Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler


Somewhere* it's National Library Week

It being National Library week,* I thought this might be timely to post.

I’ve decided Auckland City Libraries are quite cool. First, they came up in Prime TV’s fantastic documentary series “The Naughty Bits” (its three episodes are all on-line here, and well worth watching), where they and Dylan Horrocks (whom I’ve also decided is cool), were discussing Alan Moore’s graphic novel Lost Girls, and concerns it might be seen as promoting the sexual exploitation of children (update: since the show was made, Lost Girls was rated R18 and is back in the library, although I’m not sure if the missing volumes have been replaced).

Then, there was their response to the petition asking them to withdraw from circulation the book To Train Up a Child (which has, I think probably reasonably fairly, been described as a manual for child abuse). The petition was a bit confusing, but the response was still strong:

There’s debate at the moment about a book we have in our collections called ‘To train up a child’ by Michael and Debi Pearl. We acknowledge this book is divisive and people may find its content offensive.

At Auckland Libraries our collections development policy defines our commitment to the principle of freedom of access to information and states that the library will not suppress or remove material on the grounds that it gives offence. 

I greatly admire the position libraries take on issues like this. The response from Auckland Library is exactly the position I want a library to take, and I’m glad they see their role as supporting freedom of expression.

I’ve had some push back on this view. And there are different debates to have on this issue. When you try to defend the libraries decision, you're asked to defend the book, which is obviously harder.

There is the debate on whether the book should be banned. On free speech issues generally, and censorship issues more specifically, I am about as staunchly in favour of freedom of expression as it is possible to be. I am not sure there is any text I would censor, in the way we use that word in New Zealand. Lots of expression is illegal, but far less is censored. I agree that death threats should be illegal, but they aren’t censored: it’s not illegal to possess a written death threat, in the sense that it is illegal to possess Postal 2: Share The Pain, A Guide to Growing Marijuana in Cool Climates, Critic Te Arohi 23 of 2005, or an image of child sexual exploitation.

But that’s not a discussion about the role of libraries, that's a discussion of the proper test Parliament should set for the Censor to apply when considering banning material.

And the debate about whether the purchase of this book was an appropriate use of ratepayers money is a different one too. The book had apparently been borrowed 10 times before the current uproar, what might be the standard metric appears to have been met by Auckland Libraries. But even a library system the size of the Auckland City Libraries cannot buy every book, so the proper use of its limited collections budget is a matter properly for debate. I don’t think anyone can seriously suggest a library could have an obligation to buy this book to make it available to the public.

But that too is a different debate, because for good or ill, Auckland Libraries has already bought this book, so we can’t talk about saving ratepayers money. Instead we are discussing what a library should do, when they find themselves in this situation. In short, what is the role of a library? Should a responsible custodian of a public information resource make this book available to the public, knowing what it contains?

I’ve long thought the role of libraries was to do just that, and am pleased, but not really surprised that they think so too. I’m sure this has not always been the case, but there has been discussion within the library community, and they are about as staunch on censorship as its possible to be.

In 2002 the Council of the Library and Information Association New Zealand Aotearoa adopted a Statement on Intellectual Freedom. I was going to quote from it, but I think I’m just going to quote it:

1. Society creates libraries as institutions to store and make available knowledge, information, and opinions and to facilitate the enjoyment of learning and creativity in every field. Every library has a responsibility to provide its users with the widest range of information materials possible, which are within the constraints of its budget, relevant to its users' requirements, and which represent the spectrum of points of view on the topic held in the community.

2. Librarians have a responsibility to ensure that the selection and availability of information materials is governed solely by professional considerations. In so doing, they should neither promote nor suppress opinions and beliefs expressed in the materials with which they deal. These professional considerations include the use of knowledge, skills, collection management experience, and collection development policies to make decisions on what is selected for the library collection.

3. No information resources should be excluded from libraries because of the opinions they express; nor because of who the author is; nor on the grounds of the political, social, moral or other views of their author.

4. No library materials should be censored, restricted, removed from libraries, or have access denied to them because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval or pressure. This includes access to web-based information resources.

5. Librarians should resist all attempts at censorship, except where that censorship is required by law. Librarians are free to request, and to lobby for, the repeal of laws, which compromise the principles set out in this statement.

While I’m particularly drawn to the last couple of paragraphs, I think the whole thing is pretty wonderful.

The same sentiment is contained in the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ Glasgow Declaration on Libraries, Information Services and Intellectual Freedom:

Libraries and information services contribute to the development and maintenance of intellectual freedom and help to safeguard democratic values and universal civil rights. Consequently, they are committed to offering their clients access to relevant resources and services without restriction and to opposing any form of censorship.

Auckland Libraries incorporates these principles into their collections policy, and I think they're doing great work in meeting the standards they've set themselves. They don't see themselves as a censor, and are going to hold to that whatever the pressure: if you want censorship, go to the Office of Film and Literature Classification, not a library. These considerations form part of Auckland Libraries' Collection Development Policy, which incorporates both the LIANZA Statement on Intellectual Freedom and the LIANZA Statement on Access to Information.

The usual course of my blog posts is a correction, or a complaint, or some observation about how some law works, or doesn’t. Today, during National Library week*, I just thought I’d say thank you to Auckland Libraries. I think about freedom of expression a lot, and also about particular parts of it, lots about media freedom, about access to justice, and freedom from censorship, even occasionally about academic freedom, but I’ve never really thought about intellectual freedom, and now – because you’re doing such a great job upholding it – I will.

(*in America, maybe we should have one too!)

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