Deeper Dive with President Barb Stripling: Freedom to Read Foundation Report to Council

Freedom to Read Foundation
Barbara Stripling
Barbara Stripling

I met with Barbara Stripling, past President of ALA and current president of the Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF) to talk about the FTRF’s recent Report to Council at ALA Midwinter.

“Barb”, also known to me as Professor Stripling, taught my Intro to the Profession class at Syracuse University iSchool. 

What I remember most about that class are the lessons and conversations we had about:

  • equity and social justice,
  • trends (e.g. Library of Things), 
  • challenges to books, 
  • librarian ethics and values,
  • the value of community mapping 
  • and the power of inquiry-based learning (see the Stripling Model of Inquiry).

I jumped at the opportunity to interview Barb and learn more about the FTRF’s recent and upcoming priorities. This assignment caused me to take my first close look at the work of the Freedom to Read Foundation. I studied the report and watched Professor Stripling’s video recap of this year’s FTRF report to council with introduction by current ALA President, Julius Jefferson. I read the ALA Council Session II recap in American Libraries which featured Stripling’s report to council.

Here’s what I learned from talking with Barb:

Barbara Stripling is working on a project with School Library Journal that involves editorials and web presence. She is interested in pushing understanding of inquiry, examining social emotional learning skills embedded in the inquiry process, teaching those in schools more about the inquiry process, investigating different types of reading important in inquiry and connecting inquiry to curriculum topics.

When she talks about her work with the Freedom to Read Foundation, she says she’s been an intellectual freedom advocate forever. She served on the FTRF board before being elected president. She helps make decisions about supporting intellectual freedom and exploring its intersections with action, advocacy, social justice, legal cases, social media and more.

Barb and I talk about the complexity of issues like hate speech and misinformation. We talk about “where is the line?” between slander and defamation, incendiary speech and speech protected under the first amendment. We touch on the controversial issue of opening public space to hate speech.

Stripling describes intellectual freedom as a kind of continuum, and asks what is the happy place on that continuum? She says libraries stand for the rights of all individuals and discusses works like equity, access and diversity. She talks about materials access for those who don’t see themselves in social justice work.

Part of this year’s FTRF Report to Council makes note of Foundation’s effort to explore and expand social justice work. It should be the right of libraries to have social justice work, but not mandate that in the programs and collections. She talks about flairs and gives a specific example of a Louisiana library that previously experienced a flair up over Drag Queen Story Hour, now under fire over a grant-funded panel featuring speakers deemed partisan leftist. The director resigned over political tensions, says Barb, and this is happening all over the country – not just in libraries. Speakers on campus are another example. Identity is deeply caught up in the politics of our time. Stripling spoke about a professor and prominent Holocause denier at the University of Chicago, and the university being put in a position to protect the right to speech alongside a disclaimer that that speech may go against the institution’s value system. There are real stakes, Barb says, giving the example of employment.

She talks next about the Connecticut Four, a huge national fight involving a FISA court request under the Patriot Act to mine private information from libraries and a gag order to keep those libraries from discussing it. 

Stripling says the Freedom to Read Foundation depends heavily on member volunteer work. Substantive content is largely the responsibility of the executive director (a lawyer) and the foundation lawyer, who carefully look at amicus letters, make sure of their import and advise FTRF on action.

It becomes clear quickly that the FTRF is a many tentacled octopus: grants for banned books week, scholarships, task forces, liaisons throughout ALA repping different committees, divisions, roundtables, etc. There is a committee that deals with developing issues. Barb says she named all the chairs and committees and that she has total trust in the foundation. She does worry there is a “school library hole within the organization” and that more can be done to support school librarians. The focus issues set at the beginning of a year tend to morph.

She talks about two recent issues. The first – a case that was lost – regards a parent group that wanted to get rid of all EBSCO databases citing pornography concerns. The second issue is a “bubbling up all over” about whether certain classics (those containing the ‘n’ word for example) should be taught.

Stripling says each issue has depth and it’s important to make good decisions, look at context, try to get a sense of what’s really happening, and live by values as you’re making decisions. She describes a tension with strict intellectual freedom advocates who don’t want to open up to social justice issues. Nobody is content neutral, she says and part of our struggle is finding the right words to provide access – equitable access – to diverse points of view.

“I believe that you have to stand up for your values,” Stripling says. You have to make your voice heard. It’s very hard if you’re an individual, but if you become part of an organization with the same values, you can participate, continue to learn and have a greater impact.

Our conversation concludes with a call to stand up for what we believe in, take part in the public forum. To make, join with others and create a collective impact.

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