Librarians, through their professional associations, have long been committed to the social justice principle embedded in the concept of 'free access to information'. External censorship challenges to library collections threaten this principle overtly. However, censorship can also occur in libraries in various covert and often unconcious ways. This discussion paper raises concerns about current practices and processes which can effectively censor library collections from within. The paper concludes by highlighting areas of practice in which librarians need to be vigilant for such covert censorship.
Whatever its starting point and expressed intention, the end of the censor's road is repression of 'dangerous' ideas--not only about sex but about morals, politics, art and life. Opposition to censorship must inevitably involve us in defending things and people whom we may dislike and disapprove of (sometimes passionately). Voltaire's well known saying that 'I detest what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it' may seem trite to us but is as apposite as it ever was. Antony Grey, 1995
This paper considers the various points at which covert censorship may occur in book selection and classification processes within First World libraries. The main focus will be on non-internet resources, although many of the issues raised here apply to both print and electronic materials. Similarly, while the discussion is likely to be of primary importance to public and academic librarians, it is hoped that the issues raised will also be of interest to school and specialist librarians.
As both the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) are opposed to censorship, the pros and cons of censorship itself will not be discussed: rather it will adopt the stance that censorship in libraries is undesirable, and explore the less overt, sometimes even unconscious forms of censorship which can occur in libraries.
What is censorship?
It is a difficult term to define. Its meaning, like its practical application, changes to an extent over time in line with changes in the attitudes of the communities in which it operates (Curry, 1997). Censorship encompasses those actions which significantly restrict free access to information. This can take many forms--some are overt, such as the classification scheme required under the Australian Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995, but some are less obvious. Some forms of censorship are so unconscious that even the individuals perpetrating them have no idea that they are in fact censoring. Still other forms are systemic and can only be mitigated via deliberate action by librarians. It is these, more subtle forms of censorship in the library context that this paper aims to explore.
Professional standards and the contemporary environment
IFLA clearly opposes censorship in libraries, as is highlighted in the following extract from its Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom:
IFLA supports, defends and promotes intellectual freedom as defined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
IFLA asserts that a commitment to intellectual freedom is a core responsibility for the library and information profession.
IFLA therefore calls upon libraries and library staff to adhere to the principles of intellectual freedom, uninhibited access to information and freedom of expression and to recognise the privacy of the library user. (IFLA, 2003)
ALIA maintains the same sentiment in its Statement on Free Access to Information which is underpinned by the principle:
Freedom can be protected in a democratic society only if its citizens have unrestricted access to information and ideas. (ALIA, 2001)
This principle is supported by seven specific responsibilities for libraries to uphold: