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Notes from Executive Director Scott Garrison – May 2023

Dr. Emily Knox (whose books include Book Banning In 21st Century America and Foundations of Intellectual Freedom) led a Feb. 8 workshop at Western Michigan University (WMU) that was a great opportunity for academic, public, and school library professionals to connect with library and information theory and practice, and one another. Dr. Knox’s workshop built and expanded on her Feb. 7 lecture at WMU (which I summarized in March).  

Dr. Knox opened by speaking about intellectual freedom, freedom of expression, and free speech, noting that most people use the latter term and juxtaposing intellectual freedom as a positive right and censorship as negative action. She cited Mathiesen’s work on access to information as a human right, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Barbakoff’s definition of autonomy (i.e., access to information about many life possibilities, self-reflection, critical thinking, and more) in framing intellectual freedom in a context of human dignity and autonomy. She also reminded participants that different legislatures and courts through time (including the U.S. Supreme Court) consider what is “harmful” differently, which complicates various efforts to legislate (such as Indiana’s controversial SB12, which included language putting library workers at risk of prosecution).   

Next, Dr. Knox emphasized that the concepts she studies are defined based on the individual, and that libraries take the individual person seriously – each individual matters, and has their own need to be addressed. She then turned to different types of knowledge – public vs. private and legitimate vs. forbidden, as well as Robinson’s principle of difficult knowledge (i.e., knowledge that many adults find challenging to address in their own lives, but especially with children). She noted the tension between attempts to control access to private, forbidden, and/or difficult knowledge such as Gender Queer’s content, and the harm such censorship can cause through denying children agency and vocabulary to describe their own bodies and lives. Gender Queer has things that may be difficult for some to see, and the book is a way to think about an individual’s entire lived experience and talk about being non-binary in a way that includes sexuality. Unlike topics like Critical Race Theory which legislation can control, those who oppose rights for those who identify as LGBTQIA+ cannot control an individual’s identity and lived experience.  

Building on issues of layers of identity (and noting that all of 2021’s top ten most- challenged books center on identity), Dr. Knox suggested that we can’t have social justice without intellectual freedom that allows marginalized voices to be heard in places such as libraries, which use public funding to provide a collective public good. Individuals experience interactions with each other differently, based in part on their identities and lived experience. This is complicated in that individuals’ identities are multi-faceted and not always visible, and that we each live in groups with often cross-cutting group identities. How can libraries who focus on individuals consider each person’s whole self when we consider issues of harm in library collections, especially when there is a lack of agreement about what “harm” means? A book one person finds harmful may be helpful to another, and we don’t always know why someone wants to read something. How far should libraries go to remove content that is objectionable to some and not others? If a book talks about a “just” society, for whom is that society just, exactly? A library’s mission and patron population is also key in terms of books that contain material some find harmful: if an academic institution has courses that consider genocide, it may make sense for its library to have books on genocide denial. Dr. Knox reminded participants how important it is to keep the library’s mission top of mind when crafting policies, and to seek advice in doing so. She also suggested that especially public libraries strive for representation over balance in collections and services – buying a book does not equal endorsing it, any more than a Pride display or a Christian display equals endorsement (reminding us that inclusion isn’t just for certain groups – it’s for everyone).  

In turning to the “wicked problem” around bias and facts, Dr. Knox offered definitions of misinformation (wrong information), disinformation (a lie), malinformation (based on truth and used to harm), a filter bubble (intellectual isolation that results from algorithms that limit what an individual finds on the Internet), and motivated reasoning (lessening cognitive dissonance to arrive at or endorse one’s preferred conclusion). In her view, we can’t keep mis- and disinformation out of libraries altogether, because there may not be complete agreement on what is a “fact” – all of this is a social problem that can’t be solved because individuals and how they interpret and place value on facts differ. It’s hard because of information overload and the filter bubbles algorithms create when they obscure how they place information in front of us. Like algorithms, libraries themselves can appear to be a “black box” to the public, who may not understand how libraries set policy and make decisions.   

Given all of this, what can we do? Dr. Knox offered some things to consider: 

  1. Remember that the library is a bridge between experts and a person who needs information – what does that person actually need, and why? In the reference interview, the first question is often not the “real question.” Library workers have to meet people where they are and understand their context (including any discomfort they may have; Adam Grant’s work on motivational interviewing to combat vaccine skepticism may be helpful).
  2. Dr. Knox’s colleague Dr. Nicole Cooke has done important work on critical cultural literacy, which includes information, design, political, historical, emotional, cultural, and racial literacies. Consider how to leverage those literacies when reading for bias – if a piece in Fortune talks about a “shaky economy, for whom is it truly “shaky?” How might we help people see beyond repeated messages that get into their filter bubble, considering the individual and how they perceive things?
  3. Think about policy from “big P” (what is legally defensible), and “little P” (your library policy) perspectives, using books like Creating Policies for Results: from Chaos to Clarity, and educate your staff, board and others in your community on intellectual freedom and your own collection development practices. Policy movements often come from long games over decades, and libraries should play a long game also. Reach out to civic organizations and make sure they know about the library and what it’s about. Approach current and prospective board members as early as you can, and educate them about what your library needs (and not just publics – academic institutions have boards of trustees who may not know how the library works).
  4. Consider biases in the black box systems and algorithms you encounter – try and understand how things work. Create a facebook ad, and think through how facebook makes that ad available. Also, coders with particular biases wrote Google Family to expect a two-parent intact family, when that situation is not the case for many users. When people try to access information as mediated by algorithms, how can libraries be more effective in helping people be more critically/culturally literate? 
  5. Building on 3. and 4., remove mystery from library practices as much as possible – explain your processes and decisions, especially when they are visible (e.g., weeding or moving books). You can do this one conversation at a time.
  6. Clarity and relationships are key – high school principals don’t want problems, and may move to remove books depending on their relationship with a library. State your library’s mission and how it supports its community and why that’s important, and enlist patrons to talk about why it’s important, also. That can help enhance a value proposition to hire librarians who can help administrators, when administrators recognize a lack of school librarians puts them in a bad position to respond to challenges.
  7. Public libraries should lean into the notion that they are a public institution using public money for collective good for a whole community.
  8. Regarding some of the treatment and derogatory language library workers are enduring, we can’t stop people from name-calling, but we can control how we respond. When language used toward us is untrue and hurtful, we should speak up and say so, as many times as may be needed. Remember that an epithet has nothing to do with us – it comes from the person who uses it, and their own fear. 

Next month, I’ll share some thoughts from the Michigan Library Association’s May Think Space program. What recent library programs and events have you found impactful? Let me know at