11 Intellectual Freedom

When it comes to ideas and information, the library is a place that provides Free Access to items and databases to its patrons. This free access can be Free in the context of publishers’ whims, or it can be completely Open Access. Ofttimes, free access only extends to the free limited access provided by the lending policies of the library. In any case, information is freely available to patrons. Patrons have a large array of backgrounds and preferences. Thus, it is important that the library protect the Intellectual Freedom of all patrons. What does this mean? It means that patrons should be allowed to form their own ideas and interact with whatever materials, groups, institutions, and resources they desire. They should also be allowed, encouraged, and protected in their efforts to gain access to publicly available information. Their reasonable and legal efforts to gain materials and resources that are copyrighted should also be facilitated. This is partly why libraries, archives, and museums have been granted some exceptions to the constraints in the Copyright Law of the United States. This is just one evidence, and a compelling one, of the important part that libraries and information institutions play in the modern world.

In any conversation regarding intellectual freedom and the library, the ALA Bill of Rights should be mentioned. Here it is, as adapted in 2019:

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 the 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.

The Code of Ethics of the  American Library Association states:

  • 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.
  • We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.
  • 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.
  • We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.
  • We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness, and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions.
  • We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.
  • We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.
  • We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.
  • We affirm the inherent dignity and rights of every person. We work to recognize and dismantle systemic and individual biases; to confront inequity and oppression; to enhance diversity and inclusion; and to advance racial and social justice in our libraries, communities, profession, and associations through awareness, advocacy, education, collaboration, services, and allocation of resources and spaces.

Intellectual freedom plus free and equal access are both key ethical doctrines of libraries. Martha M. Smith (North Carolina Libraries) describes the dynamic relationship between three components which creates ethical dilemmas. These three components are:

  • (1) freedom, meaning intellectual freedom
  • (2) information democracy, promoting the need for social equity in information
  • (3) responsibility, or the obligation to promote the social good

Let’s look at Intellectual Freedom from the context of the American Library Association, which felt so strongly about this topic that it created an entire Office in its organization to support it.

Ethical decisions are rarely easy ones to make. Keeping in mind the principles of intellectual freedom and free and equal access, to what extent do libraries serve to improve and protect society? Does a library have the obligation to limit access to materials that might be socially unhealthy or promote materials that are considered beneficial to the health of society? Where does “protecting society” end and “censorship” begin? There is a fine line dividing these two concepts.

Ethics are also a factor when making collection selection decisions. It is obvious that selections should be made that benefit the library’s users. But it becomes an ethical issue when the selector chooses items that are of particular interest to themselves, rather than to their patrons or considers items that are selected because of pressure from administrators or powerful members of the community (large donors). Sometimes there is pressure to not select items because they are controversial. This can be a great disservice to the library’s patrons as well.

Suppression of certain ideas, cultures, practices, or portrayals is called Censorship. It has long been a subject of debate, as has its cousin concept Banned Books. Both of these are detrimental to Intellectual Freedom. Both of these tools have especially been used in efforts to protect children from allegedly harmful materials. For information regarding the use of Banned Books to control children’s and others’ access to information, look at A Look Back at the History of Banned Books Week. from the National Council of Teachers of English. Another potential tool of censorship is the Challenge process. This process is intended to remove material that is harmful and problematic, but some patrons can misuse it. Thus, most libraries state that all challenges must be heard by their Board of Directors or Trustees or a committee assigned by them.

Here are ten books that have been banned by schools, libraries, and communities for various reasons:

In 2022, the Nampa, Idaho school district board decided to ban over twenty books from its school libraries. This was one of several occurrences in a flood of book banning and challenges. Let’s see different viewpoints on the processes of challenging and banning books. The first is a news presentation on the topic of school libraries and book banning.

Here is another viewpoint from Missouri, also created in 2022:

Another prominent library-related issue regarding children is the access children can have to the Internet using library resources. Various groups have attempted to protect children, and rightfully so, from inadvertently going to harmful internet pages. There have also been efforts to protect children from crimes committed against them via the Internet. As the library is a common place for children to access the internet, even if it is only to look for books, it is imperative that librarians understand the risks and policies related to children.

Take a look at these pages:

Privacy is one of the most important concepts regarding interactions with patrons. It is paramount that library records are kept confidential. All personally identifiable information that links a user’s choices of taste, interest, or research to that user’s identity must be protected. This includes database search records, reference interviews, circulation records, interlibrary loan records, and any other personally identifiable uses of library materials, facilities, or services. View this excellent resource from the North Dakota State Library:


  • When someone asks who has an item checked out, you don’t tell them.
  • When checked-out items are returned, all ties are broken between the item and the patron.
  • When teachers or others in authoritarian positions ask what someone is researching, you don’t tell.




Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Introduction to Library and Information Science Copyright © 2023 by College of Southern Idaho is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *