Library wars and the fight for intellectual freedom

As a librarian, I am constantly amused and often surprised by the way the profession is portrayed in fiction, film and TV. On a recent trip overseas, as I was flicking through the selection of in-flight movies available, the following title caught my eye: Library Wars. The movie was set in a dystopian, futuristic Japan and revolved around a war between two paramilitary organisations, one intent on censorship, the other defending freedom of information.

Guess which group comprised the defenders? I may very well have found my B-grade movie bliss.

Setting aside my eclectic movie tastes, no matter what the movie, I often find a nugget of gold, an unrefined gem to extract and examine in a wider context. With Library Wars, I didn’t have to look too far.

Based on a book series, this story was inspired by the Statement on Intellectual Freedom in Libraries of the Japan Library Association, a policy document that actually exists. At the heart of this document is the belief that people have the right to know, that knowledge is a fundamental human right.

Knowledge is captured and stored in a number of formats evolving from the scrolls held by the Library of Alexandria to the digital formats so prevalent today. Books are still one of the most enduring formats, but technology advances are creating innovative ways for capture, preservation, and distribution of knowledge. Libraries are naturally suited as repositories for these resources, not only because they have the space and expertise to manage it, but because they are inherently set up to facilitate access to information. Your library card gives you access to a wealth of treasures. Freedom of information in practice.

Those who place themselves in power, and strive to remain there, know that the widespread availability of knowledge and information presents a danger to their ambitions because an informed person is one who is able to challenge their authority.  Libraries are part of a wider ecosystem of knowledge and so books and libraries are often targeted for “sanctioned” destruction by despots and tyrants. After all, what the powerful are trying to do is systematically dismantle the existing body of knowledge with the express intention of replacing it with what they deem to be “knowledge” and “truth”.

Indigenous cultures understand this loss all too well. Indigenous knowledge systems developed in ways that are culturally appropriate for their communities, ingesting, storing, and transmitting knowledge through artefacts, cultural practices and oral traditions, as well as many other sources of knowledge.

For Māori, our repositories are our whare whakairo, our whakapapa, the wisdom in the minds of our kaumātua. The knowledge is inherent with the individual, with the community, infused with a life essence of the creators and custodians. Although less explicit than their written counterpart, these forms of tacit knowledge are no less authentic then the tangible technologies used today. The right to know through our particular indigenous lens was systematically dismantled and replaced by colonisation.

The struggle to prevent this is ongoing. The wars libraries fight today are wars that are fought by any cultural body wanting to maintain the right to know for their communities. Too often libraries are seen as just books. However libraries hold books, dvds, electronic databases, e-books. But it is not the resources that provide the value but the knowledge within, knowledge that lies dormant until it is leveraged and maximised by the community, and it is the librarian who facilitates this access.

I like to think my role as a librarian is fighting for the right of the community I serve, fighting for their right to know. Who better than a librarian to take on the role of defender of the freedom of information?

Japan Library Association’s  Statement of Intellectual Freedom in Libraries can be found on their webpage.

The Library Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA), has a similar document: Statement on Intellectual Freedom, currently under review.


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