Libraries and the Ethics of Censorship

By Duthie, Fiona | The Australian Library Journal, August 2010 | Go to article overview
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Libraries and the Ethics of Censorship


Duthie, Fiona, The Australian Library Journal


This paper reviews a selection of literature pertaining to the subject of censorship in modern libraries. It interrogates the literature in terms of the ethical debates informing much of the contemporary academic writing on this subject. A multi-pronged approach to the subject is adopted. The review includes evaluations of the relevant aspects of particular professional codes and statements. It also evaluates opinions that have been proffered with regard to the use of Internet filters in public libraries. In public libraries, librarians must also decide whether to enable an entirely free flow of information from other mediums or to take it upon themselves to protect readers from material that might be considered harmful. These issues are complicated further in school libraries where the question of a particular duty of care to young minds arises. This paper also investigates recent representations of libricide, the most extreme form of censorship which manifests in the destruction of libraries and the burning of books.

Fourteen centuries have learned, From charred remains, that what took place When Alexandria's library burned Brain-damaged the human race.

Ted Hughes, 'Hear it Again'

Introduction

The term 'censorship' is notoriously difficult to define. Although censorship is often seen as 'an enduring feature of all human communities' (Jansen 1988, 4), the concept is fluid. Even a legal definition is almost impossible to attain. However, it is generally accepted that the key aspects of censorship involve 'those actions which significantly restrict free access to information' (Moody 2004). Despite strong anti-censorship statements in professional association codes, the library and information sector often plays a major role as a censor.

There is a wide range of recent literature devoted to the issue of censorship in libraries. This literature bears witness to the fact that this is a highly controversial subject, encompassing legal, professional, social, political, and ethical issues and often giving rise to powerful emotions. If a gap exists in the contemporary literature relevant to this subject, it lies in the effective absence of documentation regarding the perspective and opinions of the customer, except perhaps in the case of concerned parents seeking to safeguard the interests of small children. Nearly all of the voices that are heard emanate from academic critics, professional organisations, government departments, and from the librarians.

This paper will review a selection of literature pertaining to the subject of censorship in modern libraries. It will interrogate the literature in terms of the ethical debates informing much of the contemporary academic writing on this subject. In particular, there is the question of the librarian's role and whether a moral duty exists to protect the public from material that might be considered harmful or whether the restriction of access to information of any kind is itself unethical. The paper includes evaluations of the relevant aspects of particular professional codes and statements, an analysis of arguments regarding censorship of the Internet, discussion of the particular problems faced by public and school libraries, and an investigation of the most extreme form of censorship that manifests in libricide. Though critical evaluations of each source are included, it is not the principal purpose of this review to advance a particular argument but to offer a compendium of the various controversies associated with the ethics of censorship in libraries.

This review focuses upon literature relevant to the ethical issues of censorship in libraries and therefore does not include extensive mention of literature explicating the purely legal aspects of matters relating to censorship such as intellectual property and copyright. All of the primary texts are recent publications, extending no further back than the late 1990s.

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