedom of speech, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, also meant the freedom to express and have access to unpopular ideas.”

Since this pivotal moment, libraries have firmly stepped into its role as the upholder of intellectual freedom, even going so far as to establish this core value in the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights (see sidebar). 

”In the Library Bill of Rights, ‘Materials [or services] should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation,’” explained LaRue. “Nor should access to those resources be denied because of the age, background, or views of the user.”

Hand in hand with this value is privacy. Libraries will not dictate what you should or should not read — for children, in particular, that’s a discussion left up to each individual family — and libraries will also work to ensure your privacy. At Clearview Library District, we do not monitor what you consume and have checks and balances in place to maintain the privacy of your borrowing data. 

Throughout history, libraries have played and will continue to play a unique and important role in ensuring intellectual freedom.

Public libraries, unlike bookstores or even internet sources, don't require you to buy something in order to use them. Unlike schools, libraries don't require anyone to study a particular topic or viewpoint,” LaRue said. “Libraries are a unique institution dedicated to the support for free inquiry; the only way to become an informed, responsible, and productive citizen.”

American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights

The American Library Association affirms that all libraries are forums for information and ideas, and that the following basic policies should guide their services. 

I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.

II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.

V. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.

VI. Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.

VII. All people, regardless of origin, age, background, or views, possess a right to privacy and confidentiality in their library use. Libraries should advocate for, educate about, and protect people’s privacy, safeguarding all library use data, including personally identifiable information.