Know Your Rights: Intellectual Freedom & Libraries

The public library as an institution is charged with providing access to information, regardless of content. In doing so, the library stands firm in upholding the First Amendment and the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights. This is why, as Jo Godwin famously stated, “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.”

The Seattle Public Library strives to meet the widest range of information needs through the careful and intentional selection of physical and digital items by librarians, by borrowing resources from a network of library systems throughout the country, and with purchase requests from you, our library patrons. If there is some piece of information that we don’t have, library staff will try to find it with you.

Intellectual freedom is such a critical pillar of library work that all levels of staff here at SPL undergo mandatory training on this very topic. We receive challenges to materials in the collection on occasion, but we haven’t removed a book from the library since
1932. This happened in conjunction with the dismissal of the foreign-language librarian, Natalie Notkin, who was falsely accused of purchasing communist propaganda for the library. Three books were taken out of circulation that year: V. M. Friche’s 1928 biography of Leo Tolstoi, Isaac Babel’s 1926 short story collection Red Cavalry, and Alexander Skobelev’s 1922 play Hunger. Notkin defended herself in an impassioned letter, stating that she did not order communist materials, and that she had been “assured that the Library has a right and a duty to have books presenting different sides of a controversial question”

There are so many facets to intellectual freedom, access to information, and the role of
libraries in American society, which is why the Central Library is hosting “Know Your Rights: Intellectual Freedom & Libraries” on Wednesday, October 4th at 7pm. Join us for a conversation with dynamic thinkers about what intellectual freedom means today. We’ve curated a small selection of related books and websites to help continue the discussion!

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham. Whether you love it or hate it, James Joyce’s Ulysses created quite the uproar when it was released in installments from 1918-1920. Notably, even the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence, called the final section of Ulysses the “the dirtiest, most indecent, obscene thing ever written.”

Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow by Cheryl Knott. In reflecting on the history of public libraries in the United States, it is not often acknowledged that these institutions have restricted and denied access to information and services based on race. This carefully researched book dismantles the notion that libraries have always been neutral, free, and open.

Book Banning in 21st Century America by Emily Knox. Through the lens of thirteen modern book challenge cases in the U.S., scholar Emily Knox seeks to understand the rationale driving individuals who seek to ban, challenge, or censor books.

Burn this Book edited by Toni Morrison. Celebrated writers reflect on censorship and the power of the written word to foster greater understanding. Written in 2009, this collection is strongly relevant today.

Visit the catalog to explore the rest of the Intellectual Freedom & Libraries list.

     – Posted by Ashley B

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