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Who Defends Intellectual Freedom for Librarians?

The ALA should defend librarians as the AAUP defends faculty members.
By John Buschman

Academe’s readers know the importance of academic freedom and the history of the AAUP’s defense and promotion of academic freedom for faculty. Librarians have an analogous set of interlocking policies concerning our ethics and related issues. I have always been quite proud that the American Library Association (ALA) formulated its Library Bill of Rights one year before the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities) issued their joint 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

The principles of the 1940 Statement have been endorsed by more than two hundred professional and academic associations, including the American Library Association. The ALA stated in its endorsement that “academic freedom means for the librarian intellectual freedom,” which was in turn linked to the “practice of [our] profession without fear of interference or of dismissal for . . . unjust reasons.” The ALA’s Policy Manual interprets this statement— in the sections under “Library Personnel Practices” on “Faculty Status of College and University Librarians” and

“Security of Employment for Library Employees”—as supporting tenure, and it points back to the statement on our ethical responsibilities. The joint 1973 Statement on Faculty Status of College and University Librarians of the AAUP, the ALA, and the Association of American Colleges made a further explicit extension to academic librarians:

As the primary means through which students and faculty gain access to the storehouse of organized knowledge, the college and university library performs a unique and indispensable function in the educational process. . . . Indeed, all members of the academic community are likely to become increasingly dependent on skilled professional guidance in the acquisition and use of library resources as the forms and numbers of these resources multiply. . . . The librarian who provides such guidance plays a major role in the learning process. . . .

College and university librarians share the professional concerns of faculty members. Academic freedom, for example, is indispensable to librarians.

The ALA has excellent policies against what it calls “compulsory affirmations of allegiance as a condition of employment”; it also has statements on the freedom to read and view and statements against the abridgment of the intellectual rights of children and against censorship.

New Scholarly Formats

Academic and intellectual freedom are closely allied, if not entirely equivalent, and thus librarians, too, have a broad and important public mandate, even more important in its extension into new scholarly formats. Academic librarians have had a key role to play in articulating what intellectual freedom means as it is applied within universities and to new forms of scholarly communication. Specifically, the privileges and responsibilities of intellectual and academic freedom inform our evolving policies on access, equity, and intellectual freedom. Academic librarians have a particular insight into these issues and responsibility for articulating them with clarity of language and purpose.

Freedom of expression in this context is described in the ALA’s 1996 interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights as “an inalienable human right and the foundation for selfgovernment,” and this right is expressly linked to the “corollary right to receive information.” Based on our “constitutional, ethical, and historical heritage, American librarianship is uniquely positioned to address the broad range of information issues being raised” by electronic information resources. In the process of articulating these principles in sections on the “Rights of Users” and “Equity of Access,” the 1996 interpretation mentions a right to privacy, the need for preservation, and a special obligation to make electronic government information available. The ALA recognizes the need to review new types of resources “so that fundamental and traditional tenets of librarianship are not swept away.”

In short, we have covered the policy waterfront very well and staked out our place as “trustees of knowledge with the responsibility of ensuring the availability of information and ideas, no matter how controversial, so that teachers may freely teach and students may freely learn,” as the Statement on Faculty Status of College and University Librarians puts it, and so that citizens may freely inquire into whatever matters they wish. Our policies are fundamentally sensible and grounded, they are strongly linked to the AAUP’s, and they are on the books. If actually followed and enforced, our policies would place librarians among the ethical and intellectual leaders in the professions.

Tenure—or some comparable means of protected continuing employment—exists to protect academic (or intellectual) freedom, not the individual interests of teachers or researchers (or librarians), who have corresponding ethical obligations and limits in their work. The AAUP has taken as its mission not only the articulation of standards of tenure and academic freedom but also the investigation of serious instances of their violation and the censure of administrations found to have violated them. Those standards and processes have been legally recognized by the courts, both as an employment standard for professors and as reasonable limitations on their actions. The ALA has endorsed these very principles for over six decades.

Too Cautious?

However, the ALA’s leadership has taken a maximally cautious approach over the years to the connection between librarians’ professional responsibilities and rights and the means of protecting the professional enactment of them. For example, the ALA has systematically refused to take any action or make any comments on what have been termed “local management issues.” That means that the ALA has felt obliged to make no statement when local book selection decisions were taken from an entire state’s libraries and librarians and outsourced to one vendor (as I discussed in my 2003 book, Dismantling the Public Sphere: Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy) or when controversy erupted over the dumping of thousands of volumes from a large new municipal library’s collections and the stifling of staff protests (as Melissa Riley and I discussed in our 1997 article in Progressive Librarian, “Notes from the Front Line at San Francisco Public Library”). These were both deemed “local management issues.”

The ALA Code of Ethics calls upon librarians to act on their responsibilities: one must act to make services and access equitable, and one must act to protect privacy—that is what is meant by the phrase in the code stating our “special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.” The ALA historically has sidestepped responsibility in protecting that duty to act. For example, the most conservative legal theorizing was applied by the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom to an early proposal on workplace speech, essentially saying that it was counter to employment law to take a stand on intellectual freedom as a library workplace right or goal. Instead of “permit[ting] and encourag[ing] a full and free expression of views by staff on library and professional issues,” as the original proposal stated, the proposal was thus watered down after the Office of Intellectual Freedom and the ALA’s leaders objected: “Libraries should encourage discussion both among librarians and library workers and with members of the library’s administration of nonconfidential professional and policy matters about the operation of the library and matters of public concern within the framework of applicable laws” (quoted in “ALA Resolutions: Workplace Speech, Gay Bias, and Disinformation,” That is not exactly a ringing endorsement of academic or intellectual freedom in our work. In contrast, the AAUP argues for those protections in the name of the greater good in exception to common employment law (that is, the “framework of applicable laws”).

No Teeth

Further, the ALA officially states that it might help defend librarians if their employment rights are denied in the process of defending intellectual freedom (for example, in opposing local censorship) but not when they exercise intellectual freedom within the workplace. We seemingly have intellectual and academic freedom in our work, but the ALA has proposed no means of policy enforcement. Indeed, enforcement is cast as an activity beyond the scope of the ALA’s work. This view is further articulated in the ALA’s explanatory “Questions and Answers on Speech in the Workplace”: librarians have ethical obligations to question policies “detrimental to the public interest or to the profession,” but the ALA cautions that it “does not at this time provide mediation, financial aid, or legal aid in response to” workplace disputes, which are subject to local employment policy, nor does the ALA investigate and publicize abuse as does the AAUP. Its stance on librarians’ ethical obligations is hortatory at best.

If the ALA is not willing to stand behind putting intellectual freedom into action in libraries, why should the practicing librarian do so? As I argued in Dismantling the Public Sphere, the ALA itself has clamped down on internal association expression both through its round - tables and divisions with demands from ALA legal counsel for disclaimers on statements and through the Office of Intellectual Freedom’s virtual monopoly on interpreting the application of intellectual freedom principles. In short, in its corporate actions, the ALA does not substantively support putting the Code of Ethics into action by librarians and does not practice good intellectual freedom principles inside the association.

The ALA’s “Standards for Faculty Status for College and University Librarians”—a document that has served as a model for ethical and academic freedom protections within the profession—has been diluted in the process of revision over the years. The standards for performance, peer review, self-governance, and tenure, and even the recommendation that librarians be faculty members in the first place, are weaker now than when they were formulated in 1971. For example, the language has subtly shifted from clear statements in the 1971 standards that academic librarians “should adopt an academic form of governance . . . similar to that of facult[y]” and that they “must have the protection of academic freedom [and their] professional judgment must not be subject to censorship” to the following statements in the 2007 “Guidelines for Academic Status for College and University Librarians”: “The library exists to support the teaching and research functions [and] thus librarians should also participate in the development of the institution’s mission, curriculum, and governance,” and they “are entitled to the protection of academic freedom” as defined by the 1940 Statement of Principles.

The bottom line is that librarians (academic or otherwise) are unwilling, through their premier professional association, to shame those involved in the most egregious violations of intellectual freedom when the violations occur within the profession. This unwillingness to engage academic and intellectual freedom within libraries has resulted in a serious bifurcation: such protections exist for the users of libraries and in building, maintaining, preserving, and providing access to library collections of all types, but they do not cross the desk in practice to the professionals who must stock those collections and serve those users. Academic and intellectual freedom in the library workplace is, primarily, a rhetorical value and an object lesson to those who take academic freedom for granted or misunderstand it. It is a reality only for those librarians fortunate enough to be faculty members—and to be taken seriously as such.

John Buschman, a former member of the AAUP’s national Council, is associate university librarian for collections development, preservation, and scholarly communication at the Georgetown University library.   


I fully agree with John's words. And I encourage readers to see reinforcement of them in my book titled Librarianship and Human
Rights: A twenty-first century guide
published by CHANDOS in 2007.

Also see: Toni Samek. 2007.
<>" Librarians and Information Justice". Academic Matters: The Journal of Higher Education (October 2007): 24-25.

Toni Samek

I must point out that the ALA is not a professional association.  It is an association of libraries, not librarians.  The professional association is the ALA-APA (American Library Association Allied Professional Association):


The author’s reference to ALA (actually ACRL)statements on the status of academic librarians appear to confuse two different statements.  I believe the 1971 statement he quotes that states academic libraries “should adopt an academic form of governance” is from the ACRL Standards for Faculty Status whereas his second quote, which he claims is a weakened version of the first, is actually from the ACRL Standards for Academic Status.  They are two different documents.  The current version of the Standards for Faculty Status (approved in 2007) contains  wording identical to the 1971 version quoted by the author:

“College and university librarians should adopt an academic form of governance similar in manner and structure to other faculties on the campus.”

The statement on academic freedom is in the 2007 version is slightly different but seems to me equally as strong as the one the author quotes:

Librarians must have the same protection of academic freedom as all other faculty. Censorship of any type is unacceptable whether individual or organizational. All librarians must be free to provide access to information regardless of content.

Mr. Buschman misperceives the role and the mission of the American Library Association. As an earlier poster correctly notes, the ALA is not a professional organization, union, or guild. Instead, it is a membership organization that seeks "to provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all." Enforcement is, in fact, beyond the scope of ALA's mission.

Similarly, the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom is not a vehicle for sanctioning libraries, or resolving employment disputes. Its charge instead is to educate librarians and the general public about the nature and importance of intellectual freedom in libraries and to defend free access to information in libraries. 


Most importantly, the policies that are the subject of Mr. Buschman's complaints are policies devised and adopted by ALA members through a process designed to ensure member inclusion and participation. Committees and roundtables provide a vehicle for members to propose, write, and revise policies; proposals are widely circulated to members and member groups for comment; and are finally adopted or rejected by ALA's democratically elected 181-member Council. In short, members make the decisions that determine ALA policy.      


Our Library Faculty Handbook includes the ALA Code of Ethics (as well as the AAUP Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure) with specific language stating that the Code "applies to all library faculty." From my perspective, this is the best application of ALA policy statements: to set standards for the profession that can be adopted into enforceable documents, such as a faculty handbook that includes grievance procedures for violations of policy.


Finally, though Mr. Buschman appears to dismiss the effort, ALA makes every effort to defend librarians who are denied employment rights or discriminated against on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, color, creed, religion, age, disability, or place of national origin; or denied employment rights because of defense of intellectual freedom. In particular, the Merritt Fund provides financial and legal assistance to librarians confronting such discrimination.  




ALA is indeed a professional association.  Although libraries and other organizations may become members, the Association bylaws specifically state that "Only personal members of the Association shall have the right to vote, petition, hold office, and participate in membership meetings." This places the full control of the organization and any stance it takes squarely in the hands of individual members.



ALA (ACRL is a division of ALA) formerly had one policy:  librarians should be faculty, and they should enjoy academic freedom.  Corporately, ALA has backed away from that, hence the new policy - a weaker one - on "academic status."

Second, yes, I've heard the argument that "that is not what ALA is/does."  That is simply defining the problem away - why expound on intellectual freedom at all then? Why mention the professionals who staff libraries?  Why have a Code of Ethics?  The facts are that ALA sets standards for professional conduct and expectations - and enumerates some rights to go along with those responsibilities.  They then - centrally through the Office of Intellectual Freedom - define those narrowly.  "Local management issue" is only the most egregious of those efforts, and the Merritt Fund is tiny and used highly selectively, mostly to protect librarians who have resisted censorship and are being gone after by local censors - not those who have exercised intellectual/academic freedom in the workplace.  Finally, AAUP does not "enforce," they shame:  they highlight and publicize the worst academic freedom abuses and leave that abuse on the record until the situation is formally resolved.  There is nothing - as the next post notes - which prohibits or prevents ALA from doing something similar.

The bottom line is that ALA does not even promulgate these intellectual freedom standards for librarians strongly within its various divisions as expectations for those who manage libraries, are trustees of libraries, who manage technology, school librarians, or public librarians.  Even that minimal step - noting our interlocking policies as I do - is avoided.  I'd be happy with merely articulating these consistently as a value.  The bar is low, and ALA leadership (professional and elected) avoids even this.

John Buschman


The Congress of the Arts and Humanities is considered an eco-system where the delegates of the CLA should be encouraged to express their concerns. Unfortunately, when librarians strived to inform library professionals about the funding cuts and possible closure of the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) they were told by the CLA President that this was not the right forum to discuss these issues (Dekker, 2009, para. 2). The Harper conservative Government's new code of conduct prohibits federal librarians from informing their colleagues of economic constraints and prospective closures of federal libraries (Dekker, 2009, para. 5). The ecosystem of CLA's inspirational code of ethics of intellectual freedom was polluted with the plutocracy of an oppressive government.

Therefore, my answer to John Buschman's question of "Who Defends Intellectual Freedom for Librarians?" is the new Canadian Federation of Librarians (CFL) because the government can shut down libraries, but they can never shut down librarians!


Buschman, J. (2009). Who Defends Intellectual Freedom for Librarians?. Academe, (5). 15.

Dekker, J. (2012). Librarians silenced at CLA conference. Bibliothe'caires De'l'apuo Apuo

Librarians: For and about Unionized Librarians Working at the University of Ottawa.

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