Spreading the values…

… of freedom of information, thought and expression globally

I am a librarian from Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada and want to share reflections on an experience that might be of interest to my colleagues in Scandinavia. 

In late 2015, I organized a petition asking the Swedish Parliament to translate into English an edited volume that was recently commissioned. The volume was commissioned to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Sweden’s freedom of the press and access to information legislation. 

Supporters of my petition included 114 librarians, media advocacy groups, lawyers, and university professors from over 30 countries. Why does this book captivate a Canadian librarian and so many others? The answer is that to better understand our own rights, we need historic knowledge about the origins of freedom of information.

Only 33 years

Many Canadians I have talked with assume the United States of America was the first country to have freedom of information legislation. They are surprised to learn that Sweden had it 200 years earlier. Likewise, Canadians do not seem to recognize  how closely access to information is tied to freedom of thought and expression. These misunderstandings should not be too surprising given that Canadians have only had the right for 33 years. This is not much time to develop knowledge about it and weave it into our culture. 

Most of the world is no doubt in a similar position to benefit from knowledge in Swedish and Finnish history. In 1965, only 0.4 percent of the world’s population had a right to access government information. That level has risen to more than 80 percent. Interestingly, 70 percent of the countries that have FOI laws have only had it since 2000.

Historical knowledge important 

Having access to historical knowledge is really important for public debates. Recently, I gave testimony to the committee of the Canadian Parliament that oversees issues of access to information. I was lucky to have access to Anticipating The Wealth of Nations: The Selected Works  of Anders Chydenius (1729-1803) which includes three English translations of reports presented to the Swedish parliament in 1765/66. In my testimony, I quoted one of the reports.

Librarianship rooted in values 

As a librarian, my hope for the translation is more than just about getting a copy of an important book into the hands of readers around the world. For me, this effort reflects a value of freedom of thought and expression that librarians around the world try to manifest in their communities and countries on a daily basis.

Librarianship is rooted in values. As new technologies emerge and older ones fade into the background, the golden threads of continuity are found in our values, such as freedom of information, thought, and expression.

MLIS, PhD Web & User Experience Librarian / Psychology Librarian Laurier Library, Wilfrid Laurier University