Neutral or Neutered?
:: Intellectual Freedom as Social Responsibility ::


I. Historical Context

II. The Debate Evolves

III. Is Neutrality Desirable?

IV. Is Intellectual Freedom Our Only Responsibility?

V. Personal Reflection

Works Cited

Appendix: Research Log

I. Historical Context

In "The First Amendment, Libraries, and Democracy," Susan Kretchmer explores several famous case studies in which the American constitutional freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press were challenged within a library setting. Two cases are particularly relevant to this overview; the first occurred in 1976, when a local New York board of education recommended the removal of certain "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy" books from school libraries (Island Trees Board qtd. in Kretchmer 149). Students protested the movement, and the Supreme Court ruled in their favour, stating that free access to information is necessary for "participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society in which [the students] will soon be adult members" (Brennan qtd. in Kretchmer 149).

The second case, occurring nine years later, involved a Library of Congress decision to discontinue the production of Braille copies of Playboy magazine (150). Once again, public outcry and a ruling from the courts thwarted the move, branding it a "viewpoint-based denial" of information to a minority population (Hogan qtd. in Kretchmer 151). What bears observing in each case is the primacy of intellection freedom; librarians are seen as obligated to provide unbiased, apolitical, unfiltered access to information and resist all attempts at censorship, even from within their own ranks.

In order to understand the implications of this ethic, one must first understand its history. In chapter 2 of Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility in American Librarianship, 1967-1974, Toni Samek traces the early twentieth-century development of intellectual freedom as the guiding principle of American librarians. As Samek notes, it did not always behoove librarians to accommodate pluralistic viewpoints and provide unlimited access to information; early twentieth-century librarians enjoyed the "paternalistic" role of recommending the "best" reading material to the public (30). Only after government suppression of German-language and pacifist literature during World War I did the defense of the public's "freedom to read" become a priority in librarianship (Samek 31), crystallizing in the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights in 1939 (Samek 33).

However, the adoption of intellectual freedom as cardinal social responsibility proved a source of contention; as Samek explains, social progressivism in the 1960s urged libraries to push for reform, particularly in the promotion of greater "religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity" inside and outside the library (38). Consequently, the espousal of political neutrality, traditionally regarded as requisite in battling ideological censorship (Samek 38), was put to the test; could libraries meet the intellectual demands of a rapidly changing society while still remaining impartial to the political and social climate of the day (Samek 38)?

The tension between neutrality as endorsed by the Bill of Rights and a new, socially proactive conception of librarianship reached crescendo in 1972 with the publication of David Berninghausen's "Social Responsibility vs. the Library Bill of Rights." In his article, Berninghausen laments the "erosion" of libraries at the hands of the so-called "Social Responsibility" movement (3675). According to Berninghausen, librarians who take stands on "nonlibrary problems" (3676) such as politics and social reform run the risk of biasing libraries' collections in favour of a particular viewpoint (3681). By declaring that a librarian must be "neutral on substantive issues and a preserver of intellectual freedom" (3677), Berninghausen connects the primacy of intellectual freedom in librarianship to the principle of neutrality in a single breath. As in the first court ruling recounted in Kretchmer's case studies, Berninghausen’s rationale for declaring intellectual freedom the sole responsibility of libraries depends on the democratic notion of an informed citizenry: "unless men have access to all varieties of expression . . . they will be unable to apply their powers of reason toward their resolutions" (3675).

In response to Berninghausen's article, Library Journal published a collection of rebuttals and replies. Collectively titled "The Berninghausen Debate," nineteen essays by American librarians voice disparate opinions on the issue of intellectual freedom and social responsibility. Of the handful of opinions that concur with Berninghausen’s, most have recourse to the same defense of neutrality: that "a biased library is a crippled library" (Gaines qtd. in "Berninghausen Debate" 36) and that "[n]o movement . . . which infringes on the right of the individual to read . . . can be countenanced by responsible librarians" (Hillard qtd. in “Berninghausen Debate” 36).

However, a majority of the essays denounce Berninghausen's article as a negligent and, indeed, socially irresponsible interpretation of intellectual freedom. Among the salient arguments made is the fact that librarianship, a "humanistic profession" (Byam qtd. in "Berninghausen Debate" 39), cannot exist divorced from its cultural milieu; to dismiss social context as a "nonlibrary problem" is to ignore the highly politicized role of intellectual freedom in a democratic society (Jones qtd. in "Berninghausen Debate" 33). Some contributors argue that neutrality is not only negligent but dangerous; E.J. Josey warns that without active involvement in social issues, libraries succumb to "laissez-faire capitalism" in which "the voices of the rich . . . and established" dominate collections and perpetuate the status quo (32).

Patricia Glass Schuman, one of the contributors to "The Berninghausen Debate," published a subsequent article that recapitulates the anti-neutrality standpoint. In "Social Responsibility: An Agenda for the Future," Schuman explains that intellectual freedom, however admirable, is not "an end in itself" (252); rather, it is a means to creating "a just, democratic, humane society," and as such its very nature is inextricably tied to the political power struggles of the day (253). Consequently, to claim indifference to "nonlibrary problems" is, as Schuman argues, to abdicate social responsibility entirely, surrendering the fight for intellectual freedom by "perpetuat[ing] existing ideas and prevent[ing] criticism of them" (252).

Go to Part II: The Debate Evolves

Content, coding, and photograph by Sarah Mead-Willis ( Originally a paper written for LIS 501 (Foundations of Library and Information Studies), this website was created to to fulfill the requirements of LIS 600 (Capping Exercise), part of the Master of Library and Information Studies program at the University of Alberta. This site was last modified Febrary 14th, 2006.