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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Human Rights and Librarians


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.