Bridging Intellectual Freedom and Technology

Intellectual freedom issues extend beyond the world of print

October 28, 2010

In the November/December issue of Library Technology Reports, ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom Collaborated with Jason Griffey, Sarah Houghton-Jan and Eli Neiburger to produce “Privacy and Freedom of Information in 21st Century Libraries”, a practical guide to issues facing today’s library professionals. This excerpt comes from the issue’s introduction.

The intersections of technology, security, and intellectual freedom in libraries offers a wide range of opportunities for insight and commentary, as these issues encompass some of the most pressing, and sometimes distressing, challenges facing libraries today. Librarians, in some cases, may intuitively consider intellectual freedom principles in a context of print-based technologies. As libraries increasingly move beyond provision of print material and into their expanding roles as providers of digital resources and services, intellectual freedom concerns have been magnified as they apply to a range of complex new issues.

A dual focus on intellectual freedom issues and technology issues is surprisingly rare in the professional literature today. Too often, intellectual freedom is given only short shrift in critical commentary on libraries’ choices and uses of technology. Similarly, in-depth consideration of specific technologies and their applications may tend to fall by the wayside when library authors focus on vital issues around our core value of intellectual freedom. Some of librarianship’s best and brightest thinkers focus their research and writing on either technology or intellectual freedom issues. Yet why do we see so little inquiry that bridges the divide between the two?

When forward-thinking, tech-oriented librarians write about evaluating emerging technologies, the focus often tends to be on practical issues like pricing, implementation, and sustainability. These crucial concerns should be paired with serious consideration of how such technologies impact users’ rights and how they may or may not line up with our professional values. When intellectual freedom advocates write about our professional values in practice, the conclusions often tend toward the abstract or overly broad. Librarians on the front lines need thoughtful consideration of specific technologies, their practical applications, and viable solutions to the choices and trade-offs we confront. Libraries’ use of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is one example of an issue where tech librarians and intellectual freedom fighters have each been examining the questions and concerns at hand but, for too long, have been speaking on different channels from one another.

Intellectual freedom, in order to remain a vibrant and central aspect of not only the theory but the practice of librarianship, must be infused in all that we do. This extends naturally to libraries’ use of technology, which, in order to truly fulfill the goals and missions of our institutions, must be informed by all of our most basic and central professional values. As we navigate user wants and needs, libraries must keep one eye on useful, creative technological solutions while focusing the other on upholding intellectual freedom.

We want to take advantage of opportunities to engage our library users and allow them to connect with the library while also protecting their rights. We ought to embrace our role in educating patrons, not only in traditional areas like search strategies and basic technology skills, but also on topics more broadly related to library values like safe and responsible Internet use or protecting their privacy online.

At the same time, during an economic downturn, libraries recognize that sacrifices are necessary. In determining what technology we are able offer to our users and how, trade-offs are inevitable. Libraries today serve increasingly diverse populations, and we also face challenges around the global nature of information. While libraries continue to struggle to fulfill their missions and meet user needs under ever more difficult conditions, we must remain mindful of our responsibility to serve our patrons with integrity and good faith.

In the face of vexing technological concerns, librarians also have a responsibility to be critical. As a profession, we are well served by both our skepticism and our ability to stay informed on topics of vital concern to libraries and patrons alike. Librarians must remain alert to the dilemmas that face us in reconciling our uses of technology with our professional integrity. The changes that have brought us to this point are substantial but have not shaken, and will not diminish, our commitment to librarianship’s core values.


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