Intellectual Freedom in Situational Contexts

Access, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Professional Ethics

By: Allyson Mower

ywca UtahI am helping to build a library at YWCA Utah as part of my service expectations at the University of Utah. I toured the facility a few years ago and found the site had a clothing boutique and a prayer room (both amazing resources), but no library. I drafted a collection development policy and initiated conversation with the board member I knew and a few full-time YWCA staff members. That was two years ago and just this month I placed books on shelves! In preparing the collection development policy, I read several articles by information science professor Lynn Westbrook who interviewed survivors of domestic violence and then applied the person-in-progressive-situation model of everyday life information seeking behavior theory to her data. Her research helped me come to a better understanding of the importance of information access in contextual situations. And writing for this blog has kept intellectual freedom front and center in mind so the two have come together for me in interesting ways.

I often think of the freedom to use one’s mind as being most applicable in an educational or learning setting, but what about different contexts such as domestic violence or homelessness? Two articles in this month’s American Libraries focus on both homelessness and libraries-in-context. Ryan Dowd talks about having “practical compassion” in his piece “Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness” and Terra Dankowski discusses partnering with existing federal agencies to bring information resources to service centers in her article “Bringing Libraries to WIC.” These two articles illustrate that people need information at all points in their lives, something librarians have a keen understanding of. But my professional role as a librarian in facilitating the intellectual freedom in situational circumstances such as domestic violence was not an immediate and obvious connection.

According to Professor Westbrook, “individuals facing personal crises have information needs that differ from everyday information needs” which staff members of YWCA Utah expertly understand and work to address. The missing piece was having a dedicated librarian who could create a curated list of relevant content, use that to sort through the existing book donations, talk with staff, clients, and members about their information needs, and continually stock shelves for easy, consistent, and regular access to information. There are plans to start reading clubs, too, and my secret hope is that this library will help foster the intellectual freedom of women–both those who might reside at the YWCA Utah and those who are members and believe in their mission.

photo of new YWCA libraryThere is something to be said for organized information. The shelving area before I began volunteering had not received a lot of attention. There were books on the shelves, but they were older, laying flat, and did not seem to be a big draw. As my colleague and I placed the newer donated books on the shelves, a more obvious area of books for everyday use began to emerge. One set of shelves was dedicated to children’s books and we placed books for adults on the other set of shelves. We faced some books out so their covers were easier to see, added a little bit of signage, and some basic labels. As soon as we had the books organized, a YWCA client immediately came over and asked if we were building a library. We had a brief conversation about the kinds of books she likes to read and by the time we left she had a stack of several that she was ready to take with her (at the beginning of the conversation, she had expressed interest in only taking one book). Having someone with the professional interest and expertise to perform basic information organization can truly augment someone’s intellectual freedom, in my opinion, even while in a situational context such as living in a shelter. It seems that I’m simply picking up on what Down and Dankowski (and I’m sure others) have already known.

I’m volunteering once a month right now. I hope when I return in July that all the books will be gone. It will mean people are reading, getting a portion of their information needs met, and exercising their intellectual freedom. What a gratifying experience as a librarian.         


Allyson MowerAllyson Mower, MA, MLIS is Head of Scholarly Communication & Copyright at the University of Utah Marriott Library. She’s very curious about curiosity, what drives people to uncover information, and how libraries of all types create demand for knowledge. As a tenured faculty member, she researches the history of academic freedom — a kind of intellectual freedom — and the history of authorship and scholarly communication at the institution. She provides the U of U community and the general public with information, tools, and services related to both copyright and publishing. Allyson was a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2008, was nominated as a 2012 Society for Scholarly Publishing Emerging Leader, and served as the U of U Academic Senate President in 2014. Find her on Twitter @allysonmower.

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