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

V. Personal Reflection

Because the principle of intellectual freedom depends both upon an "ontological assumption of a . . . tangible reality 'out there'" (364) and an individualistic, "atomistic" society of rational agents who will examine all facets of an issue to arrive at the true nature of "reality" (366), Gillian Gremmels declares intellectual freedom to be just as ideologically circumscribed as the aspects of social responsibility from which Berninghausen and his supporters would fain see librarianship removed. This is an important point, one which I take as reason to be wary of any approach to librarianship (particularly that espoused by the pro-neutrality hardliners) that would single out one principle as supreme and inviolable, to the exclusion of all others.

However, whether Gremmels and similar-minded librarians like it or not, our individualistic, "atomistic" society is here to stay (for a while, at any rate); consequently, I believe that it is not the prerogative of the librarian to restrict access of information for the sake of the public interest. Such an approach to social responsibility would permit -- for lack of a less colloquial expression -- a slippery-slope scenario wherein librarians' own widely divergent (and fallible) conceptions of the public interest could lead to such egregious cases censorship as would undermine, in Henry Blanke's words, the very "foundations of democratic decision-making."

Democracy is, by definition, government by the people; because of this, I agree with Paul McMasters that a librarian has "a civic and intellectual duty to satisfy the . . . right of all citizens to maximum access of information" (141). Even the expurgation of materials in children's libraries leaves me uneasy; while I understand MacCann's concerns about the cognitive limitations of children and their inability to comprehend multiple viewpoints or historical context, to deny access to polysemous, even contentious materials is to cripple the development of these faculties. With that in mind, I would argue that the role of teacher-librarians becomes essential; restriction of information may not be an option, but that does not preclude librarians acting as educators and guides to the materials available.

I therefore find myself agreeing with the majority of writers featured in my literature review; the preservation and promotion of intellectual freedom, whatever its ideological scaffolding, ought to remain librarianship's crucial -- though not sole -- social responsibility.

With regard to the most socially responsible way in which intellectual freedom is actualized, I hold with those who criticize the hands-off mentality of neutral librarianship. Berninghausen, McMasters, Thomas, Hentoff, and the pro-neutrality contributors to "The Berninghausen Debate" may be correct in arguing that unbiased, apolitical librarians are the ideal defense against censorship; however, as Sanford Berman rightly observes, censorship constitutes only part of the threat to intellectual freedom. Big-business takeover of the publishing industry (Berman xvi), the subsequent marginalization of the alternative press (Lilburn 31), and the outright exclusion of non-mainstream viewpoints and literature (Bolton 19) combine to restrict the freedom of information to a degree that individual cases of censorship will likely never achieve; as such, the maintenance of intellectual freedom will require more than political and social neutrality on the part of librarians.

Bolton's article provides, in my opinion, the most dramatic illustration of this point; only through radical and, indeed, politically-motivated re-examination of collection content and organization can librarians hope to redress centuries-old exclusion of entire social viewpoints. As Bolton observes, librarians are "'on the beat' where people and ideas come together" (23); as a result, they have a responsibility to provide society with as full a spectrum of ideas as possible (23). Such a duty cannot be fulfilled by librarians indifferent to political and social issues; to be socially responsible, librarians must be socially responsive, even if that means becoming embroiled in causes that work toward the promotion of true intellectual freedom.

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.