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Fiddling While Rome Burns?


Librarians market themselves as staunch advocates of intellectual freedom. But what is intellectual freedom, why do librarians care about it so much, and how well do they defend it anyway?

Librarians are getting a lot of bad press. In September, for instance, Rick Lowry, editor of National Review, roundly attacked them for campaigning against the USA PATRIOT Act.

Contrasting this with ALA’s failure to support the 14 so-called Cuban independent librarians who were jailed in April 2003 by Cuban authorities, Lowry said: “These true martyrs to the free circulation of reading material held little interest for the ALA since they are anti-Castro instead of anti-Ashcroft.” Librarians, he concluded, remain “one of the country’s main centers of thoughtless and unreconstructed leftism.”

Lowry, of course, is an unreconstructed conservative. But he’s not the only critic. In the Los Angeles Times last year, journalist Charlotte Allen argued that librarians’ opposition to the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)—on grounds that it imposes censorship on libraries—sat awkwardly with their refusal to support the attempts of Cuba’s independent librarians to fight censorship. ALA, she said, has done “zilch on behalf of its members’ imprisoned Cuban colleagues.”

And last September, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft dismissed librarians’ claims that the FBI is using the PATRIOT Act to access reader records as “baseless hysteria.” He said sarcastically: “With just 11,000 FBI agents and over a billion visitors to America’s libraries each year, the Department of Justice has neither the staffing, the time, nor the inclination to monitor the reading habits of Americans. No offense to the American Library Association, but we just don’t care.”

Under Attack

So what’s going on? According to Nancy Kranich, chair of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, librarians are simply doing what they have always done: defending intellectual freedom. If this is attracting a lot of attention, it simply reflects the greater threat that intellectual freedom is under today. “The whole concept of free and open access to information is under attack on many, many levels,” she says. “Much of this comes directly from our government.”

But what exactly is intellectual freedom? And why is it such an important issue for librarians? “Intellectual freedom is based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the library profession’s interpretation of the First Amendment,” explains Judith Krug, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. She adds that this guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The specific role libraries play in defending intellectual freedom is articulated in the Library Bill of Rights, Krug says.

In short, since intellectual freedom assumes that in a democracy all points of view are available to everyone, libraries play a vital social role as forums for the free circulation of information and ideas. According to ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Manual: “Intellectual freedom implies a circle, and that circle is broken if either freedom of expression or access to ideas is stifled. Librarians have [therefore] taken upon themselves the responsibility to provide, through their institutions, all points of view on all questions and issues of our times and to make these ideas and opinions available to anyone who needs or wants them, regardless of age, background, or views.”

Additionally, argues Krug, it’s important that access can take place in private, so people don’t self-censor from fear of being judged by others.

Librarians, then, are strong advocates for having unrestricted access to information and of the right to privacy when doing so. The key point, insists Krug, is that any government activity that “appears to limit the availability of and accessibility to information makes it our issue.”

Given the charges of hypocrisy leveled by critics like Lowry, however, how well do librarians measure up to their own standards?

Different Picture Emerges

Not too well, it appears. In a 2001 issue of Alexandria, Paul Sturges, a professor of information science at the U.K.’s Loughborough University, wrote, “If we move away from [the] level of high principle and test libraries as practical contributors to freedom of information, a rather different picture emerges.”

At the most basic level, argues Sturges, “the effectiveness of aids to information-finding available in libraries is flawed in ways that tend to justify the accusation that librarians are more concerned with protecting their documents than they are with helping searchers.”

Steven Harris, an English literature librarian at the University of Tennessee, claims that librarians are even prone to engage in censorship themselves. “Librarians do censor materials on occasion,” he says, adding that it can be “difficult to reconcile that with one’s political views.”

Others go further still, arguing that some librarians consistently withhold materials for ideological reasons. Robert Kent, a New York public librarian and co-founder of Friends of Cuban Libraries, maintains that such librarians scorn the principle that library collections should represent diverse opinions. Rather, he says, they believe that “librarians have a duty to gather library materials that reflect only ‘the truth,’ at least as far as this faction see ‘the truth’ in any controversy.”

Recent events also suggest that librarians are happy to ignore patron privacy when it suits them. Last October, for instance, the San Francisco Public Library Commission announced plans to track library books by inserting Radio Frequency Identification chips into them. Explaining the decision, Jackie Griffin, director of the Berkeley Public Library, told Berkeley Daily Planet that using RFID would help reduce the threat of repetitive stress injury for staff members, since they currently have to check items out manually.

Given the privacy implications, it’s striking that librarians should consider using RFID. The technology is so controversial that last year, Wal-Mart abandoned an RFID trial it was piloting after it received vocal complaints from privacy advocates.

Yet Santa Clara, Calif., public libraries have been using RFID technology for 2 years, and a similar system will be introduced into 24 libraries in Seattle this spring.

How can all this be squared with opposition to CIPA and the PATRIOT Act? And given librarians’ claimed support for intellectual freedom, why has ALA snubbed Cuba’s independent librarians?

Personal Bailiwick

Because, it seems, librarians’ advocacy of intellectual freedom was never motivated by a social conscience. They became self-appointed guardians of the First Amendment, says Harris, not through a desire to defend free speech, but as a way of achieving professional autonomy and imposing their standards on others. In a 1999 article published in Counterpoise, he wrote that librarians “seized upon censorship as their own personal bailiwick [to achieve] autonomy from the clientele and superiority to the clientele.” As such, he added, “the values of the librarian, rather than the interests of the public, drove book collecting.”

The University of Illinois’ Joyce Latham, a librarian who is researching the history of intellectual freedom, reached similar conclusions. Moreover, she says, for librarians, there’s a closer relationship between labor issues and intellectual freedom than many realize.

Latham says the first public intellectual freedom policy, which was drawn up at the Chicago Public Library in 1936, “came out of a challenge to the materials collected in the foreign-language department of the main library there, which just happened to be run by a gentleman who would become head of the CPL union (a radical one at that).”

Historically, therefore, librarians advocated intellectual freedom to promote their own interests, propagate their own values, and limit interference in library matters by the local community—not as a principled defense of free speech.

McCarthyism caused a subsequent shift in emphasis. The main threat to library autonomy was increasingly seen as coming not from the local community but from central government. As a result, wrote Harris, “librarianship began to develop a different notion of [intellectual] freedom, one that insisted on the librarian’s autonomy from direct government control.”

What does this tell us about today’s opposition to the PATRIOT Act and CIPA? Superficially, we might conclude that librarians are simply objecting to the government’s renewed efforts to interfere in the library.

However, opposition to the PATRIOT Act highlights another aspect of this issue. McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, and subsequently, the Library Awareness Program (in which the FBI was said to have tried to recruit librarians to spy on their patrons) have so politicized librarians that they are now unable to differentiate between library issues and civil rights issues. For instance, while the PATRIOT Act has been widely vilified as a threat to patron privacy, any threat to library users is theoretical at best.

More General Political Protest

Why? Ashcroft is surely right to insist that the FBI has no inclination to root around in the library. Events may prove otherwise, but it’s hardly credible that the FBI believes it can prevent Al-Qaeda terrorism by monitoring everyone who checks out a politically suspect book or by spying on anyone who’s seen in the library googling terms like “making a bomb.”

Interestingly, not once in the 342 pages of the PATRIOT Act does the word “library” appear. Moreover, Ashcroft’s recent attempts to broaden the PATRIOT Act suggest that he’s far more interested in tracing the flows of money needed to fund terrorism than tracking subversive ideas.

The PATRIOT Act, then, is a civil liberties issue, not a library issue. The attraction to librarians is that in opposing it, they can engage in a more general political protest against the government. Librarians acquired this habit in the 1960s, when any boundary between the role of professional librarian and citizen activist apparently collapsed. Nothing better demonstrates this than the events surrounding the jailing of Zoia Horn for refusing to testify in the “Harrisburg Seven” trial.

Horn, a chief reference librarian at Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University, was opposed to the Vietnam War. She had marched in antiwar demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and had become acquainted with a number of antiwar activists. Among these was the Rev. Philip Berrigan, who in 1972 was charged, with six others, with conspiracy to blow up tunnels beneath Washington, D.C., and to kidnap Henry Kissinger, all in protest of the U.S. bombing in Southeast Asia.

Horn was subpoenaed to testify in the subsequent trial but refused, citing her commitment to intellectual freedom. “Many people felt it was wrong to be involved in Vietnam,” she explains today, adding that the trial was an attempt by the U.S. government “to instill fear of dissent or of criticism into people.”

Unimpressed by such claims, the judge jailed Horn for 20 days. Initially, ALA refused to support her, arguing that she had been “acting as a private citizen on a point of conscience.” Since her decision was unrelated to her job as a librarian, this was a reasonable conclusion to reach.

Confronted with mounting anger from the library community, however, ALA reversed its decision. Now commending Horn’s actions, the group conceded that Article IV of the Library Bill of Rights “explicitly encourages librarians to actively support and cooperate with those individuals and groups who are engaged in resisting censorship and the abridgements of the freedoms of expression and of access to information.”

Clearly, on rereading its own Bill of Rights, ALA realized that what had begun life as a document seeking only to advise librarians on their activities within the library had, after multiple revisions, acquired a much wider political agenda. Indeed, Article IV was not in the original bill, but added in 1948. In the 1960s, it was subsequently broadened to the point where few acts of political protest cannot now be justified by reference to Article IV.

Moreover, librarians’ antipathy to government has now reached the level at which they’re in danger of losing sight of their claimed aim to be defending intellectual freedom. ALA’s refusal to support the Cuban independent libraries, for instance, is based solely on a belief (not concrete evidence) that the libraries were funded by the U.S. government, not out of any consideration of Cubans’ right to intellectual freedom. Opposing the U.S. government, then, has become more important than defending intellectual freedom—even when, in a strangely mangled logic, it’s done in the name of intellectual freedom.

Far Greater Threat

But does such muddled thinking matter if librarians can help derail pernicious and antidemocratic legislation like the PATRIOT Act? Actually, it does.

First, ALA’s opposition campaign could prove counterproductive. Ashcroft clearly hopes to neutralize criticism of the act by portraying its most vocal critics as obsessive paranoiacs. As he mockingly put it, librarians appear to believe that the nation’s libraries are surrounded by FBI agents “dressed in raincoats, dark suits, and sunglasses [and who] stop patrons and librarians and interrogate everyone like Joe Friday.”

Second, and more importantly, while librarians have been busy playing politics, far greater threats to intellectual freedom have crept up on libraries—not the least of which are media consolidation and ever more repressive copyright laws.

What have librarians been doing to fight these threats? Far too little. Why, for instance, didn’t they do more to warn the world of the dangers of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) before it became law? Why, I asked Kranich, did ALA only get around to passing a resolution on media consolidation last summer? “We have a huge array of issues to deal with, so we have to be somewhat careful about what we commit to,” she answers. “Up until now, the ALA has been very reluctant to jump in because they felt they just didn’t have the resources.”

Given the seriousness of the threat, this is a striking admission. It overlooks any acknowledgement of the significant threat to free speech posed by private corporations that are amassing huge warehouses of proprietary content.

And as James Boyle, a professor at Duke Law School, warned back in 1997 in his article “A Politics of Intellectual Property: Environmentalism for the Net?” since the law is unable to deal adequately with First Amendment threats arising from intellectual property, the private sector poses a much greater threat to free speech than government. As he put it, “Courts are traditionally much less sensitive to First Amendment, free speech, and other ‘free flow of information arguments’ when the context is seen as private rather than public, property rather than censorship.”

Librarians are so obsessed with big government that they failed to appreciate this until last year when (in Eldred v. Ashcroft) the Supreme Court declined to strike down the Copyright Term Extension Act.

As Kranich concedes: “When the court ruled in the Eldred case, they argued that it is not a First Amendment problem because there are protections to preserve the public domain, including fair use, the first sale doctrine, etc. But the reality is that these protections have been taken away by the DMCA.”

Moreover, as Kranich also acknowledges, the impact of new copyright laws on free speech is compounded by media concentration. “You can’t uncouple these issues because the more powerful the media gets, the more powerful the copyright lobby gets,” she says.

And as information is increasingly digitized, the pressure on free speech grows, since this digitization threatens to introduce an entirely pay-per-view information infrastructure and therefore limit access. At the same time, it allows the big publishers to flood libraries with a multitude of derivative products that significantly reduce diversity.

“At one time, we used to call libraries the alternative, but today libraries are buying less and less alternative material,” says Kranich. “This is partially because they have less and less money as they spend more on electronic resources. For instance, they are buying, say, The New York Times in five different formats, each one expensive, and so have less money to buy alternative—on-the-margin—publications.”

Muddled Thinking

Librarians, then, need to rethink the logic of their intellectual freedom advocacy. They also need to put aside all irrelevant and nonessential issues and concentrate on the clear-and-present danger.

Does this mean they should cease campaigning against the PATRIOT Act? Probably. If ALA’s resources are as stretched as Kranich says, then there are more pressing matters. After all, ALA is a professional library association, not a civil rights organization, and there’s no shortage of other groups that oppose the PATRIOT Act, including the ACLU, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Public Integrity, etc. Attacking it on civil-liberties grounds, as these organizations are doing, is appropriate. Presenting it as a major threat to the library is inaccurate and probably counterproductive. Besides, parts of the PATRIOT Act are due to expire next year. Given the broad opposition to the act, its more sinister powers may never be renewed.

Wasting further time on CIPA is also pointless. Its threat to the rights of library patrons was always exaggerated, and the Supreme Court has refused to strike it down.

And Cuba? No incident since the arrest of Zoia Horn has so clearly demonstrated ALA’s muddled thinking about intellectual freedom than its squabbling over Cuba’s independent libraries. Ironically, by not supporting them, ALA has done the right thing for the wrong reason. Whatever the facts, U.S. librarians have no responsibility to adjudicate on the actions of the Cuban government.

It’s time, then, to stop obsessing about governments and focus on the real challenge to intellectual freedom in the library. After all, media consolidation and ever expanding copyright laws threaten the library’s raison d’être. Together, they could so diminish the public domain that libraries—were they to survive—would become indistinguishable from commercial bookshops, with access only available to those who can pay the toll. As Kranich concedes, “If you don’t have access, you have no freedom of expression.” What greater threat to intellectual freedom in the library could there be?

Strikingly, this challenge that’s confronting librarians is remarkably relevant. Since today’s content cartel threatens both their own jobs as well as the intellectual freedom of their patrons, librarians’ professional interests have finally been neatly married to those of their clients.

In embracing the challenge, librarians can both disprove Lowry’s claim that they are “thoughtless and unreconstructed” lefties and finally become what they always claimed they were: the defenders of (everyone’s) intellectual freedom. Anything else is fiddling while Rome burns.

This article has been reprinted in its entirety from the January, 2004 issue of Information Today with the permission of Information Today, Inc., 143 Old Marlton Pike, Medford, NJ 08055. 609/654-6266,

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