Last night I had the opportunity to attend a debate on freedom of expression. The key speaker of the panel was A. Alan Borovoy, General Counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Mr. Borovoy’s address was very interesting and he and the other panelists articulated how freedom of expression is being hindered by the courts and today’s trends in society.
Now, at this point, you are wondering, what has this got to do with us? Well, freedom of expression, when the surface is scratched, includes intellectual freedom, freedom to read (yes, banned books), freedom of speech and freedom to advocate for your library. To us, this means freedom of access to information. This paragraph from ALA’s advocacy statement seems appropriate:
“Because you care about intellectual freedom: A democracy presupposes an informed citizenry. The First Amendment mandates the right of all persons to free expression, and the corollary right to receive the constitutionally protected expression of others. The publicly supported library provides free and equal access to information for all people of the community it serves. We enjoy this basic right in our democratic society. It is a core value of the library profession. Advocates actively defend the right of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment.”
If you would like to read ALA’s entire “Why should you advocate for libraries”, here is the link http://www.ala.org/ala/issues/gettingstarted.htm
Now, for those of you in Canada, our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is quite similar. Freedom of expression is vital to our democratic system. However, I don’t want to start a political debate, I want to express the importance of freedom of expression to libraries, and more specifically, cataloguers.
This brings the discussion back to access to information. Access is the key. We provide access to all material. These materials include works by racists, human rights activists, scientists, religious leaders, extremists of any form and politicians. Depending on your own religious views, ethnic background and tolerance, you may find the material offensive, agreeable or obnoxious. That is freedom and the result of living in a democratic society.
The materials we catalogue wouldn’t be available, possibly not even published, if we did not tolerate intellectual freedom in our society. We would not be cataloguers if our society did not believe in freedom to access to all types of information. We catalogue thousands of items every year and the range of topics is incredible. We are allowed the freedom to assign subject headings and the freedom NOT to label the material inappropriate or offensive because of society’s standards. We are not told what to put in our records or how to process our materials. We are not governed by society’s fickleness and the public’s opinion, we are guided by our rights in a democratic society. We are protected by our constitutions.
As a result of our cataloguing and the subsequent access to information, citizens of democratic societies can explore a variety of mainstream and extremist ideas, religions and cultures. This allows free thinking, creativity, discussions, debates and yes, perhaps even protests. We aren’t the keepers of information, we are the distributors of it.