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Staff Picks: Intellectual Freedom Stories from a Shifting Landscape

As I was fixing up a summary of the latest library challenge in  Wyoming in Hungarian for KIT, a weekly newsletter on libraries, information, and society, it dawned on me how a picture of the threatened transgender magician can tell a thousand words.

The issue, which points beyond the walls of the libraries, again, reminded me of the importance of storytelling for advocacy. A recently published volume, Intellectual Freedom Stories from a Shifting Landscape collected exactly these types of narratives from librarians and advocates for intellectual freedom in libraries.

Additionally, books with Rutgers-related content are often highlighted in Books We Read blog posts, such as cozy mysteries by Douglass alumna, Janet Evanovich, and various other authors from New Jersey. Summer reading, fun times!

This book is different. Intellectual Freedom Stories from a Shifting Landscape has a memorable, albeit appalling reference to Rutgers, and as educators, we shouldn’t miss the teaching moment.

Cover artThe table of contents illustrates the breadth and depth of coverage spanning school libraries and academia. Topics mean no surprise to those of us working in libraries. One may add that it has been rather difficult to ignore most of them, unless someone spent the past few years in hibernation. National and international movements, such as Black Lives Matter or #MeToo, play a significant role in any community. Political extremism and racism in their diverse manifestations will continue to rear their ugly heads in libraries, too.

  • Black Lives Matter Die-In: Library Space as an Intellectual Freedom Issue
  • Exposing a Community: Drag Queen Storytime in Rural America
  • “Bullshit Hatred from Cover to Cover”: Islamophobia in The Age of Trump
  • “Just Get Rid of Them”: American Indian Children’s Literature in the Tribal College Library
  • Did We Just Normalize Extreme Views and Make the Library an Unsafe Place?

Do these titles sound a bit editorializing? No doubt. If only we didn’t need them at all. But we do. One story from the book can represent the phenomenon. Two stories already indicate a pattern. Any of the stories will call attention to them all. All of them talk about the same: intellectual freedom.

The Rutgers story goes back to 2016, when artwork displayed in the exhibition area in the Art Library, called Rutgers University Art Library Exhibition Spaces (RALES), was challenged by a patron and the case was handled, so to say, way below ALA standards. The space was specifically created to provide an opportunity to Rutgers affiliates to exhibit their work, with no expectation of censorship on behalf of Rutgers Libraries or the university.

How did this case put Rutgers on the map of ugly censorship cases? How did the artwork’s withdrawal make national news? How did the libraries and the university react to nasty emails and phone calls, including a threat to burn down the Art Library? How do we, who are still at Rutgers, remember it? How do we talk about it in 2021? Are we talking about it?


Art Library, Rutgers University

Read The Vitruvian Man and a Threat to Burn Down the Art Library by Megan Lotts in Part 1, chapter 2 of Intellectual Freedom Stories from a Shifting Landscape. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable it can be for the librarian to talk about it. There’s only one thing more uncomfortable: live through it, with no support. Rutgers students stepped up to protest, colleagues ensured the librarian of their support, and the whole thing blew over, as it often does. Until the next case.

What can we do better?

Even though a book or artwork kick us out of our comfort zone in the library, librarians are used to being challenged and are prepared to defend intellectual freedom as a principle. But librarians also need timely and effective support from administration to do that. Libraries need clear guidelines and well-documented protocols that are flexible and translatable for cases yet to come. Rules we create and follow are there for a reason.

What we learned from the Rutgers case carries over the entire book: the library must plan for challenges, more than ever. Committed to intellectual freedom, we at Books We Read often voice our opinions on banning books in anticipation of the next case, whether in our own library or outside the country.

Sharing these stories collected in an entire volume, rather than just one by one on ephemeral social media platforms, not only sends a message of a united stance for diversity, equity, and inclusion, but also helps librarians and the public understand that no one is an island, no one should fight alone, and the ALA is also there to help. The Office for Intellectual Freedom offers support and guidelines based on ALA standards.

Educating our communities about issues related to the freedom of speech has never been more important than today.

Art Librarian Megan Lotts with her installation in the Rutgers Art Library during the pandemic: a collaboration between The Rutgers, School of Public Health, Windows for Understanding, and The Rutgers University Libraries.