Al Kagan, letter to IFLA Journal on Freedom of the Press, Social Responsibility and the Danish Cartoons

From Al Kagan:

One of my colleagues here has encouraged me to distribute this letter more widely, so here it is. It appears in the latest issue of the IFLA Journal 33, 1 (2007): 5-6.

Letter to the Editor

Freedom of the Press, Social Responsibility and the Danish Cartoons

I would like to comment on the IFLA FAIFE program concerning the Danish cartoons and the recent follow-up article in the IFLA Journal.1 The program and article are a welcome and timely overview of the theoretical issues, history, and legal framework regarding freedom of expression and free access to information. They help us understand our role as librarians in a general way when confronted with tricky collection development and access issues. They do not, however, delve into the even thornier issues of social responsibility around the context of this particular case.

Library science students are usually taught and our literature is full of the misconception that our work should be “neutral.” This usually means that we must treat all library users equally, take care to balance our collections with materials on all points-of-view, and refrain from taking social and political stands. Advocates of progressive and explicitly socially responsible library organizations2 generally debunk this myth of neutrality. They argue that while we should of course treat all library users with equal respect, we often fail in balancing our collections and our actions are certainly not neutral. These advocates note that library collections often pay little attention to alternative viewpoints outside the mainstream discourse and that we often self-censor ourselves when considering the purchase of materials that may offend some library users for whatever reasons. Even so, many librarians who self-censor themselves will probably agree with the theory even if they find it difficult or impossible to carry it out.

However the point of real controversy is often the idea that librarians and their associations must remain politically neutral. But even a glance at what we do disproves this assertion. We regularly oppose censorship and support freedom of expression. We advocate for empowering our library users through access to information, provide literacy training, sponsor interesting programs and exhibits on controversial issues, advocate privacy for our users, and even challenge national security legislation like the USA PATRIOT Act. In all of these areas we advance our social responsibility agenda.

Coming back to the Danish cartoons, one should ask why they were published at this time, what the publisher hoped to gain, and why there was such a strong reaction. The answers to these questions are political. The Middle East is in flames because the current U.S. Administration is crusading to remake those countries into nominally democratic client states while grabbing control of the oil. Given that the US Government has overthrown the secular government of Iraq, the religious extremists have filled a power vacuum. All Muslims have been demonized in the West for the brutal actions of the groups that have used horrific tactics against the US Occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. The backlash against the large number of immigrant Muslim workers in Europe is part of this picture. The Danish newspaper that published these cartoons has been drawn into this nightmare political situation. Whether or not the editors of Jyllands Posten understood the likely reaction to their publication of the cartoons, the seeds of this reaction were firmly in place.

We need to address the collection development and access issues around this affair, but we also need to reflect on what else we might do as actors in civil society. The American Library Association Council has passed resolutions to lobby against torture and for withdrawing troops from Iraq. If we take our social responsibility seriously, we must act in civil society to try to counter the situations that give rise to events such as the Danish cartoons affair. Our commitment to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has little meaning for the people who have been killed, maimed, or exiled by the US war against Iraq. I would like to challenge IFLA to follow ALA in taking a stand. Furthermore other national library associations can act in the same way as ALA to lobby for peace in their respective countries. The UK is the United States’ junior partner in the occupation of Iraq. It would therefore be most appropriate and helpful for CILIP3 to get involved.

The access and collection issues around the Danish cartoons are only part of the story. We need to lobby for peace as the basic foundation for all the rest of our work.

Al Kagan
ALA Councilor representing the ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table

  1. See the description of the FAIFE debate in the conference program, and Paul Sturges, “Limits to Freedom of Expression? Considerations Arising from the Danish Cartoons Affair,” IFLA Journal 32 (3): 181-188.
  2. For example, the ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table, Progressive Librarians Guild (US), Information for Social Change (UK), Arbeitskreis Kritischer Bibliothekarinnen und Bibliothekare (Germany), Arbeitskreis Kritischer Bibliothekarinnen und Bibliothekare im Renner-Institut (Austria), Bibliotek i Samh?ɬ§lle (Sweden).
  3. Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (UK)