Contending Voices: Intellectual Freedom in American Public School Libraries, 1827-1940

By Bulter, Rebecca P. | School Libraries Worldwide, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Contending Voices: Intellectual Freedom in American Public School Libraries, 1827-1940


Bulter, Rebecca P., School Libraries Worldwide


This article describes the history of the development of the concept of intellectual freedom in American public school libraries from 1827 to 1940. From the beginnings of American public school library history, voices have been raised around the issue of intellectual freedom. However, most growth in support of the concept of intellectual freedom in American public school libraries occurred in the 1920s and 1930s. Because the terms intellectual freedom and censorship were seldom used in this time period, the early history of these concepts must be inferred from an examination of individual and governmental actions during this time. Selection policies and procedures, book lists and purchasing guides, articles by librarians and other interested parties, and early school library standards were the primary sources of historical evidence.

Introduction

This history of intellectual freedom in American public school libraries traces the development of this concept from 1827, when New York's Governor DeWitt Clinton recommended the formation of school libraries in his state, to 1940, the year the American Library Association established the Committee on Intellectual Freedom to Safeguard the Rights of Library Users to Freedom of Inquiry (now called the Intellectual Freedom Committee). This article is based on primary sources from the time period under study.

The history of intellectual freedom in American public school libraries is an important area of study. Intellectual freedom is an integral part of the American school library media philosophy, and challenges occur-eventually-in almost every media center in the United States. Seeing how this issue developed from the past into the present aids us in developing a better understanding of where we have been and where we are going in relation to this concept. The question of intellectual freedom in American public schools has rarely been examined in the history of the school library media profession.

How does one record the history of a concept that was unnamed for most of its history? Such was the issue facing me when I decided to study the early days of intellectual freedom in the public school libraries of the United States. I knew that the concept of intellectual freedom did not spring into life in 1940. However, because the terms intellectual freedom and censorship were not used in the early history of the field, it was necessary to gather information on this subject indirectly, by studying school library selection policies and procedures, book lists and purchasing guides, articles by librarians and other interested parties, and school library standards.

Today school library textbooks, such as Van Orden's The Collection Program in Schools: Concepts, Practices, and Information Sources (1995), include intellectual freedom issues as part of the selection process. Such texts stress that collection policies and procedures should address how to respond to possible challenges to library media in the schools. However, the consideration of intellectual freedom issues is a relatively new phenomenon. I explore here the days before the concept of intellectual freedom was recognized as a powerful piece of the school library media center puzzle. In this article, I show that school library practice and belief in the United States shifted from concerns related to the exclusion of objectionable books to concerns related to the inclusion of a variety of relevant, high quality, and interesting books. This article is organized chronologically, starting with the early 1800s and ending about 1940.

Views on intellectual freedom in American public school libraries, from 1827 to 1940, have been derived from the following sources: (a) book selection policy and procedures documents; (b) reports of discussions related to the placement, or the removal, of a particular library book or books; and (c) reports of practices related to student and faculty access to library materials. …

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