Intellectual Freedom Needs Content, Curriculum, and Librarians

AASL, Academic Freedom, Advocacy, education, School Libraries

By: Allyson Mower

ALA President Jim Neal focuses on school libraries in the March/April issue of American Libraries and brings attention to their general weakening throughout the country. Neal mentions closures, reduction in certified teacher librarians, and decreases in budgets for books and other reading technology as major concerns. Utah has suffered from this problem, too. According to a recent op-ed by retired teacher librarian Fawn Morgan, only three school districts in Utah have a certified teacher librarian at all levels of education (elementary, middle, and high school). A third of Utah school districts have no certified teacher librarians at any level, not even at the district level. Morgan and other recently retired teacher librarians in Utah bravely addressed this issue by presenting on a funding proposal to the Utah Legislature. The proposal — called Teacher Librarians Closing the Gap — would pilot a program to add certified teacher librarians to 25 school districts in Utah and evaluate learning achievement at the end of the pilot. I listened to the recording of their presentation (included as agenda item #12 in the link above) and thought their proposal was right on. The two legislators who commented seemed supportive of the proposal, too, but it looks like the subcommittee opted to not include it in their 2018 budget prioritization.

I find this disappointing because it misses the point of how librarians positively impact students in their course of learning. I have not asked any of the legislators on the appropriations subcommittee why they may not have voted in favor of its prioritization, but I have a feeling that it could be because Utah has a robust online library of content as well as a K-12 information literacy curriculum. They are amazing resources jointly administered by the Utah Education Network, the Utah State Board of Education, and the Utah System of Higher Education. But it takes more than content and curriculum for someone to learn they have intellectual freedom.

National School Library Standards AASLIntellectual freedom gets listed as the right of every learner in ALA’s National School Library Standards, which Neal includes in his letter. I believe it takes librarians in partnership with teachers to help students know they have the freedom to use their intellect. Students need that extra person in the form of a librarian to help navigate content and make that one-on-one connection in order to understand their own role in reading and integrating content into their individual lives. A busy legislator with many decisions to make may not fully comprehend that crucial component in intellectual freedom and simply see content + curriculum as the solution. More communication and better understanding of the librarian’s intellectual role may be needed which makes Jim Neal’s efforts to address this issue very important at this time.

What seems to be missing from the conversation is a focus on the intellectual role of the librarian. As a profession, perhaps we have done ourselves a disservice by highlighting collections and access, buildings and books. Librarians are crucial to ensuring intellectual freedom because we build relationships with learners and we help foster curiosity and creativity through daily interaction. We get to know people. We talk with them and we become trusted colleagues, mentors, and educators, yet this element of our profession often gets left out in our marketing and advertising. Yes, libraries transform, but not without librarians, right? With Jim Neal’s focus on school libraries, this might be a good time for us as a profession to more clearly articulate and advocate for our intellectual contributions to learning both inside and outside the classroom.


Allyson MowerAllyson 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.

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