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

Introduction

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

Knowledge is power. To control the transmission of information and ideas is to emasculate or empower entire populations. Because of this, the librarian's role as custodian of knowledge has been the subject of serious debate.

While most North American libraries hold the promotion of intellectual freedom to be the cardinal responsibility libraries have to society, librarians are far from agreeing on its practical execution. Some believe that in order to truly liberate the transmission of information, libraries must become neutral institutions; ideologically-motivated censorship and biases in selection policies can be prevented only through total impartiality to political and social issues.

However, many doubt that neutrality is possible, given the highly politicized battles libraries must fight to build and maintain their collections. Conversely, some question the inviolability of intellectual freedom as librarianship's primary social responsibility, as there may be situations in which unrestricted access to information is detrimental to both the institution and its patrons.

By surveying the pertinent literature, I will explore this debate over the primacy of intellectual freedom and its execution through neutrality, first in a historical context and then in contemporary defenses and critiques. A historical overview and famous cases will supplement landmark debates wherein proponents of neutrality sought to elevate intellectual freedom above all other social responsibilities in librarianship.

From there, I will present the debate as it exists today, first by introducing more recent defenses of neutrality and then moving to arguments that question its feasibility, uncover its ideological roots, and question whether the promotion of intellectual freedom is acceptable as librarianship's sole responsibility to society. In so doing, I hope to bring to light the key arguments that circumscribe the intersection of intellectual freedom and social responsibility in contemporary librarianship.

Go to Part I: Historical Context

Content, coding, and photograph by Sarah Mead-Willis (smm3@ualberta.ca). 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.