By: guest blogger Isabel Klein
Isabel is a member of the Intellectual Freedom Round Table’s (IFRT) Coalition Building Committee, which is charged with recognizing effective coalition building in state chapters and promoting the necessary framework to fight censorship at the ground level. To that end, she has interviewed Erin Kennedy, the chair of Idaho Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee.
Isabel Klein: When did you develop a passion for Intellectual Freedom (IF)? What started it?
Erin Kennedy: I work as a librarian in a public library in Boise, Idaho (Boise Public Library). Several years ago, a school district adjacent to Boise made national headlines for removing Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian from its curriculum. I was aware that book challenges happen, and had read about significant challenges in Arizona and elsewhere, but this was the first time I had a front row seat to a book ban that caught national attention.
I remember being appalled that many of the school board members who elected to remove the book had not even read it, and that so many people objected to the book based on content taken completely out of context. It seemed that these people had such low opinions of how discerning student readers can be, and how much understanding and culturally responsive discussion can stem from a book like this. I was also happy to see the response by students and local public libraries, who fought for the book’s reinstatement and stocked their own shelves with copies. It was a defining moment, and even though I was peripheral to the event, it somehow felt personal. I’ve always been an avid reader and read challenging books in elementary school and high school. The thought of strangers dictating what a person can or cannot read, or what information they can or cannot access, makes me smolder.
I am just finishing up my MLIS at the University of Washington iSchool. Last year, I took a class on intellectual freedom in libraries taught by Dr. Michelle Martin. All of the topics felt especially relevant for our time and current political climate. I realized that as librarians, we have a responsibility to not only maintain open access to information for our patrons, but also help them understand why issues like privacy, access and filtering are important. People may not think those things will impact them, until one day, it happens.
IK: Why did you decide to volunteer for Idaho’s IFC chair position?
EK: I’ve been an Idaho Library Association (ILA) member for a few years, and when I saw the opening for this position, I felt it was something that I could be passionate about. I want to learn more about what IF issues are facing my customers and community, and I also want to be in a position where I can help my colleagues in Idaho libraries.
IK: What are some current IF initiatives and/or programs happening in your state?
EK: We recently had our ILA Annual Conference, and the IF Committee sponsored a session on Intellectual Freedom and Digital Privacy. We had a few speakers, including a representative from the Idaho ACLU chapter, and a conservative Idaho State Representative who will be running for a congressional seat next year. It was an eye-opening session and interesting to see different political viewpoints on these issues.
At the conference, we also held a silent auction to raise funds for programming in the upcoming year. Usually, the Committee tries to sponsor a few talks or lectures a year, open to the public, on issues of IF. We’re working on scheduling one now, possibly featuring Lee Rainie, the director of internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center.
IK: What are the most important IF issues and needs of Idaho today?
EK: Right now, the most pressing issue for Idaho is internet filtering. Several years ago, an Idaho lawmaker was working hard to have mandatory filtering on all computers in all public libraries. The ILA fought hard against it and managed to defeat the bill as it stood. However, it is once again looming, as a few lawmakers keep pressing the issue and want filters on computers as well as the free wireless Internet access provided by libraries. We know we’ll have to continue fighting a filtering mandate for public libraries. Idaho is a largely rural state, with one larger metropolitan area around Boise. Many of our school and public libraries are very small. A public library may be open 20 hours a week with one staff member making $10-$12 an hour. These libraries don’t have the resources to install and monitor filters, so a filtering law could be extremely damaging to their operations and budgets, let alone damaging to patrons who won’t have open access to information.
IK: Looking forward, what are your hopes for the future of your state?
EK: I really hope that the ILA can prevent any new filtering laws from going forward. I hope we can educate our lawmakers, and our customers, on the true impacts of filtering, particularly if applied to wireless internet.
IK: What makes Idaho unique?
EK: Idaho is a state with a small population spread over a large geographical area. We have academic libraries, and some larger public and school libraries, but the vast majority of our libraries are small, with limited staff, serving rural communities. They are so important to the communities and people who rely on them for everything from internet access and technology training, to books and programming, more so because these communities are often in isolated areas.
Isabel Klein is currently a Youth Services Librarian at the Hudson Library & Historical Society in Hudson, Ohio. Starting January 2018, she will be the Teen Librarian at the Warrensville Branch of Cuyahoga County Public Library. Isabel is a graduate of the University of Maryland–College Park with a specialization in Archives and Records Management. She served as the 2017 Chair of the Ohio Library Council’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and is a current member of the Intellectual Freedom Round Table’s Coalition Building Committee. Isabel and her beloved Black and Tan Coonhound mix, Mazel Tov, enjoy volunteering in the Cleveland area as a Therapy Dog team.