Censorship by Queensland Public Librarians: Philosophy and Practice
Moody, Kim, Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Public librarians have long held to the social justice philosophy of free access to information for all people. The issue of censorship relates to the professional principles oft he Australian Library and Information Association and to the role public librarians play in nurturing social capital in communities. This paper considers the philosophy of free access to information in the context of contemporary item selection and classification processes within public libraries. A survey of Queensland public librarians identified attitudes towards, the public right to information, and determined the degree to which censorship is practised or prevented in public libraries. The findings support those of international research that anticensorship attitudes are not always indicative of censorship behaviours, and that some librarians employ self censorship of materials to avoid censorship challenges. Edited version of a paper presented at the 2004 Alia biennial conference Gold Coast Queensland under the title 'Zero censorship! Who are we kidding? An exploratory analysis of the opinions and experiences of Queensland based public librarians with regard to the censorship of materials in public library collections'
In September 1964 the then Library Association of Australia published its Statement of principles on freedom to read. The catalyst for the development and endorsement of such a policy was the presidential address to the Association by W G K Duncan in 1961. He asserted
... a librarian is not only entitled, but is duty bound, to disagree both from the government of the day and from a majority in the community whenever this disagreement flows from his vocation ... to promote and foster the free flow of information and ideas throughout his community (1)
In 2001, the Australian Library and Information Association (Alia) released its Statement on freedom to read as one of its three seminal statements. (2) The most recent incarnation of this philosophy, the Statement on free access to information, was also adopted in 2001. The pursuit of this philosophy within public libraries requires an inclusive and dedicated approach by all library professionals, particularly with regard to controversial or nonmainstream materials.
Little research has been conducted, however, on the attitudes and practices of Australian public librarians towards the inclusion of such materials in their collections. This lack of research was addressed by a survey of the attitudes and behaviours of Queensland public librarians about censorship of library collections. Internet censorship in libraries was not researched, due to its unique issues.
Free access to information
The issue of free access to information has been known under a variety of terms throughout the history of libraries. 'Intellectual freedom' and 'freedom to read' occur frequently in the literature. In this paper they are used interchangeably with the more recent term 'free access to information'. The following indicates the definition used.
The Alia Statement on free access to information (3) is based on the principle that
Freedom can be protected in a democratic society only if its citizens have unrestricted access to information and ideas.
The statement explicitly outlines seven responsibilities of libraries
1 Asserting the equal and equitable rights of citizens to information regardless of age, race, gender, religion, disability, cultural identity, language, socioeconomic status, lifestyle choice, political allegiance or social viewpoint
2 Adopting an inclusive approach in developing and implementing policies regarding access to information and ideas that are relevant to the library and information service concerned, irrespective of the controversial nature of the information or ideas
3 Ensuring that their clients have access to information from a variety of sources and agencies to meet their needs and that a citizen's information needs are met independently of location and an ability to pay
4 Catering for interest in contemporary issues without promoting or suppressing particular beliefs and ideas
5 Protecting the confidential relationships that exist between the library and information service and its clients
6 Resisting attempts by individuals or groups within their communities to restrict access to information and ideas while at the same time recognising that powers of censorship are legally vested in state and federal governments
7 Observing laws and regulations governing access to information and ideas but working towards the amendment of those laws and regulations which inhibit library and information services in meeting the obligations and responsibilities outlined in this statement.
This paper focuses on those aspects which deal with the provision of information on a variety of topics from diverse information sources and perspectives, regardless of the controversial nature of such information; and with resisting attempts from individuals or agencies, including governments, to restrict intellectual freedom. The aspects of free access to information which deal specifically with the nature of the library/user relationship (points 1 and 5 above) are thus not covered.
Consideration of the principle of free access to information necessarily involves a discussion of the inverse, information suppression, also described as censorship. Whilst definitions of these terms are many within the library literature, throughout this paper these terms will be used interchangeably, to indicate any act which intentionally reduces free access to information.
Controversial topics are defined as subject matter which is likely to initiate impassioned debate within the Australian community. Examples could include homosexuality, fundamentalist religion, extreme political views, pornography and racism. Nonmainstream topics are defined as subject matter which differs from the opinions presented to the broad Australian community by the mass media. Opinion is defined as a thought or belief about something or someone. (4) Affect (verb) is defined as 'to cause a behavioural change'.
The library literature contains a wide variety of contexts and approaches to the issue of free access to information in public libraries. This review of that literature specifically addresses threats to the free accessibility of controversial materials. Two potential threats are discussed
* the impact of the opinions of public librarians
* the impact of specific library processes with regard to controversial materials
The impact of the opinions of librarians
The distinction between selection and censorship was famously described by Asheim as 'the selector primarily seeks reasons to include an item, whilst the censor primarily seeks reasons not to include an item'. (5) A key finding of Fiske's seminal work, Book selection and censorship, was that the Californian librarians interviewed were in fact the individuals most likely to censor their collections. (6) Much of this censorship pertained to controversial materials, with two thirds of her respondents admitting to censoring materials due to controversy, and one fifth habitually avoiding the purchase of items they believed to be potentially controversial. (7)
It is likely that some librarians suppress controversial materials without considering their actions to be censorship. Subjective measures such as 'literary quality' can easily be employed to justify exclusion of materials, as can claims such as 'lack of funds' or 'no demand'. Evans notes that these may be true, or they may be ways of rationalising the exclusion of materials which may prove troublesome. (8) Fiske's research found that of the librarians who expressed strong freedom to read convictions, 40 per cent took controversiality into account during book selection, but sought other reasons, such as a lack of literary quality, to justify their decision to avoid controversial items. (9)
From the literature, there are three main reasons for librarians to view materials as controversial
* the content of the material may conflict with the librarian's personal values
* it may violate perceived community standards
* it may be controversial as a result of the sociopolitical environment of the time
Conflicts with personal values
Malley notes that the conflict between personal convictions and professional practice is the most important factor in the issue of censorship by librarians. (10) It is clear from the Alia Statement on free access to information that the role of the librarian is to take an inclusive, anticensorship approach to their professional tasks. This is likely to create situations where a librarian's professional role is in conflict with personal values. Schweinsburg notes, however, that individuals must be conscious of their personal values and prejudices in order to minimise their influence on professional roles. (11) Curry's research into the experiences of public library directors in the UK and Canada revealed that just over 50 per cent of respondents had taken professional action contrary to their personal moral beliefs. (12) However not all library professionals are this committed to intellectual freedom, or this conscious of their prejudices. Research in the US by Robotham and Shields revealed situations in which personal beliefs were allowed to influence professional behaviours. For example, one librarian refused a user's request for material on homosexuality. She did not wish to be responsible for the person becoming homosexual. (13)
Research by Fiske (14) and Busha (15) identified that librarians frequently censored materials in order to avoid complaints from external parties, such as community pressure groups. Evans notes that even librarians who are consciously committed to the principles of intellectual freedom may, in fact, censor subconsciously or even consciously when potential personal threats are perceived, such as conflict in the workplace or community. (16) The community standards rationale is one commonly advocated by conservative pressure groups. Lee suggests that the aim of community standards appears to be to reduce the library collection exclusively to items which could not possibly offend anyone. (17) Readers may be familiar with high profile cases of such pressure on public libraries in the US. However this issue is also known in Australia. Groups such as the Christian Democratic Party have publicly stated a desire to censor library collections. (18)
Curry's 1990/91 research revealed that 67 per cent of UK and 37 per cent of Canadian library directors agreed that community standards should be upheld by librarians. (19) Interestingly, 1974 research in Ontario by Claire England indicated only 13 per cent of respondents then agreed with that statement. (20) This could indicate that, as with other aspects of the censorship debate, the influence of community standards will be different at different points in history. However, Robotham and Shields note that 'in any community, there are many publics', …
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Publication information: Article title: Censorship by Queensland Public Librarians: Philosophy and Practice. Contributors: Moody, Kim - Author. Journal title: Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services. Volume: 17. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 2004. Page number: 168+. © 2008 Auslib Press Party Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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