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

IV. Is Intellectual Freedom Our Only Responsibility?

Up to this point, I have devoted the literature review to those arguments that hold the promotion of intellectual freedom to be librarianship's primary social responsibility; any dispute so far has been over the most socially responsible way to realize intellectual freedom in practice.

However, as Ann Symons and Carla Stoffle point out in "When Values Conflict," many librarians believe that intellectual freedom is only part of a composite body of social responsibilities (58). In cases such as the access of pornography through public library computers, for example, librarians' "strong support for . . . intellectual freedom" must be weighed against their responsibility to "creat[e] safe and welcoming library environments" (Symons and Stoffle 58). While Berninghausen and his present-day supporters propose an "either/or" mindset that categorically dismisses all other social responsibilities in the defense of intellectual freedom, resolution of such issues is never so simple in practice (Symons and Stoffle 57, 58). What may be required is "a continuum of values" applied situationally, balancing availability of resources, equity of access, user needs, and the freedom of information (58).

What is more, there may be certain environments in which, given the characteristics of the user population, intellectual freedom comes not only situationally but hierarchically second in the array of social responsibilities. I speak specifically of school libraries; in "Jake-- And Library Issues of Selection," Sanford Berman, elsewhere an outspoken defender of freedom of access and balanced collections, advocates the removal of "racist and stereotypic" books from school libraries (87). While such a proposition technically violates library neutrality, Berman argues that "children's materials should be selected according to somewhat different standards than adult" (88), stating in his defense that racially inaccurate or defamatory books "have no more place in a children's collection than inaccurate chemistry and physics texts" (88).

The subtext of Berman's argument finds more detailed explication in Donnarae MacCann's "Equality and Ambiguity in Library Service to Children." Since most children are still in a state of cognitive and social development where irony, point of view, and historical context fail to signify (92), MacCann argues that racially and sexually stereotyped books can have "misleading, often destructive" effects on young readers (84).

Because of this, MacCann believes that the "long held, well meaning notion that libraries are politically . . . neutral" ought not to apply in the case of children (85); more important is the library's responsibility to foster "[p]ositive self-perception" (93) in young readers by advocating the revision of stereotyped passages in children's books or removing them from collections (91). Far from seeing this as a violation of intellectual freedom, MacCann argues that such revision is "a form of affirmative action . . . necessitated by our profession's historical ignorance" (91). Instead of holding intellectual freedom to be the library's primary social responsibility and neutrality the only means of achieving it, MacCann sees intellectual freedom as secondary to the librarian's responsibility as intellectual custodian and neutrality as detrimental to users.

Nor does this viewpoint apply only in children's libraries. In "Reference in the Public Interest: An Examination of Ethics," Gillian Gremmels structures her argument around a single, contentious question: ought librarians withhold materials from users who would use information for maleficent, destructive, or manifestly illegal purposes (362)? Traditionally, Gremmels observes, reference librarians are encouraged to swallow their ethical misgivings in order to facilitate their patrons' freedom to read (362). Such a code of conduct, she argues, derives from the philosophical underpinnings of the intellectual freedom ethos, which assume a public comprised of rational individuals who will examine all sides of an issue to arrive at the true and good (365).

However, Gremmels remains suspect of a philosophy that places such responsibilities on the user (366); instead, she would see librarians adopt a "communitarian" ethic in which the librarian's role as custodian of knowledge "is not to be impartial but to be equitable" (366), even if that means restricting access to information in order to protect "the public interest" from the malicious intent of individual patrons (367).

Go to Part V: Personal Reflection

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.