Human Rights and Librarians

By Phenix, Katherine J.; McCook, Kathleen de la Pena | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Human Rights and Librarians


Phenix, Katherine J., McCook, Kathleen de la Pena, Reference & User Services Quarterly


Each December 10 as the world celebrates Human Rights Day--the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948--the world community builds solidarity and a unified vision. In this column we 1) describe the need for professional commitment to human rights to transcend bland neutrality; 2) compare key human rights documents with the central core values of librarianship; and 3) identify outstanding examples of library actions in service to human rights.

Commitment Transcending Neutrality

Human rights--the assumption that all human beings, by virtue of their existence, deserve certain rights and dignity--is most eloquently defined in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

   Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the
   equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human
   family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in
   the world. (1)

What is the responsibility of the librarian to serve the cause of human rights? The oft-cited neutrality of a balanced collection is increasingly, and rightfully, being called into question. In a 2004 presentation before the Texas Library Association, professor Robert Jensen discussed "The Myth of the Neutral Professional" and observed:

   The ideology of political neutrality, unfortunately, keeps
   professionals such as journalists, teachers, and librarians--as
   well as citizens--from understanding the relationship
   between power and the professions. Any claim to
   such neutrality is illusory; there is no neutral ground on
   which to stand anywhere in the world. (2)

Doctors have found ways to advance their professional commitment to human rights with a number of organizations performing specialized tasks. For example, Doctors without Borders is specially organized to be nonthreatening to oppressive governments so as to be able to heal in an apolitical environment. We see medical professionals speaking up about the ethics of torture, the tragedy of HIV/AIDS infections, and the ravages of war on populations that subsequently starve, are cut off from medicines, and endure epidemics caused by poor health policies. We also find evidence of other human rights activities, such as the headline "Physicians for Human Rights Opposes Confirmation of Alberto Gonzales to be Attorney General; Opposition is a First for the Human Rights Group," describing the work of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a group that first organized around banning land mines and along with other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. (3) This group also lobbied to attack the constitutionality of the death penalty for juveniles and mobilizes the health professions to promote health by protecting human rights.

Lawyers also have engaged in professional activities to advance human rights. Amnesty International is certainly a well-known human rights advocacy program. We see lawyers tirelessly working for human rights at the American Civil Liberties Union, the Anti-Defamation League, the International Human Rights Law Group, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, and many more.

The library profession has a rich history of alignment with human-rights issues, movements, and declarations. Librarians have long been aware of the many ways human rights values intersect with the values of our profession. We may not be personally activist, or profess to be activist, but the library profession, like medicine and law, is bound to uphold its values. Human rights values permeate library policies beyond the professional round tables inhabited by intellectual freedom, social responsibilities, and international relations. As we carry on with our duties as public service librarians, we should keep in mind our history of human rights advocacy, and note the work we do today as a continuation of the commitment to the contributions of our programs, collections, and services toward keeping an open society, a public space where democracy lives.

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