Tag Archives: access to information

IFLA Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom, 20 Years On – the UK Perspective

FAIFE is marking the 20th anniversary of the IFLA Statement on Intellectual Freedom. To understand where the debate on intellectual freedom stands today, we are talking with the members and expert advisors of the FAIFE Committee. Today, we’re getting the perspective from the United Kingdom from Louise Cooke, Professor of Information and Knowledge Management at Loughborough University.


This year we celebrate twenty years since the IFLA Statement on Intellectual Freedom was prepared by IFLA FAIFE and approved by the Executive Board of IFLA on 25 March 1999 in The Hague, Netherlands.

This seems a good point to stand back and reflect on where we are now as a society in terms of intellectual freedom, and some of the challenges facing this critical human right.

Of course, our perspectives will differ according to where in the world we are living, not to mention our own subjective views: therefore, this blog can only be written from my own perspective as a UK citizen. However, comments and reflections from your own personal and geographical perspective would be welcome in the comments section below. Please feel free to contribute!

The term ‘intellectual freedom’ can mean many things even to a single person. Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that relates to intellectual freedom, states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” (United Nations, 1948)

Although not explicitly using the term ‘intellectual freedom’, this is a useful starting point for a definition.

It is inclusive – everyone has an equal right to this basic civil liberty. It also acknowledges the right to hold opinions without interference, whether or not we choose to express them.

In addition, it does not constrain itself to freedom of expression (i.e. the right to speak, write or publish controversial opinion) but also highlights the importance of freedom of access to information, in whatever form it takes and wherever we may be in the world.

In the UK this right is all too often taken for granted: albeit that it is restricted by numerous legislative instruments (such as the Obscene Publications Act 1964, the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 and the Public Order Act 1986) and social norms that proscribe potentially offensive or harmful speech, there is a general belief that we are relatively free to voice our opinions and to access information without constraint.

The UK Human Rights Act 1998 Article 10 reflects the UN UDHR in asserting that everyone has the right to freedom of speech, including the right ‘to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers’. Since 2005, we have also held a legal right to request information held by public authorities via the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

However, it must be borne in mind that these rights are qualified, for example in the interests of national defence and security and, in the case of the Human Rights Act, also for ‘the protection of health and morals’, all of which exemptions seem sufficiently broad (and vague) as to raise questions about the validity of the protection of freedom of speech and freedom of access to information in practice.

The UK is currently undergoing a period of turmoil, change and uncertainty, in particular with regard to the proposed exit from the European Union.

A recent ‘Democracy Audit’ (Dunleavy, Park & Taylor 2018) carried out by scholars at the LSE highlighted the adverse impact of divisions over Brexit and chaotic political party relations, the polarisation of debate and the damaging impact on small parties inflicted by the ‘first past the post’ electoral system, and the damage caused to public services by the austerity agenda pursued between 2010 and 2018.

Public libraries have been hit particularly hard by this agenda, with nearly 130 public library closures in 2018 alone, and many local libraries being ‘deprofessionalised’ and left to community groups to run.

This is a concern for intellectual freedom: whilst well-meaning volunteers may prevent a local area from being left with no library service, volunteers are not usually professionally trained and may not hold the same awareness of, and commitment to, the professional body CILIP’s commitment to the principle of intellectual freedom and rejection of censorship and its newly revised Ethical Framework.

Meanwhile, work carried out at Loughborough University between 2012 and 2014 on UK public libraries’ management of internet access, found that, while the use of filtering software appears to be ubiquitous in UK public libraries, most professional and frontline library staff regarded the expediency of this to be of greater import than the potential adverse impact of filtering on intellectual freedom.

In addition to the impact of public library closures, increasingly restrictive anti-terrorism legislation, and the use of filtering software, public libraries in the UK are, as elsewhere, subject to challenges from members of their local community regarding appropriateness of material held by the library.

Censorship challenges to books held in Scottish public libraries are detailed in a 2012 paper by Taylor and McMenemy, which also discusses the actions taken by the libraries concerned in response to the challenges.

Although this study is also a good example of the use of Freedom of Information legislation to shine a light on the extent of censorship in libraries, and the protection that can be offered by a carefully developed and implemented collection development policy, it also reflects the fact that there is no room for complacency with regard to the state of intellectual freedom in UK public libraries.

Moreover, as new challenges and threats arise in line with new technological developments that offer ever greater opportunities for surveillance and more sophisticated and widespread data collection and analytics, the need for librarians to be constantly aware of their ethical responsibilities with regard to protection of user privacy and the protection of intellectual freedom will only become more acute.

From Gatekeeper to Gateway to Gate-Opener: The Changing Role of Libraries (and How We Talk About It)

The emergence of the internet has undoubtedly revolutionised the information landscape, taking us from a situation of information scarcity to one of abundance.

This has of course massively affected the role of libraries, which can no-longer claim any sort of monopoly on provision of access to information, at least beyond that which people’s personal libraries can provide.

Libraries have responded, focusing collections on materials which cannot necessarily be found freely online. They have also placed a greater emphasis on providing a space where people can interact with information and build communities.

As is already reflected in IFLA’s Intellectual Freedom Statement, which turns 20 this year, libraries should act as ‘gateways’ to information.

Crucially, this is the word chosen, rather than ‘gatekeepers’, which would imply that libraries choose what information people should see or not, or even, what information people should see.

This is an important distinction. Given the commitment of libraries to providing access to information, claiming a right to restrict this sends an odd signal. It risks making libraries look paternalistic and even arrogant – something that will not serve our institutions well as we seek public and political support into the future.

This is not to say that there are no situations where access needs to be controlled – because materials are vulnerable, sensitive, or (unfortunately) because of the conditions under which they were acquired. Moreover, the fact that libraries cannot acquire everything does create a limitation of sorts on possibilities for access, at least until a copy can be found from elsewhere.

However, these situations are clearly the exception not the rule. As the Intellectual Freedom Statement suggests, it seems fitting that library and information workers should think first of all about how they can give access, rather than how they should restrict it.


Fake News and the Risk of Back-Sliding

Especially with the rise of concern about ‘fake news’, there has also been a tendency to talk about libraries as places where you can find reliable information. Surveys have shown that this is indeed a key strength of libraries in the eyes of communities.

This is welcome – it is certainly true that libraries work hard to acquire high quality books and materials, and librarians aim to help users find the sources that help them best.

However, the idea of libraries as the place where you find reliable information – ‘true news’ – brings with it the suggestion that our institutions have a monopoly on truth and fact. This risks reversing the progress marked in the Intellectual Freedom statement – the recognition that libraries are gateways, not gatekeepers.

Where libraries arguably do have a monopoly is as places where it is possible to develop the skills, at any time of life, to use and interact with information. To recognise that there is often no one right answer, but degrees of accuracy and reliability, and to deal with this accordingly.

This comes both from the diversity of collections libraries can offer, from different sources and publishers, and from the skills of librarians themselves.

Indeed, it’s possible to argue that libraries are not just gateways – passive spaces where people can come in order to read an borrow books, or use the Internet – but gate-openers – to a more active and useful engagement with information.


The 20 years since the agreement of IFLA’s Intellectual Freedom Statement have seen huge changes in the way we access and use information. In doing so, they have confirmed the choice of the word ‘gateway’  rather than ‘gate-keeper’ in relation to libraries’ role in relation to access to information.

Today, with a growing emphasis on building skills – and the risk of back-sliding linked to the ‘fake news’  phenomenon – perhaps it is time to think about taking the next step, from gateways to gate-openers.

World Press Freedom Day 2019

By providing access to information, knowledge, ideas and opinions, libraries everywhere uphold the value of intellectual freedom as the basis of an informed, democratic society.

They do this both by acting as the guardians of manuscripts, documents and books, and as a place where anyone can access the information they contain.

Press publications already form a core part of many collections. But libraries are also increasingly realising their role not just as a place to access, but also to share and create information., including by supporting journalism and public debate.

Today, 3 May, we celebrate World Press Freedom Day to support, and raise awareness of the fundamental principles of press freedom and freedom of expression!

World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993 following a Recommendation adopted at the twenty-sixth session of UNESCO’s General Conference in 1991.

It serves as an occasion to inform citizens of violations of press freedom, as well as a reminder of the censorship still seen in many countries today. It also recalls the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 19:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Librarians fighting for the right to speak up

Journalists, editors, publishers and librarians can often be targeted by those who wish to restrain press freedom and punished for bringing news and information to the public.

In a recent incident, a librarian in Kansas City, US was arrested simply for standing up for a library patron’s right to free speech during a public event featuring a former US diplomat at the library.

The library hosts between twelve and twenty speakers each month, and though some of the topics and speakers have been controversial, the events have always been peaceful.

None the less, both the librarian and the patron were faced with criminal charges. 6 months ago, the case went to trial and the librarian was found not guilty on the charges of obstruction, interfering with an arrest, and assaulting a police officer.

The Director of the library stated:

“The library, like the judge, has consistently expressed surprise that this ever went to trial, that a public event at a public library should result in the indictment of a librarian.”

Another recent incident is the cause of Natalia Sharina, former Director of the state-run Library of Ukrainian Literature in Moscow.

In June 2017, she was found guilty of ‘incitement of hatred’ toward Russian people and ‘embezzlement’ and handed-down a four year suspended sentence for holding ‘extremist literature’. Sharina has spent 19 months under house arrest, throughout the investigation and trial.

PEN International believes that the case against Sharina is politically motivated and calls for her sentence and conviction to be overturned. Not only is it far from certain that the books in question were part of the collection, but even if they had been, this should not be a cause for arrest and detention.

IFLA has been following the case and published a statement on the judgement calling for authorities in Russia, and around the world, to bring banning of books and the persecution of librarians to an end.

Unfortunately, these cases are not unique. Librarians worldwide are facing struggle in claiming the rights to freedom of opinion and expression.

Today, on World Press Freedom Day, we celebrate the right to freedom of expression and opinion, and we remind that the support is still needed, and there is still much more to be done.

Digital Cooperation Day One: What values and principles should we bear in mind when taking decisions about the internet?

In the first of three blogs about the questions the United Nations Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation is asking in its call for submissions, we’re focusing on values. Which values should lie behind any effort to build agreements and decide on actions concerning the internet? We’ll be incorporating your answers into our final submission to the Panel!

As we often underline in IFLA blogs, libraries are institutions built on values. Their mission – to preserve our heritage and give access to information to all – is not based on a drive to maximise profit or power, but to ensure that everyone has the possibility to learn, grow and live fulfilled lives.

These values feed into the approach libraries take to their own decision-making, and into the positions they take in broader political debates. This of course includes discussions about how the internet should be governed.

It is therefore good news that the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation has given such attention to the importance of values. This is why our first question is about the values which should steer decision-making about the internet – for example how to protect data, deal with content that some people do not like, or promote connectivity and digital skills.

Which of the values promoted by libraries are applicable? What can the experience of libraries tell us about how to balance conflicting rights and priorities, such as between free speech and privacy? Does the internet, given its role in empowering individuals and its multistakeholder nature (i.e. governments, individuals, businesses and civil society all have important roles to play) mean anything is different?

Let us know what you think! We look forward to seeing your views in the comments box below!

You can read IFLA’s initial submission to the High Level Panel on our website. See all of our blogs on Digital Cooperation here.