Libraries and Intellectual Freedom
by Henrikas Yushkiavitshus
Intellectual freedom is probably the most important one. Because the road to any other freedom begins with freeing one’s mind. Intellectual freedom is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that proclaims the right of everyone to the freedom of expression and the right to "receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers". Most countries of the world, including those in Eastern and Central Europe, are signatories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many official national and international documents support the concept that intellectual freedom is closely linked to the capacity of accessing information.
Universal access to information is indeed a prerequisite for empowering people to enjoy intellectual freedom and to take charge of themselves. It is also widely recognized that today this universal access is far from being achieved despite the unprecedented technological progress of the recent years.
Technology is not enough. It needs to be supported by political decisions dealing with economic, social, ethical and legal policies. All together they have to be the basis for the real implementation of the freedom of expression.
Talking about technological achievements of today, we must not forget about the book. The book is one of the greatest inventions of the past. Gutenberg’s invention of book printing ended the monopoly of the Greek and Latin languages in arts and sciences in Europe and gave a strong impulse to the development of national languages and cultures. It also proved that technology does not always lead to monoculture as some social scientists insist today. The book has changed and is still changing the world.
Can you imagine that the book would be invented only now when we already have television, radio and computers? What an excitement would it be!
How handy, no power needed, you can go back and forth, with no additional chips and plug-ins. You can take it on the plane and nobody will say: switch it off. It doesn’t consume power; it generates power – a spiritual power.
This spiritual power was the source of strength to our ancestors, helping them to foster and develop their national cultures and languages.
This meeting is devoted to the first printed Latvian book. This book is part not only of the Latvian history but also of the history of Europe and of the world. Printing greatly aided the Catholic Church, but it also aided the Protestant Reformation and "heretics" such as Luther. To reach its readers, this book had to overcome obstacles that already existed in Europe at that time. I mean censorship.
In all times, authorities have feared or mistrusted books because they make people more knowledgeable, less conformist and more difficult to control.
Strangely enough, the birthplace of book printing became the birthplace of book banning: in 1543, the Catholic Church decreed that no book might be printed or sold without permission from the church.
The Sacred Inquisition became a powerful tool of censorship in the Western culture, punishing with death or jail those who violated the imposed bans.
The close alliance between the church and the state in countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy resulted in an almost perfect system of expression control.
There was no need for the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century to invent any new mechanism. The Inquisition was replaced by the ruling party: in Germany - by the Nazis, in the Soviet Union - by the Communist Party, and so on. Now, it was the church and religious books that were persecuted. In fact, religious and other "underground" books were the forerunners of democratization in many Central and Eastern European countries.
Years were passing, regimes were changing but the "tradition" of censorship continued. Every new regime felt obliged to take measures to protect an ideology or simply "public morals", which inevitably led to a strict control of book imports and to censorship of libraries.
The most damaging throughout this history of censorship was its acceptance by the general public and the wide perception of surveillance of books in schools and libraries as a normal practice.
The UNESCO Public Library Manifesto proclaims that library "collections and services should not be subject to any form of ideological, political or religious censorship, nor commercial pressure."
It would be naïve, however, to think that the medieval practices of censorship have been done away with.
That is a well-known fact but it is useful to recall it because, as André Gide taught us, everything has already been said but as nobody listens we always have to begin again. Let us look at such facts.
When a UNESCO’s employee is moving from Paris to another duty station, in many countries, the customs office requires to provide the complete list of the books he or she is bringing.
Even such monuments of religious and human culture as the Gospel can get you in trouble, especially if they are in the language of the country you are travelling to.
Myanmar (Burma) has banned all translations of the Bible in the local languages. The Government of China last year banned, confiscated and destroyed books by Li Hongzhi, the founder of the "Falun Gong" spiritual movement.
The principle of free circulation is permanently threatened not only by the so-called "totalitarian regimes". The temptation of censorship is so strong that even the most democratic countries cannot refrain from it completely.
Thus, on the insistence of the US Post Office, Voltaire’s "Candid" was excluded from the mailed Concord Books Catalog in 1944. In 1980, Shakespeare’s "The Merchant of Venice" was banned from classrooms in Midland, Michigan, USA.
Paradoxically, from 1972 to 1979, more episodes of censorship or attempted censorship were reported in the USA than in any comparable earlier period. According to some reports, from 1980 to 1983, book banning in the United States had increased 400%.
In 1975, "The Adventures of Pinocchio" by C. Collodi was removed for three years from the Nagoya-city public library in Japan, because it contained allegedly offensive expressions against the handicapped. In 1984, the Hiroshima prefecture public library secretly removed 35 books judged discriminatory by one of the librarians.
India, which is often called the "largest democracy in the world", was also the first country in the world to ban the entry of "The Satanic Verses" by Salman Rushdi. His other book "The Moor’s Last Sigh" would have had the same fate but for the timely intervention of the National Human Rights Commission.
In February 1989, Canada Customs made that country the only western democracy to seize "The Satanic Verses". After 48 hours, the ban was rescinded. A month later, Prime Minister Mulroney, speaking in The Hague, expressed embarrassment at the delay of import of the book to Canada and promised to review the legislation that conferred such powers on non-elected officials.
Only a few years ago, in France, after Le Pen’s National Front came to the power in some cities, a number of books, newspapers and magazines were banned from the local public libraries.
In 1997, a book of photographs by artist Robert Mapplethorpe was confiscated by the police from the library of the University of Central England, UK.
Herbert N. Foerstel in his "Banned in the U.S.A." gives a list of the fifty books that were most frequently challenged in schools and public libraries in the United States between 1990 and 1992. These include:
- "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain;
- "Of Mice and Men" and "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck;
- "The Catcher in the Rye" by Jerome David Salinger;
- "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding;
- "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez;
and even –
- "Little Red Riding Hood" by Jacob and William Grimm (!)
As they say, - "Unbelievable, but true".
It should be noted that very often it is not governments, but local authorities and public institutions - including schools and libraries themselves (!) - as well as various pressure groups that seek to remove or limit access to reading materials, to censor content in schools, to label "controversial" views, to distribute lists of "objectionable" books or authors, and to purge libraries. That shows only too well how pervasive the "censorship syndrome" is.
In this context, one cannot agree more with the "The Freedom to Read Statement" of the American Library Association, which says:
"It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians to give full meaning to the freedom to read by providing books that enrich the quality and diversity of thought and expression. By the exercise of this affirmative responsibility, they can demonstrate that the answer to a "bad" book is a good one, the answer to a "bad" idea is a good one."
What is the most disturbing is that even today, we still witness the worst form of censorship - physical annihilation. A recent UNESCO and IFLA/FAIFE mission to Kosovo discovered burned libraries there. I myself saw the burnt Library of Sarajevo.
It is heartbreaking to see burnt books. They don’t even burn, they suffocate like people, their pages fused and carbonized by intense heat without oxygen.
"He who destroys a good book, kills Reason itself …" – said John Milton. One cannot say better.
From burning books to burning people, there is only one step. Human history shows that in most cases this step is made much too easily.
So, who is burning libraries? Those who are against freedom. Because libraries bring freedom. As the writer Doris Lessing said, "With a library you are free, not confined by certainly temporary political climates. It is the most democratic of institutions because no one - but no one at all – can tell you what to read and when and how".
That is why I admire the enthusiasm and energy with which our Latvian colleagues are promoting the project of the new National Library of Latvia. They promote freedom. Because a culture of books certainly finds its expression in a national language and in national traditions, but is not confined by national boundaries. Ideas need no passport from their place of origin, nor visas for the countries they enter.
The first Latvian prayer book was printed 475 years ago, a year after the fist library in Riga – Bibliotheca Rigensis – was created. Your children and grandchildren will be able to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the first Latvian book in the new Latvian National Library.
Library is and has always been a very special place. For centuries, philosophers, thinkers, researchers and truth seekers have been going to libraries.
In many countries, a public library is a "limit public forum". It means that people have the right to use the forum without any government interference with what is communicated there. As the well-known American librarian Robert Vosper said, "It is a haven of privacy, a source of both cultural and intellectual sustenance for the individual reader".
Free access to ideas and information has never been more important than in today’s divided world, where all too often, governments and political groups seek to preserve "national strength and unity" by striving to prevent the dissemination of those writings and expressions which, according to their own self-developed standards, they believe to be pernicious. It is disturbing to see that even in new democracies, methods used against opponents are often borrowed from the old regimes.
Books offer a different view of the values we have chosen for ourselves, a choice we would deny others – including our children. The age-old fear of the new and different is still alive.
It is really a miracle that despite all the efforts by different institutions, our children do learn and grow intellectually, breaking away from the rigid frameworks set by the older generations.
However, we have to admit a very sad fact. Our children read fewer books than we did. Computers have provided a new form of reading and writing.
We were brought up on the written word; our children are and will be brought up on images. Their brainpower is multiplied by computing facilities, immense memories and data-processing methods furnished by their electronics extensions. Their personal relations, the characteristic feature of human beings, extend to the abolition of time and distance. They dream dreams in front of computer screens. Will they lose touch with what makes us alive, the achievements of thought, art, beauty, the lessons of suffering and love? Will they lose touch with the book? Will they lose "touch of the book" – this very special feeling that nothing can replace?
The invasion of information technologies, compounded by the increasing complexity of social relations, has also created a new form of illiteracy – functional illiteracy – that plagues those who can’t use the new information processing and transmission tools and are thus unable to find their way through the maze of a modern bureaucracy. Combating all forms of functional illiteracy is becoming a priority for education systems.
Libraries are places where new information technologies and books have to meet, if we want to have the best of the future, without losing the best of the past.
Libraries will have the great responsibility of reducing the cultural gaps induced by the different speed at which new technologies become available to different countries and social groups.
Nowadays, libraries have another human right to defend - the right to privacy. The problem is becoming especially acute with the increasing use of the Internet.
Librarians know that readers have to have the right to read without any control of what they read, without somebody "looking over their shoulder". Thus, the Code of Professional Ethics of the Russian Librarian requires the latter to protect "the confidentiality of the user’s information activity (except in cases foreseen by law)". The Code of Ethics of the American Library Association stresses the need to "protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed; acquired or transmitted."
That right was relatively easy to ensure in a traditional library with traditional reading materials on paper, provided the patron confidentiality laws and professional codes of ethics were respected by the librarians and by the authorities.
In the interconnected electronic environment, with sources of information scattered all over the world, this privacy becomes increasingly difficult to ensure. Because our every step, or click, on the World Wide Web is automatically and meticulously recorded, allowing for a varying degree of identification.
New possibilities – new problems ...
This conference is going to discuss the past of libraries and to forecast their future. I am personally convinced that the 21st century will be a "second Renaissance" period for libraries. Computerized and interconnected, they will be able to pool their resources and provide to their readers unprecedented access to immense stores of information. Moreover, they are uniquely placed to serve as public gateways to information highways, providing as they do both access and guidance to their users.
Nobody can tell exactly what the library of the future will look like. Will it preserve its traditional bookshelves and the typical smell of old books or will it look like the inside of a huge electronic brain. Whatever the picture, the central element of that picture will continue to be the Librarian – it will be you. You are the navigators that take the library ship through the ever-expanding ocean of information.
Back in 1779, the creator of the Public Library Thomas Jefferson said: "Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself … unless, by human interposition, disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them."
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948;
- UNESCO Public Library Manifesto, 1947, rev. 1994;
- American Library Association and Association of American Publishers. The Freedom to Reed Statement, 1953;
- Code of Ethics of the American Library Association, 1995;
- Code of Professional Ethics of the Russian Librarian, 1999;
- FAIFE World Report: Libraries and Intellectual Freedom, e-version, 2000.
- Foerstel, H. N. Banned in the U.S.A.: a reference guide to book censorship in school and public libraries, 1994;
- Jefferson, T. Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1779;
- Ruzik, R. A History of Censorship in Canada, from 1914 to Now, 1995.
Henrikas Yushkiavitshus is Assistant Director-General of UNESCO. The text has been first presented as a speech at the International Conference "The Latvian Book and Libraries: 1525-2000", Riga, Latvia, 8-11 November 2000.
Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.
Axel Plathe, UNESCO Communication and Information Sector