rusq: Vol. 52 Issue 2: p. 159
Sources: Protecting Intellectual Freedom in Your Public Library
Kevin O’Kelly

Reference and Community Languages Librarian, Somerville Public Library, Somerville, Massachusetts

Intellectual freedom is one of the most contentious issues in the library profession. Book challenges, law enforcement requests for library records, use of library facilities by controversial groups—all tend to provoke heated argument that often degenerates until it borders on name-calling. The author, a former librarian with the Fairbanks (Alaska) library system and chair of the Alaska Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee since 1984, has written a level-headed guide both to the general principles of intellectual freedom as based on current interpretation(s) of the First Amendment and to practical and tactful ways of dealing with disputes as they arise.

For challenges to items in the collection, a library’s first and best line of defense is a written collection development policy, ideally written before any challenges occur. Pinnell-Stephens writes, “If it’s not on the books in advance, the person filing the complaint will never believe it wasn’t written just to frustrate her” (2). She also stresses the importance of having a detailed Internet use policy, providing a written example and a checklist. The author also provides examples of forms that patrons can use to express their concerns about library materials and form letters that libraries can use to respond to complaints.

Although responding to complaints about library materials is the public face (as it were) of the First Amendment at work in the library, Pinnell-Stephens makes it clear that defense of intellectual freedom takes many forms and encompasses many topics, including ratings systems, access to library materials for minors and disabled people, and federal laws regulating Internet use.

Protecting Intellectual Freedom has two much-needed reminders that some librarians will find distasteful. The first is that patrons who protest items in a public library’s collection are not to be written off as prudes or would-be censors: they’re exercising their First Amendment right to “petition the Government for redress of grievances” (xi). Second, a library that has a lecture hall, meeting room, or auditorium available for public use cannot deny its use to an individual or group on the grounds of a disagreement with their views or a desire to avoid controversy. This reviewer discovered first-hand how difficult it is for some librarians to grasp this latter (and elementary) point when a Holocaust-denial group booked his workplace’s auditorium.

For a book dealing with such knotty topics as the legal definition of obscenity and the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause as it applies to libraries, Protecting Intellectual Freedom is a surprisingly quick read. Pinnell-Stephens writes clearly and concisely. Interspersed throughout the book are helpful “Focus” sections—brief summaries of important issues and legal decisions.

This book’s only flaws are minor ones. For example, the author briefly discusses collection development issues, such as book donations and new formats (e.g., computer games), which are not entirely relevant to the overall topic. Likewise, it is unclear why a list of the “50 Most Popular Websites” is included (38–39).

Protecting Intellectual Freedom in Your Public Library is an essential addition to staff professional development collections. Every public librarian in America should read it.

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