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  The First Amendment In-House: A Librarian's Work in Practice

Policy #4 of the Library Bill of Rights reads "Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas."
So what about the librarian's freedom of expression in the workplace? In the library.

Librarians are taught that they have a special responsibility to protect intellectual freedom and freedom of expression for all ideas, be they popular or unpopular. One would infer that this sense of mission to protect freedom of expression would naturally osmose to the organization in which librarians work. One would think.

Librarians do demonstrate a remarkable tolerance for a wide variety of ideas. However, library organizations exhibit the same nature as any other group of human beings: the need for control and the need to control. And, library functions such as cataloging and circulation have less tolerance than average for variation. Per the catalog number, a title belongs in only one place. And per authority rules, a title has only one catalog number, etc., etc.

Besides business functions, however, is a library organization likely to be more tolerant or less tolerant of the free expression of ideas?

Among the many variables affecting an organization, three crucial factors are: the personality of the director, and the pressure of outside events, and legal considerations.

The Director - Easy going, urbane, and witty. Micromanaging, petty, and unforgiving. Directors can be either. Or a mixture. And timing is also involved. A director who is looking ahead to their next assignment is likely to be more tolerant of ideas since they won't be responsible for dealing with them. Alternatively, a leader near the end of their tenure is more likely to want a steady course, and avoid risks, to ensure a smooth landing into retirement. No new ideas, thank you.

Or, there are times when the library is rolling out a new program or initiative and the director needs to work out the wrinkles before making a judgment. A director who would otherwise tolerate some dissent will probably not allow public second guessing. Veteran workers who are upset by change are likely to vent their frustrations. The director may have zero tolerance for these comments especially if the change is something that the director has a personal interest in having succeed. One example of timing from outside the profession was captured in the film "The Insider". The film depicts how the CBS program 60 Minutes is co-opted into altering coverage of a story due to the timing of its pending purchase by Westinghouse and the risk of a lawsuit by the tobacco industry upon the value of CBS to Westinghouse.

Pressures from Outside - These include the budget, the library board, the faculty, the provost, elected officials, or random events. A random event such as a child accidentally accessing a pornographic webpage on a library Internet computer can create a chilly atmosphere in the organization until the spotlight is turned off. An overbearing library board can make an otherwise well balanced organization react with tightlipped control. A crusading elected official who is on a mission to cut costs or purge public places of bad influence will make a library organization a monosyllabic environment.

Legal Restrictions - The right of employers to command "subordination" from their workers is still a given. However, the right to pursue intellectual matters while in a government's employ can also be restricted. The USA Court of Appeals recently ruled in Urofsky vs. Gilmore that professors employed at state universities can have their access to the Internet restricted while at work. While this issue revolved around accessing sexually explicit material, the legal point made is that the government has a much greater authority to abridge freedom of speech while acting as an employer than it does while acting as a governing body. In fact, librarians are very likely to be employed by a governing body such as a county, municipal, or state educational unit.

Asking at the Interview - The job interview is a natural time to pick up a sense of the tolerance for free expression. A very normal question to an employer would be "What is your management style?" or "How does your organization collaborate on decision making?". Better sources for the straight scoop on freedom of expression would be from employees, or recent former employees. If vigorous intellectual freedom and expression is that important, determining the tolerance up front is necessary. In fairness to the organization, they deserve to know a bit about the nature of an employee as well. Some libraries welcome vocal defenders of free speech.

All libraries should welcome strong defenders of free speech.

- - - - - - -

Thanks to Epinions.com and the Emory University School of Law website for links to their webpages.

Related sites:
25 Years of Collegial Management - Explores the model of revolving leadership at the library of Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA
University of Wisconsin School for Workers - Lists several examples of the School's efforts to mediate management and labor disputes
The Library Bill of Rights - a set of concise policy statements on the free flow of ideas which libraries protect

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