An ethical dilemma

When formulating declarations of intent the libraries usually write about their very important task of providing the citizens with free access to information in a democratic society. To actually put such an objective into practice often turns out to be rather difficult. One comes up against many complications and problems of drawing the lines. The libraries are for example having to face a market whose objectives are very different from their own. And to what extent should public demand govern what is being offered? Does the socio-economic composition of the library patrons dictate this? Free access to all the net resources is also a problem, both in terms of the children’s and the adults’ usage. And librarians themselves – just how impartial are we?

Sweden is currently in the process of drawing up library plans and policies. The reason being that the new Library Act requires the municipal authorities to establish precise guidelines for their various library activities, their range, aims and directions. As a point of departure, various international and national guideline documents are used. UNESCO’s Public Library Manifesto and IFLA’s Declaration on Libraries Information Services and Intellectual Freedom are some of the documents that will be referred to throughout this text.

The animated discussion over the past years within the Swedish library community about its primary functions and aims – to provide the citizens of a democratic society with free access to information – is supported by these documents. IFLA’s Declaration on Libraries, Information Services and Intellectual Freedom affirms that libraries “are committed to offering their clients access to relevant resources and services without restriction and to opposing any form of censorship” and furthermore: “The selection and availability of library materials and services shall be governed by professional considerations and not by political, moral and religious views.” To live up to these goals, to reshape and concretise them on a level of functional ability is not an easy task. Stumbling blocks of an ethical and practical nature are hindrances on the way and need to be dealt with. I would like to raise some of the problems and issues that confront us in our daily work.

However, before I begin, I would like to tell you about a short and intense debate that took place during the autumn in the columns of our largest daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter. The debate was initiated by a few political economists with right-wing affiliations. The thesis they presented was that library shelves were caving in with literature of socialist tendencies. The writers of the articles had made their own survey, based on approximately 20 titles chosen at random from a number of public libraries, within the areas of public debate and political economy.

They noted a predominance of leftwing literature (meaning literature critical of economic liberalism). The question raised was whether this was a systematic process of selection based on political grounds, contrary to the standards of impartiality that libraries claim to represent when selecting information and media. No doubt there was a grain of truth in this thesis. Nevertheless, ignorance and a lack of understanding for the prerequisites required and therefore also the problems that libraries are confronted with on a daily basis were made quite evident.

The market
Let’s get one thing straight – libraries are limited by a market and what it has to offer: A book that has not been written cannot be purchased either. A closer look at the authors of books published in Sweden containing social political content confirms, in a fairly obvious manner, that left-wing books are often written by journalists and those concerned with social issues and who address a wider readership. On the other hand, literature labelled rightwing is often written by researchers, for other researchers, using their own technical jargon which seldom is in a language recognised by a majority of the populace. The greater availability of the ‘leftist books’ can also be traced to greater exposure in the media, via newspapers and TV, which in turn accelerates demand and in the long run means an increased rate of publication.

Of course, publishers have different sets of goals from those of libraries. They do not feel a sense of responsibility to promote diversity and allow for airings of differing opinions. In Sweden Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men, not least because of his film, attracted massive attention from the media. At my library the queues for this book were impressively long. And this in turn has led us to purchase more copies of this title than of its equivalent, written from a politically conservative point of view.

Whether a book appeals to a chosen few or the general public is often crucial in the rate of demand at a library, and therefore a decisive factor in a library’s purchasing policy, especially with regard to how many copies are purchased. In the continually ongoing dialogue between librarians and library users, wishes and needs are catered for. In all-embracing steering documents issued by the local authorities one encounters demands to pay attention to what the local taxpayer’s needs are, rather than declarations about the library’s place in society as a pillar of democracy and freedom of information. This takes us to another question at issue. To what extent should demand be allowed to steer what a library has to offer? And, is there a contradiction between satisfying demand and the stated goal of offering access to information free of charge?

If libraries had unlimited access to resources there would hardly be any problems to speak of, but as we all know, this is hardly the case. Libraries walk a knife’s edge when selecting, listening to the needs of users and catering to the prescribed goals of promoting multiplicity and intellectual freedom. How to achieve this balancing act is anyone’s guess. It is however crucially important to keep this discussion alive in libraries and among librarians. Libraries should and can use their own initiative to highlight sought-after alternative literature and information.

A survey on Swedish public libraries done some years ago, suggested the following reasons for certain material not being on the purchase list:

  • too exclusive
  • of low quality
  • glorifying violence
  • violation of human rights.

These restrictions are however easy to abide by when supported by the above IFLA paragraph that criterion of selection “shall be governed by professional considerations”.

In my local borough, Solna, it is estimated that approximately 69% of the local inhabitants use the library and the services it offers. A very large category is that of students in varying age categories and on different academic levels. Another major user group is that of pensioners and those who are free during the day, and at weekends families with children make their presence felt.We know this through the customer surveys that are carried out on a regular basis. Referring to the debate in Dagens Nyheter, these groups will often ask for literature on social studies written from a left-wing point of view, rather than literature extolling the virtues of liberal economic theories and open markets. Such a priority among the users reflects to a large degree its socio-economic constitution. A group of interest, but severely underrepresented, are men from the private sector with extensive educational merits and in the midst of career-building, and who we know from experience are politically more right-wing. This group is more likely to buy their own literature and get the information they feel is necessary from other sources. Perhaps a more balanced blend of library users would enable libraries to maintain an even more versatile choice of media?

The Internet
The frequent use of the Internet at Swedish libraries brings questions of democracy and freedom of speech to a head. To allow the public free access to web resources has to be a fundamental principle. However, this principle is constantly being chipped away at and often for good reasons. Fewer and fewer Swedish libraries activate filters for the Internet, nevertheless a large number of them have written guidelines for the users as to how the Internet should be used, often referring to ethical reasons. Such a reason can well be the mutual responsibility we adults have when instructing children. And very often children’s curiosity collides with the carrying out of this responsibility. This in turn can lead us to restrict our children’s right to information.

Those who do the job
It is after all human beings, in this case the librarians, who perform the selective process in a library as to what should be available to a region’s inhabitants. It is not an act executed in a neutral vacuum. Librarians have differing values and degrees of knowledge, even though their professionalism and ability is expected to keep aside personal preferences in a selection process. In relation to the aim of offering information without charge it becomes especially important to keep personal judgements aside and allow for the overall aims stated by the library to take precedence. However, even this holds ethical dilemmas and is a challenge to be met. Public librarians, despite their relatively lengthy education, are seen as low-wage earners. Add to this the fact that most of them are women employed by a local authority, and surveys show that such prerequisites tend to, from a political perspective, generate left-wing leanings. The homogeneity is further underlined by a similar education with the emphasis on the humanities and social studies. Even within such prerequisites one can discern a contradiction: that, in so many respects, a homogeneous and uniform profession has the common assignment of aiming for pluralism and variety.

On a final note – is this not a wonderfully exciting challenge for all of us involved in librarianship: to keep all these, at times lofty, goals alive in our daily work in all its complexity and problems of demarcation. To continually remind ourselves that we are part of an ongoing process concerned with fundamental issues of freedom and human rights.

Translated by Jonathan Pearman

director, Public Library, Solna.