The Key to Intellectual Freedom Is Universal Access to Information

By Burden, Paul R. | American Libraries, September 2000 | Go to article overview

The Key to Intellectual Freedom Is Universal Access to Information


Burden, Paul R., American Libraries


BARRIERS TO KNOWLEDGE EXIST, AND IT IS UP TO ALL OF US TO HELP REMOVE THEM

There is, in the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, a mural called The Key, by Billy Morrow Jackson. The main subject of the mural is Jane Addams (1860-1935), longtime leader of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and the founder of Hull House in Chicago. One of the first settlement houses in the United States, Hull House offered individuals sanctuary from the problems that beset them, and it still provides guidance and access to training that enable them to lead more productive, satisfying lives. The activities that Addams advocated are depicted in scenes that surround her in the mural. These smaller scenes are what drew my attention to this interesting work.

On the left side of the mural are groups of people, both men and women, who have enhanced and taken advantage of their learning skills and are ready to take their places as valued members of society. In the foreground, women are shown carving the word "Suffrage" into a wall from their positions on open books, which signify the unfettered access to knowledge that will allow the women their rightful place as equals in society.

On the right side of the mural, groups of people are working together trying to open books that are closed-access to the knowledge contained within has been denied them. As these people struggle to open these books, others are removing letters that spell "Poverty." The implication is that once the books are opened, these individuals will have access to the knowledge contained within, and they will then be in a position to overcome the poverty that has dominated their lives.

In the background on the right side, yet another group of people is trying to gain access to the knowledge contained in books that are under lock and key--men and women, black and white, all working together in an effort to free the knowledge within and improve the lives of everyone, not just each other. Why are the books under lock and key? Language barriers, skill barriers, social and economic barriers. Since these barriers exist, it is up to all of us, regardless of vocation, to help remove them. Librarians are prime candidates to help in this endeavor.

Intellectual freedom, besides protecting people's rights to say, think, and write what they believe, includes the concept of universal access to information. Anyone who is denied access to needed information cannot truly pursue the happiness that is everyone's inalienable right.

Librarians are trained to evaluate, select, collect, and collocate valuable information and make it accessible to those who need it. We can point users toward accurate, relevant, valid information, but ultimately whether to use it is up to them.

Swimming in a sea of information

People are confronted with an over-whelming amount of information from which to choose. Information surrounds us. With all the information that is a available, how does one keep current with the sheer volume of it, let alone determine what does or does not have value?

It is important to remember that information has value only if it is accessible, if it can be read and understood, and if the user can gain new knowledge from it.

Access to information, evaluation of information, and the creation and implementation of new concepts--these actions not only further one person's knowledge, they also move our entire body of knowledge forward. The processes that contribute to the progress of human knowledge must be protected at all costs.

The acquisition, practice, and continued use of learning skills allow people not only to increase the level of their competence, but also to increase their value as contributing members of society. Skilled users can move through Thomas Mann's "hierarchy in the world of learning," in his Oxford Guide to Library Research (New York, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. …

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