Keeping the Flame Alive: 50th Anniversary of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom

Established in 1967, the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) is fifty years old in 2017. Although you may imagine a large suite of offices with a big staff, that is not the case. OIF is manned by five dedicated individuals who work in cramped offices in ALA’s headquarters in Chicago. The current staff consists of James LaRue, executive director; Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director; Kristin Pekoll, assistant director; Eleanor (Ellie) Diaz, program officer; and Kim Diehnhelt, acting program officer (ALA, OIF Staff). All are committed to preserving free access to libraries and library materials, and they help ALA members and non-members alike with intellectual freedom-related issues. Contact information for OIF staff is found here.

Over fifty years, the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) has had only three executive directors. The first was Judith Krug, a legendary name synonymous with courage and anti-censorship efforts to protect the right to read and access information, especially for children and young adults. The history of OIF is forever linked to Judith Krug who shaped the mission it pursues today. Following Krug’s death in April 2009, Barbara Jones served as executive director of OIF until she retired in December 2015. Barbara was an effective spokesperson for the right to read and described OIF successes and her concerns for school libraries in an exit interview. In January 2016, James LaRue became its third and current executive director of OIF.

The Office for Intellectual Freedom is a proactive advocacy hub within ALA and has two new initiatives: Our Voices and ALA Bootcamp.

  • Our Voices: According to Jamie LaRue, the Our Voices venture grew out of a realization that “There are deep demographic changes in America. As of 2014, over half of American children under the age of five were non-white. Yet roughly 10% of mainstream publishing content reflects that [change].” Our Voices is “a joint effort with the ALA Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach and is the attempt to connect libraries’ need for more diverse content and the explosion of small, independent, and self-published content. In general, the idea is to reach out to local authors, assist them in the creation of local, diverse, quality content, and then forge a distribution path to American libraries. At Annual Conference in Chicago in 2017, we intend to present a template based on our experiments in Chicago” (LaRue). Follow the project at ourvoiceschicago.ala.org/.
  • Advocacy Bootcamp: In describing this initiative, LaRue stated, “A generation of IF leadership is retiring. Through ALA’s Advocacy Bootcamp, OIF has teamed up with the ALA Office for Library Advocacy to present pre-conferences at chapters around the country. Our intent is to promote a new, more community-centered approach to advocacy, and one in which the value of intellectual freedom is seen as a defining characteristic of our expertise” (LaRue).

Although Jamie LaRue does not possess a crystal ball, he shared thoughts about the hurdles OIF (and intellectual freedom as a core value) face for 2017 and beyond.

  • Challenges to library resources: Jamie sees the traditional challenges of individuals and groups trying to remove books from libraries continuing, but the efforts have moved to schools and materials used in the curriculum. He attributes this change to “a continuing over-protectiveness by parents. We’ve gone from the latchkey child’s absent parent to the helicopter parent, and now, as some have said, the Velcro parent. The issue can be framed in two ways: parental fear, and the desire to maintain their children’s innocence; or a full attack on the minor’s First Amendment rights” (LaRue ).
  • Surveillance and Privacy: Jamie sees privacy as an increasingly citical issue. “The rise of the surveillance state continues, increasingly indivisible from the private sector. Everything we do is now part of big data. Librarians need to continue to advocate for privacy. The work of the [ALA] Privacy Subcommittee will be very important” (LaRue).
  • Free Speech: “As the presidential election illuminated, we are a fractious nation,” LaRue noted seriously. “There is free speech, but that may also encompass false news and hate speech. OIF is now tracking reports of hate crimes at libraries. There is also meaningful, respectful, and accurate speech – at least, sometimes there is. Libraries are trusted providers of information and places where civil and civic discourse occurs. There may be a growing divide in the perception of intellectual freedom and the perception of social justice” (LaRue).

Following the fifty-year tradition, OIF staff continues to provide resources critical to all librarians, although most are now online.

  • Check out the Office for Intellectual Freedom website with its links to OIF initiatives such as Banned Books Week and Choose Privacy Week, as well as substantial information about intellectual freedom-related topics.
  • Subscribe to the biweekly Intellectual Freedom News, a compilation of media reports on challenges, privacy, filtering, copyright, Net Neutrality, and other issues. Read a sample of the IF News and keep up to date on what is happening around the country.
  • Intellectual Freedom eLearning webinars are offered free or for a modest fee. Following a live presentation, they are archived for on-demand viewing. The next webinar, “Your Guide to Reporting Censorship,” will occur January 12, 2017, and is free. It will introduce the new streamlined online form for reporting challenges, which is critical to the work of OIF.
  • The OIF Blog provides the latest intellectual freedom information. Subscribe to the blog to receive notifications when there is a new post.

As we begin 2017, celebrate the fifty-year history of struggles and victories of the Office for Intellectual Freedom.  Looking to the future, consider what YOU can do to keep the flame of intellectual freedom alive.

References

American Library Association. Office for Intellectual Freedom. “Staff.” http://www.ala.org/offices/oif (accessed December 25, 2016).

LaRue, Jamie, email to author December 7, 2016.

Images:

American Library Association. Office of Intellectual Freedom. Logo of the Office for Intellectual Freedom. Used with permission from the Office for Intellectual Freedom.

John, Samuel. “Little Candles.” February 28, 2010. Used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License. https://www.flickr.com/photos/samueljohn/4443330207/sizes/l

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Author: Helen Adams

A former school librarian in Wisconsin, Helen Adams is an online instructor for Antioch University-Seattle in the areas of intellectual freedom, privacy, and copyright. A member of the AASL Knowledge Quest Advisory Board, the ALA Nominating Committee, chair of the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee, and a KQ blogger, she is the author of Protecting Intellectual Freedom and Privacy in Your School Library (Libraries Unlimited, 2013). Email: hadams1@centurytel.net.



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