The latest edition of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Manual has a tough job. On the one hand, it must show the library profession’s unified support of intellectual freedom. On the other hand, it has to acknowledge messy disagreements over practical implementation of those principles. The Manual largely succeeds in this endeavor and provides an essential reference for conscientious librarians. While it may not be needed in the open stacks, every library should have at least one copy at the ready for guiding policy development and in case a conflict over intellectual freedom occurs.
The text is a mixture of ALA policy documents, historical commentaries, and review essays. The Manual walks a fine line; the policy statements are full of aspirational language setting out absolute rights, while the historical commentaries acknowledge that such consensus was not always a given and even today breaks in some situations. All librarians should be roughly familiar with the policy documents, including the Library Bill of Rights and later Interpretations, the Freedom to Read statement, and the ALA Code of Ethics. The historical background essays are akin to legislative histories for the policy statements, often detailing processes by which amendments were adopted. The policy statements are published under a Creative Commons license, permitting greater copying and distribution.
The legal content of the book is wide-ranging. While the freedom to read and right of privacy are primarily grounded in the U.S. Constitution, state and federal statutes are also implicated. Essays discussing libraries as public fora, minors’ access rights, and privacy issues give thorough overviews of the major federal cases and statutes. State law is mentioned, but librarians with specific questions will need to do further research for controlling state law. The legal essays avoid becoming saturated with legal jargon, but the book would even friendlier to non-lawyers if the glossary were augmented with more definitions of terms of art, such as strict scrutiny, reasonable expectation of privacy, and national security letter.
For librarians writing or revising policies relating to issues like patron confidentiality, collection development, and public meeting spaces, the book’s recommended practices will provide useful guidance and help avoid inadvertent oversights of important matters. The Manual, and policies it will help librarians write, will hopefully avert unpleasant conflicts and manage the controversies that cannot be avoided.
The Office of Intellectual Freedom has also created a website, http://ifmanual.org, which reproduces the policy documents and includes others that were not included in the book. The site also indicates that it will provide updates in between editions.
The Manual will be most valuable to public and academic libraries, though firm librarians may also wish to consult it for information on professional librarian norms. Some issues will be more relevant to law libraries than others–a law librarian is more likely to be concerned about patron privacy than challenges to books–but as a standby resource for dealing with these important issues, the Intellectual Freedom Manual is the definitive guide by the profession’s primary advocates for intellectual freedom.
Reviewed by Benjamin J. Keele, Reference Librarian at the Wolf Law Library, College of William and Mary.
© 2010 Benjamin J. Keele. This work is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.