CLA’s new Statement on IF and Libraries

General Interest, International issues

by Kenneth Sawdon

A few months ago the Canadian Library Association (CLA), the ALA’s sister organization in the Great White North, amended their Statement on Intellectual Freedom and Libraries. A link to the new Statement can be found here, and a link to the draft Statement, old Statement, and explanations in support of the new Statement can be found here. The CLA is revising their website as I write this, and links to the Statement are not available there.

As a sidenote, the CLA has been struggling and is in the process of investigating and negotiation a revised organizational structure. They hope to become an association of provincial associations–a meta association. Information can be found here.

Every Canadian Needs A CopyStill, a revised Statement of Intellectual Freedom and Libraries was needed as the previously approved Statement was from 1985. I’m sure the association kept an eye on the old policy, and the old Statement is still a strong policy speaking up for Intellectual Freedom. But, it is a good practice to review all policies, whether association or individual library, at regular intervals–every 3 to 5 years, for example. In this case, the CLA Intellectual Freedom Advisory Committee submitted a draft for a new Statement, and the Executive Council revised and amended the policy.

In this case I’d say the changes were very positive. For the most part, the revised Statement changes specific word choices to be more inclusive, slightly broader in scope, and reduce redundancies and false promises. Examples include, replacing “materials” with “expressions” (not implying the FRBR usage), specifying a need to resist censorship and restrictive access (even passive systems, such as labelling) and broadening the holder of responsibility beyond employees and employers to volunteers and governing entities, and changing “guarantee” to “safeguard” where it seems skeptical that a promise can be made.

The CLA also made some changes as to where Canadians and the CLA get their IF power from. Previously the Statement relied upon the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the nation’s Bill of Rights. The Advisory Committee recommend removing the Bill of Rights, saying:

Omit the Bill of Rights as it suffers from several dimensions of ineffectiveness: it did not have the force of law, is not a constitutional document, applied only to the federal level and not the provinces, and is superseded by the Charter; the Supreme Court of Canada narrowly interpreted the Bill of Rights and was reluctant to declare laws inoperative on the basis of it.

Though not a lawyer, this seems reasonable. The major flaw with having the Charter as the foundations are sections 1 and 33, the limitations and notwithstanding clauses, which are controversial sections allowing the government to infringe on Charter-granted rights. Still, the Charter, as the Committee pointed out, supersedes the Bill. It seems as though Committee and Council want to show, here, that IF in Canada is firmly entrenched in strong and vital legislation, not some of the more symbolic government policies. Though, that cannot wholly be the case for the Council, as the final draft makes mention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR is a vital and important work, especially article 19, but it does not have legal, or even moral, weight legally. If the Committee was indeed trying to root Canadian’s IF rights into law, the Council muddied it up with the reference to the UDHR. Personally, I’m not at all against supporting and promoting the UDHR, but it may distract from the draft’s intent.

On the whole, it looks as though the Council used the draft and recommendations as a stepping stone for their own goals. The Committee expressly wanted the Statement to be “succinct and comprehensive,” and the Council added in another quarter of a page. The Committee wanted to limit reference to “within the boundaries of the law” to the opening paragraph, instead of repeating it throughout. The Council refers to keeping within the bounds of the law four times–twice in one paragraph. The Committee gives an instance of letting policy get in the way of IF duties:

Libraries should resist all efforts to limit the exercise of these responsibilities while recognizing the right of criticism by individuals and groups in accordance with established policies, procedures and due process.

But, the Council has reworded it to put the policies, procedures, and due processes before the call to resist limitations. Same words; different emphasis.

This is to say that, in some ways, the Council took the Committee’s draft Statement and made it more palatable for government and library policy makers and management. This is to be expected, of course. The Council by no means crippled the Statement, but subtly put on the breaks. Again, the new Statement is very good, it’s broader, with emphasis on areas that were not in the old Statement, and better worded, both for current times and the future.

A full analysis of the changes and their implications will have to wait for a journal article, but I will discuss one paragraph that caught my eye.

Paragraph 3:

The Committee suggested changing “materials” to “information resources, in all forms,” to show that resource types are ever changing and evolving. Additionally, “materials” connotes physical objects, which we all know forms a mere part of library collections. Instead, the CLA Executive Council opted to use the phrase “expressive content,” which mirrors the earlier use of “expressions” in that paragraph. However, in the first usage the Council also added more phrases to this thought. Previously, the paragraph asked to protect, “expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity,” and now the Statement asks to protect, “constitutionally protected expressions of knowledge, imagination, ideas, and opinion.” The addition of “imagination, ideas, and opinions,” could be for a couple reasons. First, they could be attempting to clarify what is meant by the previous “intellectual activity.” Or, possibly, the Executive Council was attempting to distance themselves from the phrase as it may connote academic interests. Either explanation sounds unnecessary to me. More important, however, is the legal pandering of the additional, “constitutionally protected” aspect to expressions. I could be taking this wrong, but it feels to me as though the CLA is refusing to protect “unconstitutional” expressions, not that they are suggesting all expressions are constitutionally protected. In fact, not all expression is protected in Canada, such as hate speech. Although it is admittedly hard to defend “illegal expressions,” I argue that information and expressions are more vital than the laws governing them. For example, white supremacists vomit out all sorts of awful, hateful things, but they should definitely have access to library spaces, presuming they follow policy and act decent. This addition to the Statement limits the number of expressions that information professionals are expected to protect, though it will appease our political leaders and policy makers.


Ken Sawdon is a Footage Curation and Metadata Specialist at Dissolve Ltd., a startup stock footage and photo company. He is a recent MLIS graduate from the University of Alberta, where his activities included co-chair of the Forum for Information Professionals student conference and community activist and blogger for the Future Librarians for Intellectual Freedom. He has been a volunteer librarian for the Aero Space Museum of Calgary as well as a Collections Assistant at Fort Calgary. Connect with him at @kainous on Twitter.


  • I think this is a common problem in library associations statements regarding intellectual freedom & / or censorship. I remember heated debates on this when a member of the Library Association (now CILIP) Council. The statements of conflate the terms ‘moral’ and ‘legal’, and what an Association advocates for & what it should / can do within current legislation. My solution? A clear separation between moral / advocacy statements of IF or Censorship and statements regarding actions under current law. The former should have no reference to legislation – excepting advocacy (what an association thinks the law should be).

  • Hey Mark, thanks for the comment!

    I think it’s an interesting idea to separate moral and legal statements. But, are you not worried about a hierarchy of importance/significance in this? In this case, I’d be worried that people inside and outside of the library community as taking the “Legal Statement” as what we will do every day in the real world–what to expect from librarians/staff (until legislation changes significantly, at which point a new statement would have to be created), while the “Moral Statement” would be a “fluffier” statement, taken as merely what we hope for the future. Sort of like the difference between an institution’s X year plan and their company “vision.”

    While that isn’t necessarily false, and maybe not unwanted, I do prefer the idea of a “unified” statement: sort of pushing/demanding progress within a higher legal structure (Constitutions, Charters, UHDR, etc.). A separated statement implies that we are of two minds in regards to IF, arguably weakening our position. Granted, library and information professionals are of many minds–it’s a very complicated subject, and many debatable aspects–but we don’t really need or want to show ourselves as fractured for something so core to our beliefs.

    I’d be very interested to see examples of separated statements that you propose, though. I’m always excited to see new policy styles and topics.

  • Ken
    While I understand your point preferring a unified statement to avoid public confusion, I have to disagree. There is no reason that an Ethical statement has to be “fluffy”, in fact it could be quite radical and punchy – if an association has the courage! Also, there is nothing that prevents the legal statement from both referring to the ethical statement &/or criticizing current legislation while providing guidelines of how to work within it.

    Another approach, which would have the advantage of a single unified statement, would be to combine the two but with a clear distinction between an ethics section & a ‘legal section’.

    As for specific examples, I note that the ALA Library Bill of Rights, Code of Ethics (excepting IP) contain no reference to current or future legislation! However, the ALA is in the enviable position of having already gained an advocacy reputation with the US public; other national associations are not starting from the same comfort zone, thus perhaps requiring a more targeted (unified?) approach.

    There is another large question that needs to be posed from an international &/or historical perspective. Some national associations are not ‘professional’ but governmental or semi-governmental bodies; others are in countries with limited freedom. These associations have little choice but to reference the law in their statements. Moreover, history is not static, and countries can slide or jump into censorship regimes. Ethical statements act as markers that professional associations are opposed to such movements.

    For those countries in conflicts/transition (between intellectually free & unfree), such ethical statements become even more important as it implies that the profession takes a side in such conflicts. Some may not wish to take sides out of fear – understandable, but of ethically questionable. This leads onto another question, in certain circumstances the law and ethics may be diametrically opposed and ethical behaviour calls for professionals to break the law and even for an ethical professional association to go underground! A clear ethical statement in advance of such situations helps clarify decisions and distinguish those taken on the basis of ethics from those taken on the basis of fear.

  • I keep wanting to examine CLA’s treatment of diversity- and how disability and access to services is upheld in Canada’s richest province of Alberta and Alberta’s capital city main public branch with 1 wheel chair lift that is often out of order so we are told by security to walk through the coffee shop where the manager gets mad- so then I tried to research the CLA Statement of Intellectual Freedom and disability on EBSCO-Host and nothing came up.

  • Hi Anna!

    Thanks for reading my article.

    I can’t speak to the Stanley A. Milner branch in Edmonton, which I assume you’re referring to. I know there are lots of problems in many libraries concerning people with disabilities. Even the University of Alberta’s lovely Rutherford North’s doors to the stacks are not able to be remotely opened (ie: the usual wheelchair button). Edmonton’s libraries are generally progressive, so I imagine they are aware of the issue and just haven’t prioritized it.

    To your comment on the CLA’s Statement and disabilities, however, I suggest you check out the CLA’s “Canadian Guidelines on Library and Information Services for People with Disabilities” ( I believe this (very old (1997)) Position Statement is much more focused on your concerns than the Intellectual Freedom statement. The IF statement is a much more generalized statement, often referring to “all people,” regardless of ability, age, class, race, sex, etc. etc.

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