By: Brian M. Watson
“Intellectual freedom gives us the right to love who we love, know what we know and be who we are.”Charles Brownstein
As anyone who has attended it knows, the American Library Association’s Annual Conference can be overwhelming—but it can also be so rewarding. This year’s Annual Conference was especially rewarding for Intellectual Freedom Defenders, as many pins and conference ribbons proudly declared.
The OIF team started off with a back-to-basics session called “Intellectual Freedom 101” which was an introduction to all things OIF, IFC, IFRT, and FTRF. What do all these acronyms mean?
Well, the Office For Intellectual Freedom (OIF) is the keystone, advocating for intellectual freedom at ALA and elsewhere. Interim Director Deborah Caldwell-Stone discussed what intellectual freedom means to ALA and her personally:
- The right of authors and publishers to publish what they want,
- The right of people to speak their conscience, and
- The right of people to their rights under the First Amendment
They also collect information on book challenges, which is the basis for Banned Books Week! On a sobering note, OIF is seeing an “off the charts” increase in challenges to pride month displays at local libraries.
Julia Warga, director for research and instruction at Kenyon College talked about the Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC), gave a general overview of its current work and spoke specifically about the Merritt Fund, which supports librarians who have employment difficulties because of their defense of intellectual freedom.
IFC Privacy Subcommittee Chair Erin Berman, division director at Alameda County (Calif.) Library, discussed monitoring of ongoing developments around privacy in technology, politics, and legislation. They also looks out for social and cultural trends that impact individual privacy and confidentiality, which has been in the news a lot with social media.
Finally, Berman talked about the Library Bill of Rights, which recently had a new addition that confirms the commitment of librarians and ALA to protecting the privacy of everyone in the library.
Following this, Andrew Harant, Branch Manager of Cuyahoga County Public Library’s North Olmsted and Olmsted Falls branches, gave a brief overview of ALA’s Committee on Professional Ethics and how they translate the value of intellectual freedom into ALA’s code of ethics.
The audience was then treated to an engaging presentation by Wanda Huffaker, librarian at Salt Lake County Library and chair-elect of the Intellectual Freedom Round Table, who started by talking about what a ‘grassroots’ organization is. In Huffaker’s words “it is the most basic level of organization, made up of ‘ordinary’ people—exercise of a democracy depends on ordinary people.”
Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and president of the Freedom to Read Foundation, wrapped up the panel. Beginning with a look at the audience, he observes that half the audience is half his age and notes how encouraging it is to see new ideas, new education, and new members. The FTRF, founded in 1969, is a nonprofit legal and educational organization associated with the ALA and it acts as a legal defense arm for intellectual freedom in libraries.
Specifically, its goals are to
- Protect and promote freedom of speech and the press,
- Protect the public’s right to read and access the resources in the nation’s libraries, and
- Safeguard libraries’ right to make available all the resources in their collections.
In Brownstein’s words, “Intellectual freedom gives us the right to love who we love, know what we know and be who we are.”
This, of course, was not the only OIF event at ALA—there were many more! The one that stuck in the memories of many attendees I interviewed however, was called “Still Chilling: Censorship Beyond Banned Books”
Kristin Pekoll, Assistant Director of ALA’s OIF began the session by announcing that OIF had 531 affected items in 2018 – which is more than just challenges. These items included books films, board games, video games, magazines and much more.
The first to speak was Sarah Ward, the Outreach Librarian at Hunter College Libraries in New York City. After the 2016 election, however, Ward got pushback around anything with the slightest whiff of controversy — including a banned books display by a student and a “What Comes Next” post-election guide. Ward talks about being tenured and how she uses her job security and tenure to advocate and push back against intellectual freedom challenges.
Following Ward, Laura Broderick, senior Children’s Librarian of Pikes Peak Library District in CO. She discussed a challenge to a Black Lives Matter display in her children’s department. “Black history is not history,” she said. “Black history is current, it is happening now.” There were both positive and negative community reactions and then finally had an official complaint filed. Broderick was called into a meeting with the head of her whole library district, the associate director and more. At the meeting they realized as a group that they hadn’t talked about what things should be represented in libraries and that they did not have response planning in place for non-book items.
Finally, Phoebe Larson, the Marketing and Communications Director at Saint Paul Public Library talked about community challenges to the Saint Paul Public Library’s Drag Queen Story Hour. Like any event, the library went through their usual social media marketing for their Story Hour: Facebook, Twitter, newsletter, etc. But within an hour they started getting attacked about this program. Larson reached out to the company they were working with for talking points, and the company posted on social media that the library was getting “mega trolled.” The response was massive and instant and there was a great community rallying around the library—but then the story went viral. Larson got hundreds of messages and emails and calls from across the country. The end result was very positive though—it brought out huge crowds and no “haters!”
Finally, Pekoll wrapped up with thoughts about the book, Beyond Banned Books: Defending Intellectual Freedom in Your Library and her own experiences having an online bibliography challenged. She asked librarians and staff everywhere to “Please report!” OIF is confidential and private and will help everywhere they can. Each of these presenters answered the following questions for the audience at the end
- “what would you do different?”
- “what advice would you give a new librarian to prepare for such a challenge?”
- “how has this changed you as a librarian?”
The themes that emerged in all of their accounts and were emphasized by Pekoll were:
- Be proactive! Plan and think about possible political edges and things that could happen. We unfortunately live in a world where anything can go viral now so need to think about how to be ready and consistent.
- It is vital to have support, whether from your administration, your colleagues or elsewhere. Also consider bringing on partners when the viral things take off
- Sometimes it’s necessary to slow down and have conversations with staff and get administration buy-in. It is a terrible feeling to put staff in a charged space without preparation.
- Finally, stand firm in your values!
Pekoll’s book is published by ALA Editions and available for purchase.
Brian M. Watson is the Archivist-Historian of the American Psychological Association’s Division 44 (Consensual Non-Monogamy), a historian of the book and sexuality, and works as a student archivist at the Kinsey Institute. They are interested in queer classification, metadata and linked data vocabularies, especially in archives. Brian holds BAs in English and History from Keene State College, a MA in History and Culture from Drew University, and are currently pursuing a MLIS focusing on Archives, Digital Humanities, and Metadata at Indiana University Bloomington, with plans to apply for a PhD. They have published a book on the history of obscenity and have a number of forthcoming publications elsewhere. Find them on twitter @brimwats.