Book Review: A History of ALA Policy on Intellectual Freedom (10th Edition)

Book Review, Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE), Intellectual Freedom Committee, Intellectual Freedom Manual, Library Bill of Rights, Office for Intellectual Freedom

ALA policies and statements are critical in the defense against threats to intellectual freedom. If taken out of context, some current policies related to intellectual freedom may sound arbitrary. For this reason, it is crucial to understand not only the contemporary and practical resources provided by the ALA but also the historical and theoretical contexts informing current policies.

A History of ALA Policy on Intellectual Freedom.

For guidance and official ALA policies on intellectual freedom, one essential resource has long been the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Manual. As the policies grew over time, essays documenting their historical contexts were eventually broken out into a separate supplement, A History of ALA Policy on Intellectual Freedom. The tenth edition, edited by Martin Garnar and Trina Magi, shows that attacks on intellectual freedom are hardly new, and that advocacy can have an influence on policy changes. While the manual provides official policy documents, the supplement explores the contexts and theories that shaped them over time.

Part I provides an overview of the history of ALA policymaking from the early 20th century to the present. Revising and abbreviating an essay published in previous editions, Garnar and Magi focus the new essay on the governing bodies responsible for making intellectual freedom policies:

The revised essay also closes with an overview of the longstanding debate about “advocacy vs. neutrality” and its influence on intellectual freedom (8).

While Part I provides information about the historical development and contemporary function of the ALA’s relevant governing bodies, each of the four essays in Part II is dedicated to the creation and revision of one of the ALA’s four core documents relating to intellectual freedom:

  1. Library Bill of Rights (1938)
  2. Code of Ethics of the ALA (1938)
  3. Freedom to Read (1953)
  4. Libraries: An American Value (1999)

For the current full-text policies, readers should consult the Intellectual Freedom Manual. For information about the contexts that led to the creation and revision of each document, they can use the supplement, which contains selected passages of previous document versions.

Given the broad scope of these core policy documents, the ALA has issued many interpretations of how they apply to specific library practices. Part III contains short essays on twenty-eight interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights, one interpretation of the Code of Ethics, four resolutions, and two sets of guidelines relating to intellectual freedom, as well as a brief opening essay with a useful timeline. These essays are organized in alphabetic order. Some note changes to policy language in cases where word choices originally intended to promote neutrality ended up being used to suppress intellectual freedom. Others illustrate how interpretations of intellectual freedom can sometimes be at odds with social justice efforts (138-148).

Overall, the supplement provides an important history of ALA policy related to intellectual freedom, which library administrators, governing bodies, and scholars will find helpful. While library workers looking for the exact text of current policies should consult the Intellectual Freedom Manual, we can all benefit from learning more about their history and contexts.

Considering the current landscape of intellectual freedom, it will be interesting to see what changes are made to the eleventh edition. As the editors admit, some essays in the supplement are already outdated, given recent and planned revisions to ALA policies. Most notably, ALA’s current Code of Ethics, which was approved by COPE shortly after the supplement’s publication, added the following principle on racial and social justice:

“We affirm the inherent dignity and rights of every person. We work to recognize and dismantle systemic and individual biases; to confront inequity and oppression; to enhance diversity and inclusion; and to advance racial and social justice in our libraries, communities, profession, and associations through awareness, advocacy, education, collaboration, services, and allocation of resources and spaces.”

Future editions of the supplement will need to address how this current and future commitment to “advocacy” relates to the historical opposition described by the editors in terms of “advocacy versus neutrality.” If intellectual freedom can be at odds with social justice, as the editors stress, then we might also ask whether intellectual freedom itself is entirely neutral.

A History of ALA Policy on Intellectual Freedom shows how the ALA’s policies have changed over time in response to the changing values of libraries and patrons, as well as how some policies may not have their intended outcomes, and thus require revision. Ultimately, the supplement serves as a reminder of the importance of preserving historical records not only to document the past but also to gain perspective on current issues and the future of intellectual freedom.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.