|A young JC..|
The Preamble of the United States Constitution cites several rationales for the creation of the document — among the reasons: “[to] secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Enter intellectual freedom. Under the first amendment of our beloved Constitution, Americans are granted not only the freedom to express their views (excluding slander and libel), but to read what they wish to read. In the context of libraries, specifically the public variety for the purposes of this essay, efforts made to thwart library patrons from reading and/or having access to certain material(s) is deemed as censorship — a threat to intellectual freedom and the first amendment.
My fascination with intellectual freedom and censorship began not when I entered library school, but rather during the tumultuous years of my adolescence. It initially began as a pseudo-experiment in a suburban public library involving an infamous book and evolved into something much bigger. Perhaps my fascination could be attributed to teenage rebellion and testing of boundaries rather than a budding love for the field of library and information science — regardless of my underlying motive, I was intrigued and still am…
The Ramblings of a Dead Man
After learning about the mere existence of the controversial book Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler at school, I headed to my local public library in order to find it. Not only did I want to read the book for myself and attempt to understand why it was so controversial, but I wanted to see if I would be allowed to check the book out. Using the library’s newly computerized catalog, I did a basic search and located the book on my own without involving staff. I sat down at a table out of view of possible prying eyes and began quickly leafing through the book.
At that very moment in my life, being both naive and somewhat limited in historical knowledge, I was searching for text that could possibly cause a parent or teacher to become upset and disapprove — such as glaring obscenities. Nothing jumped out — to my juvenile eyes, the book consisted of nothing but the long ramblings of a dead man. I walked to the circulation desk and proceeded to produce my library card for the clerk.
Based on policy set by the library and even the personal beliefs of the clerk working the circulation desk, there are a number of possible outcomes to the anecdote in which I purposely left hanging. The following paragraphs will propose several possible outcomes:
Handing my card to the clerk, she takes a look at me and realizes that I am the daughter of Russ and Diana. In scanning the barcode on the book, the clerk takes a look at the cover and states, “I know your parents. We play golf together and I know they wouldn’t approve of you reading this book.” The clerk refuses to continue the transaction and places the book on a cart behind the circulation desk for re-shelving by a library page. Feeling embarrassed and dejected, I leave the library and head for home.
Handing my card to the clerk, she scans the barcode and glances at the computer screen. In a blink of an eye, she is walking away from the desk and going into the back office from where she reappears with an authoritative-looking woman. It is explained to me that based on the library’s policy, patrons under the age of 18 are not allowed to check out materials from the adult collection. Feeling embarrassed and dejected, I leave the library and head for home.
Handing my card to the clerk, she smiles at me and inquires if I found everything in which I was looking during my visit. I smile back, “Yes, thank you.” She scans the barcode on the book and promptly reminds me of the due date. I put away my library card as the clerk smiles, yet again, while wishing me a good evening. Surprised at my luck, I leave the library before she has a chance to change her mind.
The Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science by Joan M. Reitz defines in loco parentis as a Latin phrase meaning, “‘in place of a parent,’ usually a person who temporarily assumes parental authority.” In the case of outcome (1), the clerk is acting in loco parentis by deciding what content the patron should or should not be accessing. Outcome (2) depicts the library director and clerk abridging services to a patron based on age. While the spirit of library staff might be to “protect” a child or young adult — in actuality they are infringing upon the patron’s right to intellectual freedom as provided by the First Amendment of the Constitution as well as violating Article V of the Library Bill of Rights. Also to be considered, what is offensive to one person or culture might not be to another.
Article V of the Library Bill of Rights as developed by the American Library Association posits, “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.” The ALA offers an interpretation of the Article:
The “right to use a library” includes free access to, and unrestricted use of, all the services, materials, and facilities the library has to offer. Every restriction on access to, and use of, library resources, based solely on the chronological age, educational level, literacy skills, or legal emancipation of users violates Article V…Children and young adults unquestionably possess First Amendment rights, including the right to receive information through the library in print, non-print, or digital format. Constitutionally protected speech cannot be suppressed solely to protect children or young adults from ideas or images a legislative body believes to be unsuitable for them. Librarians and library governing bodies should not resort to age restrictions in an effort to avoid actual or anticipated objections, because only a court of law can determine whether material is not constitutionally protected.
Furthermore, Vaillancourt (2000) helps break down the intellectual freedom discussion by offering three points to consider: (1) It is up to the child and his or her parent to determine what material is appropriate for him or her; (2) The librarian may not impose his or her own personal or moral views on people seeking information; (3) Individual parents cannot speak for any children but their own.
Many libraries include a statement of responsibility on their patron applications, such as the application used by Oxford Public Library, which states, “I accept responsibility for materials borrowed on the library card issued from this application. Responsibility for the choice of materials rests with the person(s) whose signature(s) appear the signature lines below and not with the library system or its staff.” The application includes two signature lines: one for the parent/guardian and the second for the minor child.
When dealing with an ethical dilemma, the situation is never straightforward; therefore, I find it imperative that libraries take a proactive stance by implementing a statement of responsibility for patron applications similar to the practice at Oxford Public Library. Initiative should not stop there; librarians need to take time to talk with parents and guardians to educate them about the library’s mission, roles, and limitations when it comes to their children’s needs and access to information. The American Library Association developed and amended the Library Bill of Rights for good reason and professionals have an obligation to align themselves.
According to Vaillancourt (2000):
Teens are often interested in controversial topics. Subjects such as sexuality, religion, drug and alcohol use, music, philosophy, and psychology are often explored for the first time during adolescence. Reading and talking about these issues allows teens to discover how they feel about things, which leads to an understanding of who they are on a variety of levels. It is essential to healthy development.
Fortunately, my anecdote concludes with outcome (3) — I was able to check out Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler without issue or even an obviously raised eyebrow. As a relatively naive fourteen year old, I found Mein Kampf to be unremarkable and a complete chore to read cover to cover — which I did. Also fortunate, I cannot cite a single instance of being thwarted while browsing or checking out materials from the adult collection. In the past when I inquired at the reference desk for assistance with school projects, I was always shown both juvenile and adult materials which, by the way, were shelved in different areas of the library. I am pleased to say that the library’s philosophy and practices aligned with the Library Bill of Rights.
Note: I would like to let the record reflect that I’ve re-read Mein Kampf and found it to be disturbing and still tedious to read (in the context of being full of ramblings). Currently, I am working on a case study for LIS 7790 (History of Books, Printing, and Publishing) which focuses on the publication history of the book. Hopefully, this time next year, I will be researching the topic of Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Issues During the Third Reich (think: clandestine publishing, underground libraries, the Nazi book burnings of 1933, the banned book list, and textbook censorship).
- American Library Association. (2011). Free access to libraries for minors: an interpretation of the library bill of rights. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/freeaccesslibraries
- American Library Association. (1996). Library bill of rights. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/index.cfm
- Oxford Public Library. (2011). Application for smart card. Oxford, MI: OPL
- Reitz, J.M. (2010). Online dictionary for library and information science. Retrieved from http://www.abc-clio.com/ODLIS/about.aspx
- Vaillancourt, R.J. (2000). Bare bones young adult services: Tips for public library generalists. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.