Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Library Bill of Rights

We discussed these issues with librarians from outside and inside Santa Clara County. Review Appendix 5 (the Librarian conversation). When one reads Appendix 5 in tandem with Appendix 8 (limited access), the key conflicting principles come into clear focus.

Before we discuss the conversation with the librarians, we need to return to Appendix 1 (The Library Bill of Rights [last amended by the ALA Council in 1980], the 1996 interpretation of it contained in "Access to Electronic Information," and the July, 1997 "Resolution on the Use of Filtering Software in Libraries.") People who favor limited access challenge these documents and the power of the ALA, but these documents do capture the most deeply held values and beliefs of the librarians with whom we talked. This is quite clear as one reads through Appendix 5 and the accompanying email messages. Although some librarians disagree with some of these values and stands (see Appendix 12), we found that these documents have created a clear common ground for the county librarians and library administrators with whom we talked.

These documents hold that libraries are forums for information and ideas, all information and ideas from any print or electronic source. "Information retrieved or utilized electronically should be considered constitutionally protected unless determined otherwise by a court with appropriate jurisdiction," the document on Electronic Information states. Further, these documents have some other recurring themes: a person's right to use a library and its resources should not be abridged because of age; parents have the right to guide their children and only their own children; and because of the recent Supreme Court decision overturning the Communications Decency Act, libraries "that make content available on the Internet can continue to do so with the same Constitutional protections that apply to the books on the libraries' shelves."

Gilroy's Librarian, Lani Yoshimura, says well what we heard repeatedly: libraries are neutral catalysts for change; libraries allow groups and individuals to explore a variety of viewpoints to make decisions in their lives; and, in fact, libraries can change lives. They do this, librarians feel, by providing free and equal access to information for all. The librarians also share something else Lani said: "While we support parents/guardians in their responsibility to guide their minor children, librarians also recognize that children do have rights to information and privacy. Children do live in an adult world, and whether we like it or not, they are exposed to information from that world. Minors often do seek information out of natural curiosity." We heard a recurring question from the librarians: If we have filtering software on the computers in the library, what do I do if a child asks me for information they have been blocked from receiving? Most librarians, we believe, would provide that information to the child who asks. This is, in fact, what they believe a librarian is: someone who guides information-seekers to the information they want.

What of the library's already existing materials selection policies? Can we think of filtering as part of that policy? The answer to this question is perhaps the most important thing we learned from the librarians: librarians select materials only because they have limited money, shelf space, time, and other resources. If these resources were unlimited, librarians would not select at all and would see themselves primarily as "facilitators," in effect as people who would help the user to search for the information he or she needed. In this unlimited library, every legal piece of information would be on the shelves.

As it is now, the librarians told us, they try to select as much of all sides of an issue as they can. As far as it is possible, they try not to make choices based on ideology, moral stance, religious beliefs, personal preferences, and so on. As one person put it, "The job of the librarian is to represent the universe of ideas. They buy a little bit of as much as they can." As another librarian put it, "If the librarian is doing his or her job correctly, there will be something in every library collection that makes someone angry."

So, in a very real way for many librarians, the Internet is the perfect library -- unlimited information, no need to worry about money, unlimited shelf space. As one person put it, "Now I can help people find out about almost anything. Here we have this wonderful, lifting thing -- and now they're going to take it away." Others say that filters will jeopardize their ability to be neutral providers of information. Still others say, simply, "I will never be prepared to make decisions for others."

At the heart of the controversy lie some other areas of disagreement between the two sides of this issue. Librarians do not see themselves as censors, protectors, in loco parentis, or providers of a safe haven--in many ways exactly the roles that many in our society think they play. They also point out that the public library has a very different mission than the public school. The school operates in the place of the parent, while the public library does not. As a result, they say, filters are appropriate in a school or at home, but not in the library.

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