Going Beyond – Promoting Vulnerable Voices in Libraries

IFLA’s Intellectual Freedom Statement turns 20 in 2019. This is the first in a series offering perspectives, and raising questions, about its different provisions. 

 

A recent TechDirt blog highlighted an effort by Cloudfare – one of the biggest companies offering content delivery services on the internet – to protect particular sites and services.

Through its Project Galileo, Cloudfare looks to offer ‘some of the most politically and artistically important work online’ free use of the best available defences against cyberattacks.

It raises two interesting points.

First of all, there is the reality that while any site can be targeted using cyber-weaponry, that some are more vulnerable than others.

Both governments and private groups can use various techniques to stop particular sites from operating. Cloudfare already works to protect voter registration and other electoral sites for example.

Secondly, there is the parallel with debates about whether particular content should be regulated or blocked (as opposed to which content should be protected). In effect, should some sites be treated better (or worse) than others? And how should decisions about this be made?

 

How does this relate to the work of libraries ?

First of all, it is clear that certain books in libraries are more likely to face criticism and requests for removal than others. The problem seems worst for content addressing LGBTQ+ issues, that addressing particular political or religious themes and other books and materials deemed offensive by particular groups.

IFLA’s own Statement on Intellectual Freedom argues that content should be selected on professional grounds, and reflect the diversity of the community. It speaks out against discrimination in general (without distinguishing between positive and negative discrimination).

Meanwhile, the Public Library Manifesto stresses that ‘Collections and services should not be subject to any form of ideological, political or religious censorship, nor commercial pressures’.

While complaints from local politicians and members of the community may require a different sort of response to a cyberattack, the response is still necessary. A number of librarians and library associations have done so, highlighting both the challenges of censorship in general, and celebrating those books which face the most criticism.

 

This leads to the question of how – and whether – libraries should go out of their way to support works which may not prove popular with some.

The spirit of the Statement on Intellectual Freedom, as well as the Public Library Manifesto, certainly goes in the direction of actively providing a diverse range of content, reflecting a diverse range of interests – including the artistically and politically important work targeted by Cloudfare. Many of the types of content frequently subject to challenge are indeed connected with the interests, of certain groups.

But what does this mean for what libraries can and should do to acquire diverse – and sometimes difficult – content, especially given inevitable budget constraints? How does it affect the way libraries promote and display works? How can libraries best defend the choices they make when challenged?

Cloudfare can clearly rely on a panel of experts, but this is not likely to be possible for libraries. What do you think about how libraries can (or should) champion intellectual freedom by supporting vulnerable voices, in the face of opposition and challenges.

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