Has the Culture War Come for Libraries?

Academic Freedom, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Professional Ethics

“The Culture War Has Come for Higher Ed,” proclaimed a recent headline in The Chronicle of Higher Education, summarizing ongoing attacks on intellectual freedom and the closely related concept of academic freedom. As a result of pressure from donors, trustees, and lawmakers, university faculty members have been denied tenure or had their contracts terminated. Course listings and class lectures have suddenly become tabloid fodder.

Although the same risks apply to academic libraries and librarians, they are often excluded from this discussion about freedoms required for teaching and research. This exclusion is unfortunate but unsurprising considering the perception of academic library workers as “third space” professionals. As Danya Leebaw and Alexis Logsdon argue, “Many librarians who are classified as staff are keenly aware that their positions are ultimately precarious, even though, like other ‘third space’ academic professionals, they perform work that—were it being done by disciplinary faculty—would be protected.”

On the professional level, the American Library Association defines academic freedom as “the conviction that the freedom of inquiry by faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy as well as the principles of academia, and that scholars should have freedom to teach or communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for repression, job loss, or imprisonment.” A division of the ALA, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), has made several further statements in support of academic freedom. Nevertheless, as Leebaw and Logsdon observe, these statements “support tenure for academic librarians. However, ACRL still does not connect tenure to academic freedom.”

On the individual and institutional level, the extent to which academic librarians are protected by academic freedom remains unclear. When examining research conducted by ACRL, Leebaw and Logsdon noted a discrepancy between the number of libraries reporting that “their librarians have faculty status” and that “their librarians fully have ‘the same protections as other faculty’.” To explain this discrepancy, Leebaw and Logsdon suggested that it “could be because respondents made assumptions about their protections when they might actually not be present in policy or in practice.”

This lack of clarity can have real world implications. When University of California librarians added in language to their union contract about their academic freedom, they were told by negotiators for the UC system that “academic freedom was ‘not a good fit’ for librarians”.

The so-called ‘culture war’ and its recent attacks on higher education are reminiscent of longstanding discussions in libraries surrounding public programming, collection development, and social justice-oriented patron services. The discussions of academic freedom at universities mirror many of those in libraries about intellectual freedom and the myth of neutrality.

In light of ongoing reports of targeted online harassment against libraries and librarians, it is clear that the culture war has come for libraries. While threats to academic and intellectual freedom have been directed against a wide range of individuals, “women and racial/ethnic minorities—particularly women who also identify with a racial/ethnic minority group—are most frequently targeted for certain types of online harassment,” as shown in a 2016 report by the Data and Society Research Institute and the Center for Innovative Public Health Research.

Given that ‘collateral damage’ from the ‘culture war’ can endanger the livelihoods of library workers, the definition of intellectual freedom needs to be expanded, as Leebaw and Logsdon argue, to include “library worker protections like academic freedom.” Recognizing that academic librarians have academic freedom is only the first step, albeit an important one.

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