Library Bill of Rights

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The Library Bill of Rights is the American Library Association's statement expressing the rights of library users to intellectual freedom and the expectations the association places on libraries to support those rights. The Association's Council has adopted a number of interpretations of the document applying it to various library policies.

The Library Bill of Rights[edit]

The Library Bill of Rights was adopted by the American Library Association Council on June 19 1939. It was amended in 1944, 1948, 1961, 1967, and 1980. The inclusion of 'age' was reaffirmed in 1996. [1] It reads:

History of the Original Bill[edit]

Originally written by Forrest Spaulding, director of the Des Moines Public Library, in 1938, the Library Bill of Rights was adopted by the American Library Association in 1939, and has been revised several times since. Its original adoption was introduced with the statement, "Today indications in many parts of the world point to growing intolerance, suppression of free speech, and censorship affecting the rights of minorities and individuals," a reference to the emergence of totalitarian states during that time.[1]

History of Revisions[edit]

Cold War Era[edit]

During the Cold War period, the Library Bill of Rights supported opponents of censorship of materials interpreted as communist propaganda. In 1948, the association adopted a major revision of the document, which strengthened it significantly to address the new wave of censorship attempts that marked the beginning of the Second Red Scare, better known as McCarthyism, and was subsequently attacked in newspapers as "leftist," a "red front," and a "Communist organization."[2]

Language Revisions[edit]

A 1967 revision shortened the document and removed rhetorical flourishes, also removing the qualification "of sound factual authority," which it was felt could have been used to justify censorship; also, "age" (along with background, origin, and views) was added to the attributes that should not be a basis for denying access to information.[3] The document was revised again in 1980.

In 1996, the American Library Association reaffirmed the inclusion of age as an attribute that should not be the basis for denying access to information. This occurred after the American Library Trustee Association (ALTA) brought a request for this to the ALA Council.[4]


Shirley Wiegand, professor emeritus of law at Marquette University, asserts that the Library Bill of Rights uses rhetoric disconnected from the legal understanding of "rights." "Bills of Rights", and "rights" themselves, are in this understanding legally enforceable and backed by well-developed arguments. The Library Bill of Rights has no such force or backing, because it is simply a statement of principles. Wiegand argues that the Library Bill of Rights (and the accompanying rhetoric) needs to be supplanted by a code well-grounded in the case law and language of the First Amendment and its accompanying legal principles. Something similar to the Library Bill of Rights could be retained as an accompanying "aspirational creed", such as a revised form of the ALA Code of Ethics, but it would need to provide more practical guidance.[5]

David Woolwine of Hofstra University has criticized the philosophical underpinnings of the Library Bill of Rights, specifically objecting to the use of utilitarianism and "rights discourse" in defense of the principles. The "moral calculus" of the utilitarian argument that free access of information produces the greatest good for the greatest number can also be used to argue in support of restrictions for the purposes of safety and national security. Rights discourse relies on the assertion of rights with minimal referencing, while neglecting detailed argumentation. Woolwine asserts that utilitarianism and rights discourse need to be replaced by a synthesis of modern and post-modern philosophy to coherently and soundly justify the principles of the Library Bill of Rights.[6]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ ALA Bulletin. Vol. 33, No. 11 (October 15, 1939).
  2. ^ Thomison, Dennis (1978). A History of the American Library Association: 1876-1972. Chicago: American Library Association. ISBN 0-8389-0251-0. 
  3. ^ Two Hundred Years of Young Adult Library Information Services History, a Chronology
  4. ^ American Library Association, Office for Intellectual Freedom (2006). Intellectual Freedom Manual, Seventh Edition. Chicago: American Library Association. p. 70. ISBN 0-8389-3561-3. 
  5. ^ Wiegand, S.A. "Reality Bites: The Collision of Rhetoric, Rights, and Reality in the Library Bill of Rights." Library Trends 45, (1), 76-86 (1996).
  6. ^ Woolwine, David E. "Libraries and the Balance of Liberty and Security." Library Philosophy and Practice (E-Journal), Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln (2007).