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Written by Judith Haydel, published on January 1, 2009 , last updated on May 18, 2024

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The American Library Association (ALA) supports the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and press as they pertain to libraries, librarians, and library patrons. This association poster by Dan Smith in 1918 uses an image of a soldier climbing a bridge of books to a city in the distance to promote the importance of reading and education. (Image via Library Company of Philadelphia on Flickr, public domain)

The American Library Association (ALA) was established in 1876 to support the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and press as they pertain to libraries, librarians and library patrons.

Its mission is to enhance learning and ensure free access to information by providing leadership to librarians and the library community.

With the advent of the digital age in the 1990s, the American Library Association became a leader of promoting digital access and literacy, helping to close the so-called digital divide between those with access and understanding of the internet and those without. 

In 2023, however, the organization became entangled in America’s education culture wars — with conservative politicians targeting the association in debates over what and how to teach children about race, sex and gender.

Established in Philadelphia and now headquartered in Chicago, the American Library Association has promulgated numerous statements and policies articulating its position on intellectual freedom. The Library Bill of Rights affirms the association’s view that libraries are “forums for information and ideas.”

As such, the library association believes librarians should not discriminate in the selection or provision of information based on content; they should not discriminate against patrons in the provision of library materials and services; and they should challenge censorship and cooperate with other organizations to defend First Amendment freedoms. 

The library association’s Freedom to Read Statement recognizes the freedom to read as an essential liberty protected by the U.S. Constitution and asserts that free and open communication is vital to a democratic society.

It considers a library’s job of making available the widest range of material from a variety of viewpoints to be in the public interest. It counsels against preventing access to information because of the background or views of an author.

Library Association has championed First Amendment causes

The library association’s involvement in First Amendment issues includes:

·        Promoting academic freedom

·        Opposing censorship in school libraries

·        Opposing Internet filtering in public and public school libraries, and

·        Protecting the privacy rights of library patrons.

In its Intellectual Freedom Manual, the library association addresses practical issues confronting librarians in applying intellectual freedom principles. Its Freedom to Read Foundation provides legal support to librarians who resist censorship and other challenges to First Amendment rights.

The association co-sponsors the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and Banned Books Week. It also tracks legislation of interest to the library community.

Library Association fought law restricting access to certain material

The library association consistently has challenged numerous laws that it contends infringe on the First Amendment right of free expression. It questioned the provisions of the Communications Decency Act, which led to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997) declaring that provisions of the act designed to protect minors were unconstitutionally overbroad

More recently, the association has opposed congressional efforts that it contends violate the First Amendment rights of library patrons who have a legitimate right to access material that may be inappropriate for or harmful to certain minors.

Some state libraries have severed ties 

Some of the library association’s fights against what it sees as censorship have caused it to be cast by some politicians and parents as a defender of inappropriate literature for children.

In 2023 and 2024, state libraries in Alabama, Montana, Missouri and Texas severed ties with the library association, turning their backs on funding and training provided by the association. Conservative legislators in at least eight more states were urging their state libraries to follow suit and disaffiliate.

Others continued to defend the library association as a key provider of resources for librarians, a trusted authority on efforts to censor books and a champion of citizens’ freedom to read. 

2023 a record year in efforts to remove books from libraries

The association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) is actively involved in providing legal guidance and support to libraries and library professionals in communities, particularly during a recent surge in book challenges.

In 2023, the association’s preliminary annual report showed a record surge of book challenges in school and public libraries.

Through Aug. 31, 2023, it reported 695 attempts to censor library materials and services and documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles — a 20% increase from the same reporting period in 2022, which saw the highest number of book challenges since the library association began compiling the data more than 20 years ago. The majority of challenges were to books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ+ community, or containing references to sexual material that some parents considered inappropriate for children.

Library association defends books featuring gay people

In late 2021, after documenting a dramatic increase in book challenges and removal of books from libraries, the library association’s executive board and the boards of directors for all of its eight divisions released a joint statement regarding attempts to remove materials that focus on gender and sexual orientation and books by Black authors or that document the Black experience or the experiences of other people of color.

“A few organizations have advanced the proposition that the voices of the marginalized have no place on library shelves,” the statement says. “To this end they have launched campaigns demanding the censorship of books and resources that mirror the lives of those who are gay, queer, or transgender, or that tell the stories of persons who are Black, Indigenous or persons of color. 

“Falsely claiming that these works are subversive, immoral, or worse, these groups induce elected and non-elected officials to abandon constitutional principles, ignore the rule of law, and disregard individual rights to promote government censorship of library collections. Some of these groups even resort to intimidation and threats to achieve their ends, targeting the safety and livelihoods of library workers, educators, and board members who have dedicated themselves to public service, to informing our communities, and educating our youth. 

“ALA strongly condemns these acts of censorship and intimidation.”

In another example of support for the library association’s mission, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) and U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) in 2022 introduced the Right to Read Act.  This legislation would help address disparities in access to school library resources and increase federal investment for literacy across America.

Bridging the ‘digital divide’

The American Library Association has long been at the forefront of promoting digital literacy. It defines digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.”

The association collaborates with public libraries on improving understanding of digital tools, with more than 88% of public libraries offering formal or informal digital literacy programming. 

Libraries’ critical role in bridging the broadband connectivity gap became even more apparent when the global COVID-19 pandemic (2020-22) forced work, school and other daily tasks online. As the need for internet connectivity skyrocketed, millions of Americans lost access as the institutions they relied on for connectivity, including library buildings and schools, were closed. 

Throughout 2020 and 2021, as America’s libraries continued to provide essential services amid the public health crisis, economic decline, social unrest and political turmoil, the American Library Association and its network of advocates demonstrated the value of libraries to government policymakers, advocating for COVID-19 emergency relief, annual federal funding for libraries, and support for library broadband and more. 

In March 2021, advocates lobbied Congress to provide $200 million in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the largest single increase in the agency’s 25-year history. Another $178 million, allocated in the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA), went to state library administrative agencies on a population-based formula, with a $2 million state minimum. 

Congress also provided $7.17 billion for libraries and schools to purchase and distribute technology necessary for remote learning, working from home, virtual healthcare visits and more.

Library association opposed FBI’s demand for people’s library records

The association has opposed congressional efforts to protect national security in ways that violate the privacy and First Amendment rights of librarians and library patrons.

For example, it called into question section 2709 of the USA Patriot Act, which allowed the Federal Bureau of Investigation to issue so-called national security letters, which in the case of libraries secretly demand that they turn over patrons’ library records.

The ALA and the Freedom to Read Foundation filed amicus briefs in Doe v. Gonzales (2005), involving a challenge to a national security letter issued to Connecticut librarians.

Although the case was resolved in the librarians’ favor and section 2709 amended, the ALA argues that the provision still poses a threat to First Amendment and privacy rights.

This article was originally published in 2009 and updated on Feb. 16, 2024 by Richard Stevens, a retired newspaper editor and journalist. Dr. Judith Ann Haydel (1945-2007) was a political science professor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and McNeese State University.

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