Editorial: Freedom of speech: MORE than free and equal access to information

As a public institution of enlightenment, the library is in a position to safeguard one of modern democracy’s most important building blocks: Freedom of speech.

Free and equal access to information is one of the library’s most important tasks, apart from the materials collection and the loan of books, periodicals and newspapers, and now the choice of materials has widened to incorporate e-books, audio books and access to computers in the library.

However, the library’s role has changed. Many libraries endeavour to ensure that the citizens reflect on the knowledge they acquire, and provide the opportunity for independent opinion shaping.

Debating skills

As you will see from one of the articles in this issue of SLQ, the head of the Central Library in Copenhagen suggests that the libraries, for example via workshops, offer the citizens the chance to take part in the public debate.

Freedom of speech actually means that all citizens can express exactly what they want, in writing or verbally, publicly. But many people do not have that opportunity, because they have not acquired the competences or the language necessary, neither at home nor at school. This is where the libraries can step in, either in collaboration with primary and secondary schools or associations, or independently.

Source criticism 

In many ways, the internet has challenged the libraries, but also enriched them and given them a lift. However, whereas the libraries are able to keep track of the physical materials they offer, the net overflows with articles, features and debates, to which everybody has access and of which nobody can claim to possess an overview.

This produces a need for learning to practise source criticism; a natural process entailed in the publication of a physical work, which had to be approved by a publisher and an editor, but which is not necessarily exercised when publishing online. Here the libraries can contribute towards the citizens’ reflection on the material they find, physically as well as virtually.

Freedom of expression is “hot”

By reflecting on the material one reads, whether on the net or at the library, you also reflect on the concept of freedom of speech. Source criticism helps you understand, who is saying what and why, which has an impact on the individual citizen’s own forms of expression. Here the libraries can safeguard freedom of speech by helping the citizens, regardless of gender, age, social group and ethnicity, to participate in the public debate. Not just by learning rhetorical devices, but being discriminating in relation to one’s own and other people’s assertions.

Through reflections on freedom of speech and attempting to understand others, the possibility presents itself of entering into a dialogue about difficult subject such as religion and politics. And as an institution of enlightenment in the 21. century, it is most certainly a task where the public library can make its contribution.

Head of Division for Libraries The Danish Agency for Culture and Palaces