Intellectual freedom and professional practice - the library

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					Intellectual freedom and
professional practice - the library
Alex Byrne
University Librarian
University of Technology, Sydney

The reason I thought you might be interested
in hearing from me is that besides being the
University Librarian, I chair a committee of the
International Federation of Library Associations
and Institutions which is the umbrella
organisation for libraries around the world
professionally. It’s the body that UNESCO
deals with. The particular committee I chair is
on free access to information and freedom of

Libraries, of course, started as archives of
important material, from the archives of clay
tablets in Mesopotamia. That notion of
preserving knowledge through the generations
is a strongly held value for librarians of all
sorts. As things went on, of course, there were
the dynastic libraries but there was still that
notion of the preservation of knowledge as the
central issue, The early universities tended to
be scholars gathering around libraries.
Libraries stood for continuity in terms of the
maintenance of the historical record. It is
interesting to note that there was a notion of
evaluating quality: "what’s worth keeping? how
do you separate the dross from what’s worth
keeping?" Those are very crucial issues for us.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the
public library arose, first in Britain and it then
spread around the world aided particularly by
the Carnegie Foundation at the end of that
century. Andrew Carnegie, recognising his own
achievements in moving from poverty to
immense wealth, decided to invest in libraries.
Consequently, there are Carnegie Libraries all
over the world, including Australia. The
language from that time called the library the
"poor man’s university". It was very much tied
to education and to access to information. In
the nineteenth century, the library was
presented as independently offering an actual
historical record of knowledge that was not
biased in one way or another. Of course, it is
always skewed in some way through the very
nature of organisations but the internalised
model is one of independence. The results
were that, when library associations started to
emerge (the first one being in the 1870s) and
then subsequently started to develop in other
countries and, around the turn of the century,
there arose the notion of establishing
international organisations of libraries, there
was an emphasis on correct information, and
the responsibility of preserving and providing
access to it. This has always been global: it
has never been purely local, no matter what
period we look at.
What started to come through was those same
issues coupled with a professionalism which
came out of the growing professionalisation
shared with other organisations, with strong
emphasis on good practice and "how do we do
it right?", "how do we catalogue it right?", "how
do we classify it right?" — those sort of things,
very mechanistic sort of stuff. The International
Federation was ultimately formed at a meeting
of the British Library Association in 1927, and
the Federation’s first meetings were in Italy in
1929. This was after the establishment of the
League of Nations and just before the
Depression. You can see the preoccupations in
the words of those meetings. There were
comments about rebuilding after the Great War
and considerable optimism. Largely it
consisted of Western nations but not
exclusively - China and Japan were
represented the very first meeting. That very
first meeting was actually opened by Mussolini,
and a reception in the Vatican was hosted by
the then Pope who was a former librarian in

Right of the outset of course, the issue of
should we be engaging in political influence,
was looked into. They turned their eyes away.
They decided "no, we won’t do that: our role is
as a professional body". The list of issues they
were discussing was remarkably similar to
what we’re still discussing!

Then of course, the Depression came and we
were trying to deal with the problems brought
on by it. Interestingly, on the eve of the
Second World War in 1937, Austria was a
member, Czechoslovakia was a member -
suddenly in 1938 and 1939 they were no
longer members, no longer on the list; they
disappeared. In those days, it was small
enough for the leader of different nations to
stand up and give a country report. At the
meeting in 1939, the German leader stood up.
He spoke about the spread of the wonders of
German libraries into Ostdeutsch and
Altdeutsch, Czechoslovakia and Austria. To
give him credit, the then President of the
Federation stood up and gave an impassioned
address during which he didn’t once mention
Germany by name but it was very clear that he
was saying "We reject all of that". He was
speaking for what he saw as universal values
in the transmission of knowledge, education,
access to information.

They went into recess during the war. In late
1940s, around the time the United Nations was
formulating the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, again there were comments
about the political aspects and the rights of
people to knowledge. The Cold War started,
many events came and went. The views are
illustrated by a statements by Malek, a great
Czech librarian, a great professional, who gave
a paper in 1963 about children’s libraries. He
wrote about how the libraries in
Czechoslovakia had expunged counter-
revolutionary material in their collections and
replaced it with good socialist material. This
person wasn’t a party aparatchic: he saw no
conflict in saying that and the values that he
held dearly. In 1968 there was a bit of noise
but the then president, who was British, stood
up and talked about the role in terms of
professionalism and the practice of
professional activities rather than professional
principles. That went on until 1989, which was
the time of perestroika and glasnost when the
Federation was meeting in Paris and the
French moved a motion, saying "We’ve got to
look at these issues". Of course that was the
anniversary of the French revolution and the
Rights of Men.

Not a lot happened overtly at that time though
there was quite a lot going on behind the
scenes between the Scandinavians and the
newly elected president who was from the US
and who made this part of his agenda. The
American libraries I should say had, in the
1950s, established an office for intellectual
freedom and that has done tremendously good
work over the years but the focus has been
just on the United States and based very
strongly on the First Amendment. The
Americans saw themselves as operating within
the First Amendment and as Americans. In
California in 1952, there was a meeting of
university librarians at which it was suggested
that they should get rid of the dangerous works
by Marx and Lenin. Others countered that they
should keep them, however, on the basis of
"know thy enemy".

In 1995, finally, they set up an interim
committee with about 30 representatives from
members all over the world. One of them was
a Chinese woman who was wonderful. She
never said no; she just negotiated around it all.
There was an outspoken member who said
everything must be unrestricted. The other
extreme was some Islamic members saying we
had some real challenges in our country. They
weren’t opposed to the issue but they were
conscious of the difficulties. Eventually we
prepared a report which went to a council
meeting and ultimately led to the committee
that I chair. Since then we’ve developed a
statement on libraries and intellectual freedom
which many of the associations and some of
the institutions have endorsed and we have
started to address issues. I can give you the
flavour of some of the issues that we are
dealing with.

I need to talk about the notion of principle
versus professionalism. When Chris spoke
earlier about professionalism, he was thinking
of professionalism in the sense that
professionalism equates with principle but in
the library sense it means something else, it
has quite a different approach. The code of
ethics and things like that have tended to be
applied in terms of doing our work honestly
and without bias and not going beyond that to
some higher level of discourse. For my
committee, the higher principle is about
implementing the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights. The consequences of that are
very interesting.

One is a trivial example but the other is quite
serious. Some of the things that happened in
Australia, Scandinavia and other western
countries including the United States in the
1960s and 1970s — were things like the
banning of Enid Blyton books from school
libraries. That was done for good intentions -
limited vocabulary, hackneyed stories, limited
character development and so on - the
librarians felt justified in saying they were
taking the books out of libraries because they
don’t contribute to the education of children.
Some of my Scandinavian colleagues were a
bit embarrassed about me raising that episode
recently that but some confirmed that "we still
don’t have them in our libraries". Well, it is not
an old issue: over the last few weeks, there
have been calls to remove the Harry Potter
books from libraries because of the emphasis
on magic and an "anti-Christian spirit". I reckon
any book that gets kids to read 700 pages
can’t be bad. But coming out of that is the idea
that some know what is good for other people.

One of the recent incidents was in the South of
France with the National Front who won power
in a number of the municipalities in Provence.
Someone came into one of the libraries and
said "You have all this left wing material — get
rid of it" (newspapers, books, etc). To give
them credit, the librarians said no, they
wouldn’t, because they have policies on
collections and things like that. So they said
"Well, where are the right wing papers?" -
French newspapers are much more politically
minded. An uneasy, unsatisfactory result was
produced where they subscribed to the right
wing newspaper and kept the other ones on
the grounds that they had long-term
subscriptions for them — which wasn’t really
very principled! Since then, all those librarians
have been pushed out. Their lives have been
made unbearable. They were pushed out
because they wouldn’t get rid of the left wing
material and, by taking a stand, they identified
themselves as dissidents.

Member of audience:

If they wanted to knock you back, they’d ask
for your stamp book because it was never right
— that kind of stuff.


Moving on from that, other issues were dealt
with in Cuba where some so-called
independent libraries were established by non-
librarians (professional people, doctors,
lawyers) in which were placed collections of
materials defying the government. What was
reported to me was that the independent
libraries were being harassed and intimidated
and people were being arrested. I immediately
suspected misinformation because it was
passed on to me by anti-Cubans and thought it
was just the CIA finding another thing to use
against Cuba. That’s true. But nevertheless
these events did happen and violated the
principle of access to information. You might
call it low level harassment but it was still very
intimidating. The people who did this were
boring, middle-aged middle-class
professionals, not heroic in any way and so
they had hoons in leather jackets hanging
around outside their places and jostling them,
the tax police coming in to look through their
papers. There were all of those types of thing
going on and it was really quite intimidating.
Since then, there have also been some arrests
and destruction of properties.
An enormous furore broke out of that
response. The Cuban Library Association was
most offended. They felt that it attacked their
credibility and their government and indulged
in calumnia, so called. There are many in
America who feel unhappy with their
government policy and sided with the Cubans
… There are others who feel strongly that
Castro’s government is repressive and these
independent libraries are vehicles for freedom
… it is largely an American debate in the sense
that it reflects their views about Cuba.

Chris Nash:

Is this the very principle that the defenders of
Cuba are arguing or are they just saying that
there’s some sort of alternative model of being
a librarian under socialist rule? What is that?


They are saying is that these are not real
libraries, they’re not real librarians and that the
public system of libraries in Cuba is filling any
need. Then they go on to talk about all the
great achievements since the Cuban


So the only real libraries are State libraries. Is
that what they’re saying?


Probably they’re saying the only real libraries
are those that are truly organised by the
Cubans, properly named as libraries. From my
perspective as chair of the committee, the
principle is about access and so that this is
what this is about it is not about all those other
issues. However, we do have to gather any
information on the consequences of the US
embargo. It is difficult because the embargo
actually excludes information of material so the
effects are secondary.


What about the Internet? Can that help?


With access to material? No, access is limited
and communications not necessarily reliable
and it is probably subject to government
intervention in every sense. Castro says there
is no censorship. Then the opposition’s
supporters say there’s need to investigate this
matter. Our office talked to those involved by
phone to verify the information, prepared a
report and then make representations to the
Cuban Government and sent us out a press
release. Soon after, Danish radio station was
talking to a supporter of the independent
libraries: he was on air and he was cut off.
While still on air they tried to talk to him again
but were told no such phone number exists.
It’s curious.

The non-involved librarians, particularly outside
the United States, are asking where they stand
in this. Is it really our business? Does it have
to be a ‘capital L’ library issue or is something
like the arrest of journalists an issue that we
should be taking part in? There are plenty of
other organisations apart from the library ones
that can defend those issues. We should come
in and support them but not tend to lead on
such issues, we should focus on the library

Another matter which had a happier result
occurred last year. A US based Chinese
librarian, who had been in the US for about ten
years, had gone on holidays to China to visit
family and collect some research material
essentially newspapers published in the 1960s
at the time of the Cultural Revolution. He and
his wife were picked up in August last year.
The wife was released in November and then
on Christmas Eve the husband was formally
arrested and charged with collecting secret
materials for sale to foreigners. It was an
interesting charge. He was collecting 30-year
old newspapers for research at a respected US


Was that because it would be embarrassing for
the Chinese Government?


Not directly but when we heard about it we had
to protest. We received a courteous letter that
addressed the issues and, blow me down, a
week later he was released. We weren’t the
only ones who protested. There were petitions
in The New York Times and other papers and I
personally think the reason he was released
was to do with US-China relations and
Chinese entry to the WTO but nevertheless he
was released and that was the important point.
And it provides a good example we can refer
to. As with Amnesty we have to investigate
claims and try to not get manipulated.

Recently we had the 2000 meeting in
Jerusalem which had been selected by the
Federation in 1993 or 1994at the time of the
Oslo accords. Over the last two years or so,
there has been increasing unhappiness in the
Federation about the security situation in
Israel. The Islamic and Arab countries could
not go there. As a result, the organising
committee was reminded that they had
commitments to involve Palestinians and also
trying to get the location shifted to Tel Aviv,
away from the symbolic location of Jerusalem.
They refused to deal with that but they did
agree that they would not refer to Jerusalem as
the capital of Israel and they would not make
overt political statements. At the opening
ceremony, we had the official speaker come in
and say "Welcome to Jerusalem, the undivided
capital of Israel". Bang — right between the
eyes. Then a political scientist came up and
told the history of the confrontation from an
Israeli perspective. He gave an excellent paper
but it was totally inappropriate and quite
provocative. Later we heard that, two days
before the conference started, the Palestinian
librarians had tried to hold a meeting to decide
how they would deal with the situation,
whether they were prepared to meet with the
visiting international librarians. The Israeli army
threw them out.

That’s very interesting actually because I heard
how the Israeli army operate. Was this in
concert with the Israeli organising committee of
your meeting? Were they actually informed
about it?


I don’t know but would assume there was
some communication.


And would they have known what the issues
were? They would have had to be kept


Just about every person who enters Israel is
interrogated before they’re allowed in there,
and very closely.

There are lots of other instances I could have
talked about. I thought I might sneak in two
things. One is an investigation of what
happened to libraries in Kosovo over the last
decade and their destruction. One of the things
I have found interesting about Kosovo is how
early the intimidation started: the Albanian
librarians in Kosovo were pushed out of their
jobs in 1991 and were being weeded out at
that time because the Serbs were very much
into cultural "ethnic cleansing".

The other is some work I did while I was in
Darwin in the 1990s on the Aboriginal and
Torres Street Islander Protocols for Libraries,
Archives and Information Services. I was
involved in some of the work on Aboriginal
information and the use of libraries by
Aboriginal people and the unacceptable (to my
mind) proportion of Aboriginal people
employed in libraries. Gradually it became
clear that there were quite a few concerns to
deal with. They ranged from the content and
perspectives of what’s in our collections. Most
of the stuff in libraries about Aborigines is
written from the point of view of policemen,
magistrates, anthropologists, historians,
storytellers - almost always non-Aboriginal until
very recent years. Now there is a publisher in
Broome and other various forms of
encouragement so it is changing. Some would
say it is not the responsibility of librarians to
redress that , we simply think about the
packages and not the content. However, I
believe should be encouraging the collection of
materials for our libraries such as through oral
history programs. Then there are intellectual
property issues including moral rights
legislation which is currently before the Federal
Parliament. Other issues include
representation, governance and employment.


I was just wondering about one of the directors
of the Darwin Art Gallery … … is part of your
brief to interact with those other agencies?


Yes, and issues of common interest
internationally include the restitution of cultural
property such as that taken during the
Holocaust, by Napoleon’s armies and during
the Second World War.


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