To get a sense of just how important a public figure Barack Obama remains, even some six years after leaving higher office, consider that Time magazine has included the former US president in its list of the world's most influential people 11 times.
That ties him with Oprah Winfrey and puts him second only to Chinese president Xi Jinping.
When Obama has something to say, people tend to pay attention. So, naturally, when he wrote an open letter to the librarians of America in July, thanking them for their dedication to defending intellectual freedom, it got a lot of coverage.
The free exchange of ideas
In that letter, Obama argued that, "In any democracy, the free exchange of ideas is an important part of making sure that citizens are informed, engaged and feel like their perspectives matter."
The former POTUS noted that librarians are "on the front lines — fighting every day to make the widest possible range of viewpoints, opinions, and ideas available to everyone. Your dedication and professional expertise allow us to freely read and consider information and ideas, and decide for ourselves which ones we agree with."
The value of librarians, Obama wrote, extends far beyond their time-honored role as custodians of books and other library resources:
You also provide spaces where people can come together, share ideas, participate in community programs, and access essential civic and educational resources. Together, you help people become informed and active citizens, capable of making this country what they want it to be.
Access to the full range of knowledge
Obama was directly addressing library professionals in the US, but academic and public librarians around the world are equally committed to the ideal of intellectual freedom.
The Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA), for example, draws on both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Article 19 of the latter document, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, reads as follows:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
In its "Statement on Intellectual Freedom and Libraries", the CFLA affirms the fundamental right of all persons in Canada to "have access to the full range of knowledge, imagination, ideas, and opinion, and to express their thoughts publicly".
A "core responsibility" for the library profession
The same statement also lays out the role of libraries in supporting, defending and promoting the principles of both intellectual freedom and privacy, which the CFLA characterizes as a "core responsibility":
To this end, in accordance with their mandates and professional values and standards, libraries provide, defend and promote equitable access to the widest possible variety of expressive content and resist calls for censorship and the adoption of systems that deny or restrict access to resources.
Libraries have a core responsibility to safeguard and foster free expression and the right to safe and welcoming places and conditions. To this end, libraries make available their public spaces and services to individuals and groups without discrimination.
Knowledge is power
Because knowledge is power, intellectual freedom is essential to a democratic society. As the American Library Association notes, "In a democratic society, individuals must be sufficiently knowledgeable to make informed decisions."
Libraries support this goal by providing their patrons with necessary information through a wide selection of materials from varying points of view, which is why it's essential that library resources remain free to use for all.
Libraries are gateways to thought and culture
The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions' Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom is a great primer on this topic.
In it, IFLA affirms that:
Libraries provide access to information, ideas and works of imagination. They serve as gateways to knowledge, thought and culture.
Libraries provide essential support for lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development for both individuals and groups.
Libraries contribute to the development and maintenance of intellectual freedom and help to safeguard basic democratic values and universal civil rights.
Libraries have a responsibility both to guarantee and to facilitate access to expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity. To this end, libraries shall acquire, preserve and make available the widest variety of materials, reflecting the plurality and diversity of society.
Libraries shall ensure that the selection and availability of library materials and services is governed by professional considerations and not by political, moral and religious views.
Libraries shall acquire, organize and disseminate information freely and oppose any form of censorship.
Libraries shall make materials, facilities and services equally accessible to all users. There shall be no discrimination due to race, creed, gender, age or for any other reason.
Library users shall have the right to personal privacy and anonymity. Librarians and other library staff shall not disclose the identity of users or the materials they use to a third party.
Libraries funded from public sources and to which the public have access shall uphold the principles of intellectual freedom.
Librarians and other employees in such libraries have a duty to uphold those principles.
Librarians and other professional libraries staff shall fulfil their responsibilities both to their employer and to their users. In cases of conflict between those responsibilities, the duty towards the user shall take precedence.
Media literacy is the next step
Providing library users with free access to information is a critical aspect of intellectual freedom, but public, academic and school librarians can take things a step further by offering media-literacy programs designed to help patrons develop critical thinking skills.
Armed with these skills, patrons are better equipped to counter hate speech, become good digital citizens and face the challenges of a changing information landscape — including the rising tide of AI-generated misinformation.
Connecting readers with trusted journalism
Media literacy is essential for intellectual freedom because it gives readers the tools to support strong institutions, hold those in power accountable, and help to reduce inequalities. One key tool to help people improve their media literacy is providing equitable access to accurate, ethically reported journalistic sources.
Engaging with a wide breadth of sources from across the political spectrum allows readers the opportunity to do “lateral reading” and corroborate claims that may seem dubious with additional or alternative sources.
Because the most harmful and isolating ideologies are often born from echo chambers, opening patrons’ eyes to the wide range of thoughts, ideas and perspectives available in journalism that are out there can make a world of difference in the fight for intellectual freedom.
Further reading on intellectual freedom
Eager to learn more about the connection between libraries and intellectual freedom? Here are some good places to start:
The American Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Core Documents, including the First Amendment to the US Constitution and the Library Bill of Rights, along with the ALA's Code of Ethics and Freedom to Read Statement
The Canadian Federation of Library Associations' Statement on Intellectual Freedom and Libraries
The Centre for Free Expression's web portal for Promoting Libraries & Intellectual Freedom