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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 119-122-E
Division Number: VI
Professional Group: Management of Library Associations
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 122
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No  

Advocacy for democracy: the role of library associations

William R. Gordon
American Library Association
Chicago, Illinois, USA


Libraries have always played a key role in the development of an information literate populace that can participate as informed citizens in a democratic society. Libraries also uphold and champion intellectual freedom and right to free access to information. The American Library Association supports libraries and contributes to the goals of a democratic society through educational programming, legislation and litigation, and advocacy. The following paper outlines the advocacy activities and initiatives of the ALA and its units, including the Office of Government Relations and Office for Information Technology Policy in Washington, D.C. and the Office for Intellectual Freedom.


Good afternoon. I am Bill Gordon, Executive Director of the American Library Association. I am very pleased to be here with you today to discuss the role that our association plays in advocating for democracy.

Those of us here at this meeting represent many countries and many cultures. We represent libraries of all types and all sizes. Our library users are people of all ages, all religions, and all races. We are a diverse group and we represent and serve even more diverse constituencies.

We would all agree, nevertheless, that what brings us together is more compelling and more important than any seeming differences. We are librarians. Our common language is the language of information. Our common community is the community of library users -- in schools, universities, public libraries and private industry. Our common work is providing access to information, freely and impartially, to all who seek it. Our common history spans centuries and geography, encompassing everything from the great library of Alexandria to a one-room community library/museum in Hope, Alaska that won an ALA award for excellence in building design in 1993. Our common future includes the Internet and e-books, digital information and wired communities, virtual buildings and global information sharing.

Throughout the proud history of our profession, librarians have recognized and championed the power of the printed word in a free and open society. There is no right more fundamental to a democracy than the right of all citizens to information. There is no greater danger to a free society than the loss of freedom that occurs when access to information is restricted. In the turbulent history of recent generations we have seen books burned by those who would deny citizens the right to read. We have seen newspapers and other media censored by those who would deny citizens the right to know. We face constant challenges from those who would take books off the shelves of our schools and public libraries because the content is seen to be too sexual, too violent, too right-wing or too left-wing, too religious or too dangerous to religion, to be "safe" for our users. We continue to confront the few who would impose their viewpoints on the many.

We also face challenges as associations from those who would advance their own agendas by misrepresenting our roles and our missions. ALA has been attacked by organizations and individuals who charge that we are sexualizing America's children by exposing them to pornography on the Internet. There are groups that have used their platforms to espouse their points of view and discredit the ALA position on free speech and access to information.

How are we as librarians and association managers to respond? How do we advocate for democracy, for libraries, and for ourselves?

We begin by keeping in mind the importance of associations as advocates for democracy. We provide a forum and a vehicle that allows the voice of librarians to be heard. We create a framework that enables libraries and librarians to increase their effectiveness in empowering the public to participate in a democratic society. We speak out on behalf of our members to promote the free flow of information for all people.

At the American Library Association, our tools are education, legislation and litigation, and advocacy. I'd like to tell you about some of our initiatives in each of these areas.

We educate our members through programming at national and regional conferences, through our publications, and through special initiatives of the association and our member leaders.

Advocacy for democracy will receive particular focus at ALA this year. Our current President, Nancy Kranich, has chosen "Libraries: The Cornerstone of Democracy" as the theme for her presidential year. She has stated that "An informed public constitutes the very foundation of a democracy. Libraries are the cornerstone of democracy in our communities because they assist the public in locating a diversity of resources and in developing the information literacy skills necessary to become responsible, informed citizens who can participate in our democracy." One of Nancy's first initiatives as president was the creation of a tool kit outlining ways that libraries can serve as a resource in the electoral process. The kit is being distributed to all of ALA's 59,500 members in the August issue of our magazine American Libraries. It is available to you on the ALA web site. If you would like a copy mailed to you, please contact ALA's Public Information Office or give me your business card at the conclusion of this meeting.

ALA also extends its educational efforts beyond our membership to the public at large. Our Public Information Office works with regional and national media to disseminate our message and highlight the positive impact of libraries in American communities. We are embarking on a major 5-year public awareness campaign as part of our current strategic plan, ALAction 2005. In this plan, we establish ALA as the leading advocate for the value of libraries and librarians in connecting people to recorded knowledge in all forms, and for the public's right to a free and open information society. Democratic values and ideals shape the programs goals, which include increasing support for libraries and librarians by communicating clearly and strongly why libraries and librarians are unique and valuable; serving as the leading voice for equitable access to knowledge and information resources in all formats for all people; becoming a leader in the use of technology for communication with, democratic participation by, and for shared learning among our members; and becoming a leader in continuing education for librarians and library personnel.

One component of ALA's educational mission of which I am particularly proud is ALA's Spectrum Initiative. ALA recognized the need to recruit a diverse professional workforce that is reflective of the communities we serve. In 1997 we announced a three-year program to recruit applicants and award fifty annual scholarships of $5,000 each to students of color to enroll in graduate programs in library and information studies. The success of the Initiative has led to its continuation for a fourth year and a recent commitment by the ALA Executive Board to donate $1 million to an endowment to continue the scholarships into the future. We see this as an investment in libraries, in our communities, and in democracy.

One of the most fundamental components of a democratic society is the legislative process. ALA has become increasingly aware of the impact of legislation on libraries and the public's right to know, as our state and federal governments consider issues ranging from funding to privacy, pornography and Internet filtering. Our Washington, D.C. office, which was established in 1945, has been strengthened to include an Office of Government Relations and an Office for Information Technology Policy. Together they closely monitor and analyze proposed legislation affecting libraries and information, and they promote the best interests of libraries, library users, and the public at large in a broad and complex range of legislation, regulatory and public policy issues.

The Washington Office also sponsors two events which are directly tied to our democratic process. The first is Library Legislative Day. Each year in May hundreds of librarians and library supporters from all fifty states come to Washington, D.C. They are briefed on current legislative issues and then they fan out to speak with their Senators and Congressional representatives about the crucial importance of libraries. The 27th annual National Library Legislative Day will be held on April 30-May 1, 2001. This year we also sponsored a new initiative, Thank You Day, a nationwide event during National Library Week which was created to provide an opportunity for librarians to invite legislators and the press into local libraries to observe library programs and hear success stories made possible through the support of elected officials.

In addition to legislative efforts, ALA when necessary participates in litigation - action undertaken in the courts - in support of libraries. The most compelling example in recent years was ALA's role as lead plaintiff in the Communications Decency Act litigation that was heard by the United States Supreme Court in 1997. The CDA legislation was proposed by the U.S. government with the stated goal of removing indecent material from the Internet. The ALA, along with 43 other organizations including the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers and the Freedom to Read Foundation, successfully opposed the legislation as being too vague and putting libraries at risk.

Finally, ALA supports democracy through the efforts of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, founded in 1967. The OIF performs its role as an advocate for the public's right to information in a variety of ways. The office monitors challenges to library materials and provides support and assistance to librarians as requested. The OIF has a vigorous publications program whose products include the monthly Intellectual Freedom Action News and the bimonthly Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom. It educates members through programming at conferences and meetings. It also provides special training opportunities, such as the Lawyers for Libraries training institute which is designed to equip attorneys to counsel and defend libraries, librarians and library trustees. Each September the OIF cosponsors Banned Books Week to highlight library materials that have been challenged during the preceding year. The message of Banned Books Week, and of all the activities of the OIF, is that we must uphold the freedom of citizens in a democratic society to choose, to read, and to publish, and that we must ensure the availability of unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish access to them.

I appreciate this opportunity to highlight the many ways in which the American Library Association advocates for democracy. In closing, I'd like to read a short passage from an article entitled "Of the People, for the People: Public Libraries Serve Democracy" that appeared in the April 2000 issue of American Libraries. In this article, the author, David A. Tyckoson, notes that: Franklin Delano Roosevelt best articulated the role of the library in a democratic society. During the darkest days of World War II, when the future of democracy was very much in question, he told the nation: "Libraries are directly and immediately involved in the conflict which divides our world, and for two reasons. First, because they are essential to the functioning of a democratic society. Second, because the contemporary conflict touches the integrity of scholarship, the freedom of the mind, and even the survival of culture, and libraries are the great tools of scholarship, the great repositories of culture, and the great symbols of the freedom of the mind."

Thank you.


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