By: Allyson Mower
Freedom to use your mind — that’s how I think of intellectual freedom. Freedom to think, to question, explore, read, decide, speak, create. To fully understand intellectual freedom, it seems crucial to consider what kinds of barriers to these activities might exist in our local communities and broader American society. The ones I initially think of include self-imposed determinations (I can’t question that!) to outside restrictions (Library users in this district can’t access this book!), but perhaps there are others.
I recently finished reading Why: What Makes Us Curious by Mario Livio (Simon & Schuster, 2017). The author discusses several additional possible sources: fear, avoiding confusion, no motivation, and slow information processing caused by adverse states of mental health such as depression. Before reading Livio’s book, I had not fully considered these additional potential barriers to intellectual freedom. It made me wonder about the local community my library serves — a university with 30,000 students and thousands of employees — and although I have not studied it, I imagine that the elements of fear, depression, and lack of motivation might stifle intellectual pursuits of both students and employees. Livio challenges his readers to ask “What’s smothering inquisitiveness, novel ideas, and exploration?”
What about Americans who feel completely certain about knowing something or want to avoid an unpleasant, confused state? Or what if, for some Americans, it’s considered rebellious to question, explore, speak, or create? Any of these scenarios serve as significant barriers for someone to overcome in order to freely use one’s intellect. And it begs the question: How does one exercise the freedom to use one’s mind (and can libraries inspire that exercise)?
This is almost a philosophical question, but can be very practical, too. Isn’t this why our society has public schools and public libraries? By building schools and libraries, Americans have said, “Here’s a way to use your mind and we will support it financially through common taxes.” That seems essential. But even though we have schools and libraries, doesn’t it feel like sometimes we Americans forget to use our minds? The biological history that Livio provides in Why: What Makes Us Curious paints an in-depth picture of how humans have come to be so curious. As I read chapter seven, “A Brief Account of the Rise of Human Curiosity,” I could not help but think of “Our Family Tree” at the Utah Museum of Natural History. The museum display provides an excellent reminder of the growth in our capacity to be curious. I think that particular human history means something and serves as its own source of inspiration: our ancestors were extremely curious!
Given that humans are curious beings, I’ve always wondered how librarians can foster curiosity in the people we serve. A broad and holistic view of intellectual freedom might be a way to uncover the connection between a library and its community’s inquisitiveness. What services, events, or collections could librarians focus on to create that demand for knowledge in their local community? For my community of students and employees who could experience intellectual ruts, a curiosity bibliotherapy group or unstructured book club could possibly spark conversation, connection, and ideas. Maker and innovation spaces, which my library has recently built, also support the process of using one’s mind to explore and create. Or what about having dedicated quiet spaces for community members to read and think?
I think it’s important for librarians to have a good sense of the communities they serve and to uncover what types of barriers might exist for their community when it comes to freedom to use one’s mind. I hope to explore these questions as a new contributor to the Intellectual Freedom Blog!
Allyson Mower, MA, MLIS is head of Scholarly Communication & Copyright at the University of Utah Marriott Library. She’s very curious about curiosity, what drives people to uncover information, and how libraries of all types create demand for knowledge. As a tenured faculty member, she researches the history of academic freedom — a kind of intellectual freedom — and the history of authorship and scholarly communication at the institution. She provides the U of U community and the general public with information, tools and services related to both copyright and publishing. Allyson was a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2008, was nominated as a 2012 Society for Scholarly Publishing Emerging Leader, and served as the U of U Academic Senate President in 2014. Find her on Twitter @allysonmower.