The Library Bill of Rights: What They Are and What They Mean for You
As a service profession dedicated to democracy and freedom of information, library work does what it can to elevate what it is and how it is seen in the world. There are some problematic pieces to this attitude, which Fobazi Ettarh brilliantly lays out in “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves.” While that take is absolutely valid and one I support, I feel there is also staunch rationality in examining one of the primary documents that upholds the ideals of library service and professions and, perhaps, rightfully lends a deserved sense of awe—at least in this instance—to libraries and what they stand for. The Library Bill of Rights, developed by the leading professional library association, the American Library Association, in 1939, reports the seven rights and guiding principles in library service. While library users may not be strictly aware of the Library Bill of Rights, knowledge and understanding of the Rights can improve experiences at libraries of library users.
Below are the Rights in their original text taken from the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights page, accompanied by explanations and examples of how library users might apply them in their own use of their libraries and how things have shaken out in the real world.
Right I: Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
What It Means: A primary purpose of the library, according to Right I, is to provide resources to a group of people in pursuit of meeting the various educational, cultural, and other needs of those people. Library staff working to develop and maintain the collections of their libraries should use data and feedback from the community they serve to inform their purchased and discarded materials. Materials include books, audiobooks, movies and films, databases, and any other materials (yes, cake pans, etc.) the library collects. Staff must use their professional—not personal—judgment when performing collection development and maintenance. This means that it is up to library users to determine the credibility of the sources they encounter in the library. While library staff—librarians, generally speaking—are trained to offer assistance in finding valid resources when asked, we cannot vouch for every piece within the library (print, digital, or otherwise). We can provide the tools and, to some degree, guidance or training on how to assess resources, but to only select materials for the collection that are verifiably true is not only impossible, but in contrast with this first right.
Example: The Denver Public Library in Denver, Colorado, like many public libraries, posts their collection development policy on their website. This policy echoes much of the language from the American Library Association’s Right I. Right I is, in part, why you may find materials you personally object to in a public library. A library should not, according to Right I, outright object to a new book by Richard Dawkins, for example, simply because of his contentious, controversial, and sometimes offensive views (Wikipedia sums this up nicely—yes, Wikipedia is a legitimate starting point for research; signed, a librarian). They must instead evaluate the material on its own and determine whether the piece meets the interest of the community, regardless of the reason behind that interest. And some people love to hate read, thus providing legitimate interest and, consequently, sufficient reason to collect a given title.
Right II: Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
What It Means: Similar to Right I, Right II explains the responsibility of libraries to offer varying perspectives. This means staff should not collect only materials or resources that hold one point of view. Instead, staff should provide as well-rounded a perspective as possible through the collection of various materials. This allows library users to draw their own conclusions from the evidence presented, as is the case with nonfiction, for example, rather than being led solely by the judgment of the library staff responsible for designing the collection and who certainly have biases of their own.
Example: Many users may believe the inclusion of a book arguing for eugenics, for example, to be abhorrent and to have no place in a library. However, Right II protects the right of that material to exist in the library. From a personal perspective, I find thinking this way about cases like this to be helpful: Having material that argues against your own beliefs allows you to be better informed about the opposition’s position, and thus better able to defend your own. This isn’t the only reason Right II is important, but it can help soothe the discomfort library users may encounter when they happen upon something they find distasteful or wrong.
Right III: Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
What It Means: In the event a group or individual attempts to have materials or resources removed from the library, the library should resist. Right III is also a natural companion of Rights I and II, as library users are very likely to find, as a result of Rights I and II, materials that are personally or otherwise objectionable to them in a library’s collection. However, regardless of whether a library or its staff agrees or disagrees with a given challenge (say, to a book), it is the library’s responsibility, according to Right III, to thwart attempts to make the material unavailable. This can happen on both macro and micro levels. For example, an individual or group may request that the library remove a title from the collection entirely, making it unavailable for everyone in a macro case. In a micro case, an individual (often, a parent in relation to their child) may request that the library make a title unavailable to another individual. In both cases, the library should resist complying with the request in accordance with Right III. The latter, which can appear to be stickier, can be explained as such: the library cannot act in place of parents and does not have the capacity to allow or disallow particular titles to particular individuals and not others. In the case of a parent and their child, it is the responsibility of the parent to address and manage their child’s exposure to materials, not the library’s.
Example: If you’ve been following library news, you may have heard about a proposed bill in Tennessee that would grant a board of elected officials power to remove materials from a library. The Tennessee Library Association has been standing in opposition to this bill, which would effectively stand in direct contrast to Right III. Challenges to books are, sadly, not uncommon. The American Library Association encourages libraries to report challenges to materials and beyond and, over the years, have compiled data on challenged materials. Certainly not every instance of challenges is reported, however, so despite the lengthiness of the available data, there is more going on than what we see, making Right III incredibly important in combating attempts to abridge access to information and materials.
Right IV: Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.
What It Means: In hand with Right III, Right IV simply requires that libraries work with individuals and organizations whose mission is to prevent censorship and promote freedom of information.
Example: Right IV reads more like a guideline than a right, but would suggest that libraries work with organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for transparency. To “prevent censorship and promote freedom of information” is broad, however, and certainly does not end with efforts from the Sunlight Foundation. The language of Right IV strikes me with a pause, however, and perhaps suggests things in the world of intellectual freedom are more black and white than they really are. A “person or group concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas” may easily feel differently if the topic in question is in contrast with their beliefs. We might instead interpret Right IV as if it read “Libraries should cooperate with all philosophies and ideas concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.”
Right V: A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
What It Means: A central ideal of library service is that the library and its materials and services must be made available to all. It is, however, perhaps less observed than we would like to think as things like library fines, the requirement of a photo ID to obtain a library card (and thus access services, materials, and resources), the physical accessibility of libraries due to lack of transportation or ADA compliance, and a number of other barriers can get in the way of potential user access. There are also, of course, library staff with discriminatory views and biases who may intentionally or unintentionally allow their views and biases to impact the degree and kind of service they offer to different individuals. The idea of Right V, then, is to combat these instances case-by-case and en masse.
Example: Berkeley Public Library has made some adjustments to open access further for homeless customers with a policy that does not require proof of address, a standard that is typical for many public libraries. Still, most public libraries will require some sort of identification to obtain a library card.
Right VI: Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.
What It Means: Exhibit spaces and meeting rooms should be, according to Right VI, treated the same as books, movies, and other traditional library resources and materials. Access to these rooms should not be denied to users for reasons such as conflicting beliefs or identity.
Example: This particular right met a good deal of discussion in summer 2018 when the American Library Association updated its stance around the use of meeting spaces by hate groups. Shortly after scores joined the conversation on- and offline, ALA opted to revert to the previous interpretation of Right VI which, while still fairly broad, does note, “However, if a group’s actions during a meeting disrupt or harass others in the library, library policies regarding acceptable behavior may apply.” Users of the library could theoretically, then, point out that the speech happening as the result of a hate group meeting in the library is, in fact, an act of or an incitement of violence, and therefore harassment of the target of hate. Right VI continues to be a difficult challenge to balance for libraries.
Right VII: All people, regardless of origin, age, background, or views, possess a right to privacy and confidentiality in their library use. Libraries should advocate for, educate about, and protect people’s privacy, safeguarding all library use data, including personally identifiable information.
What It Means: All library users should expect privacy and confidentiality in their use of the library, defined as broadly as possible. This includes their presence in the building, the materials which they access and view, questions they ask of library staff, and any other activity relating to library use. This can again come up against traditional societal standards, particularly in light of parent-child relationships (especially when things like library fines are added to the equation—for example, a parent may wish to know what materials checked out to their child’s account accrued fines, but to share this information would, technically, be in violation of Right VII). However, as the Right notes, the right to privacy and confidentiality in library use should not be abridged regardless of any part of the user’s identity, including age. (Some libraries may get around parts of this issue in their policies by allowing users to list individuals who, perhaps with photo identification, are allowed access to another’s account. This is useful for folks who perhaps are unable to leave their homes and direct a caretaker, for instance, to retrieve their library holds with their consent. Depending on local laws, this becomes more complicated when considering the case of children, who may not be able to legally consent to giving access to their account to another individual.)
Example: The easiest-grab example of Right VII in action is the library response to the 2001 Act of the United States Congress known as the Patriot Act. In response to the Act, libraries resisted and reported government requests for information and some posted signs warning patrons of the implications of the Act in the context of libraries.
Though the Library Bill of Rights may not be a document hanging on the wall of every household, its value to both libraries and library users is undeniable. That said, the discussion above is by no means perfect or exhaustive. The Library Bill of Rights has room for interpretation and that interpretation can easily shift to meet how society evolves over time. Check in with the official Library Bill of Rights every now and then and keep a finger to the pulse of library news to see how different libraries take the Rights and implement them—or not—in their own communities.
Next time you visit your library, do a little observing: How does your library match up to the Rights? Are there policies or other aspects of the library that could be better aligned with the document? Did any of the rights surprise you? Check in with us on Twitter to let us know.