Why is Intellectual Freedom Important?

First Amendment, General Interest, Intellectual Freedom Issues, International issues, Library Bill of Rights

By: Valerie Nye

I have been asked in the last year “is freedom of speech important to you because you are a librarian, or would you support it even if you weren’t working in libraries?” My immediate response was that it doesn’t matter what I am doing; I believe in intellectual freedom and the right to free speech no matter what I am doing with my career.

This question and others like it have caused me to think beyond libraries and consider the broad and big question: Why is intellectual freedom important? Beyond my role as a librarian, why do I care about intellectual freedom and free speech? The list of things that come to mind immediately are about education, exploration, growth and finding one’s personal truth. Intellectual freedom is about being an informed voter. Intellectual freedom is about living curiously and coming up with new solutions to problems. Intellectual freedom provides our world with innovation: new technology, cures to diseases, new ways of providing food to starving communities. Intellectual freedom enriches culture. Answering the question, “why is intellectual freedom important” is something I am continuing to explore and think about and I would appreciate any ideas and thoughts you would like to share in the comments of this post.

Man looking at a sunsetIn the remaining part of this post, I will share a bit of my journey to answer this question.

My research into this topic began from the library perspective. I spent time reviewing, in detail, the American Library Association’s documents that support and work to protect intellectual freedom. The Freedom to Read Statement bases the freedom to read in the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment. The Library Bill of Rights states that, “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.” These documents offer strong guidance to libraries.

The strength of ALA’s documents sent me on a journey investigating international standards that support intellectual freedom. One of the first stops in my investigation was the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) where I found IFLA’s Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom.  IFLA’s statements support many of ALA’s intellectual freedom documents, but the Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom goes a bit further than ALA’s statements, and declares that intellectual freedom is a human right (ALA’s interpretive documents make statements about intellectual freedom and human rights, but it isn’t found in the original documentation). In the Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom, “IFLA declares that human beings have a fundamental right to access to expressions of knowledge, creative thought and intellectual activity, and to express their views publicly.”

 United Nations Logo

IFLA’s claim that intellectual freedom is a human right is a reflection of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 in the UN’s declaration states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Why have multiple countries in the world (not just democracies) signed on to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and why is intellectual freedom considered a human right? This question took me to the history of the founding of the United Nations. The UN was formed in 1945 at the end of World War II. In 1948 the UN General Assembly met to discuss creating and signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The document was created at an important moment in world history, when diverse war-torn countries were committed to finding a common good in order to maintain world peace.

Dove picture made out of repeating the word peaceThe countries that reached a consensus and signed the document believed that the best way to maintain world peace was to allow people to live freely, without oppression. One of the important aspects of living freely is allowing people intellectual freedom: the right to read, learn and explore without limitations.

Why is intellectual freedom important? One of the answers in my exploration is that intellectual freedom has the potential to create a peaceful world.

Share your ideas in the comments below.


Valerie NyeValerie Nye is the library director at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She has been active in local and national library organizations; recently serving on ALA Council, the New Mexico Library Association, and the New Mexico Consortium of Academic Libraries. Val has co-written or co-edited four books including: True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries published by ALA Editions in 2012. True Stories is a compilation of essays written by librarians who have experienced challenges to remove material held in their libraries’ collections. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In her time away from the library she enjoys road trips in convertibles and kayaking. valnye@gmail.com


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