March – May 1990

Intellectual freedom is the most fundamental of our personal liberties. As expressed in the First Amendment, and as manifested in the freedoms of speech, press, and peaceable assembly, it is one of the cornerstones of our republic. James Madison, in lines that have often been quoted, best expressed the centrality of intellectual freedom to the democratic process:

A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

More recently, justice William O. Douglas reaffirmed what he felt to be the essential personal freedoms guaranteed each citizen by the Constitution, which include

… the right to believe what one chooses, the right to differ from one’s neighbor, the right to pick and choose the political philosophy that one likes best, the right to associate with whomever one chooses, the right to join the groups one prefers, the privilege of selecting one’s own path to salvation.

While many social institutions have embraced the cause of intellectual freedom, the library’s role in this venture has been unique. Librarians have long recognized that the right to hold and express one’s beliefs – however controversial – must coexist with the freedom of access to the beliefs and ideas of others. Through the collections they build and the services they provide, librarians transform the First Amendment into an agenda for action. The American Library Association, in particular, has promoted intellectual freedom through a number of its bodies and programs.

Nevertheless, the interpretation of intellectual freedom issues by librarians has been far from static. Like others involved in shaping the social conscience, librarians have come to see freedom of expression as an ideal, not an absolute. And the ideal is tempered by many other demands – among them privacy, taste, morality, legality, and national security. Indeed, librarians wrestle daily with intellectual freedom controversies that defy simple resolution. Certainly, professional ethics prohibit selection policies that are blatantly biased toward a certain point of view. But at what point does “judicious selection of library materials” become censorship? When does avoiding negative ethnic, gender, or religious stereotypes become an attempt to manipulate public opinion? What is the difference between erotic literature and pornography? When does providing family planning information become advocating abortion? As we enter the 1990s, librarians find themselves – among educators, parents, censors, politicians, and civil libertarians – in the midst of such debates.

Among the displays are model “proclamations” of intellectual freedom (including the Bill of Rights, the Library Bill of Rights, and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights); a sampling of popular fiction, literary classics and textbooks that have been targeted by censors in recent years; and illustrations of current intellectual freedom debates appearing in the popular press or library literature.

This exhibition was prepared by Mark Anderson and David Gregory.