Intellectual Freedom

by Elizabeth on March 16, 2010 · 0 comments

in libraries

This is a reprint from two previously published posts on my old blog, Chronicles of a Library School Student. I think that intellectual freedom is one of the most important tenets of librarianship, and I felt that I should share more about it with you. 

“Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.” ~Heinrich Heine, Almansor, 1823

“A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” This quote, said by Jo Godwin, may be one of the truest things ever to be said about libraries. No library can be truly complete, cannot provide a well-rounded and comprehensive education to all, without containing books that offend certain people. Because no two people are alike, what is offensive or vulgar to one person, is beautiful art to another. A librarian cannot have an opinion one way or the other, but must simply collect the materials to suit the needs of their patrons.

Intellectual freedom is a core value for librarians. As defined by the American Library Association, intellectual freedom advocates “the rights of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment”. Intellectual freedom encompasses things like censorship, internet rights, and privacy in the library. ALA asserts that any publicly funded library, including public, academic, special, and school libraries, should uphold the values of intellectual freedom. This freedom is one of the greatest gifts we have. It protects you from being judged, ridiculed, or criticized because of your choice of reading material. And a librarian is the protector of this freedom.

But exactly does that mean? It means that when you walk into a library you can expect to find materials collected without regard to race, gender, sexuality, age, etc. You can expect to able to use the internet for your own purposes (as long as it isn’t hurting or violating anyone as per the Children’s Internet Protection Act). You can expect the library staff not to reveal any information about you or the materials you checked out without a signed search warrant. Intellectual freedom means that when you step into a library, there are no judgments. No one is going to stop you from reading, watching, listening, or checking out materials. Your privacy will be protected to the best the librarian’s ability.

So librarians aren’t impartial; they care deeply about protecting this important right. It’s a massive responsibility, but one I feel honored to uphold. I think this is the most important things taught in library school. It’s more important that cataloging or reference or even better than technology skills. The foundation of understanding that every person who enters into a library has the right to read whatever he or she wants is something that isn’t easy to learn or accept, especially when the library you grew up may not have felt that way. Just as it is not the librarian’s job to babysit your children while in the library, it is not her responsibility to decide what is inappropriate for your child to read. That’s your job as a parent. So don’t ask us to restrict, don’t ask us to judge. Because we won’t. Because we believe that everyone has the freedom to read.

For more information about the American Librarian Association and the Freedom to Read Foundation, visit

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