Shannon M. Oltmann

Steve Thomas: Shannon, welcome to Circulating Ideas. How did you get started in libraries in the first place? What drew you to the field?

Shannon Oltmann: It was in the early 2000s and I was living in Oklahoma. There was a scandal about a children’s book that depicted a prince trying to find his perfect mate, and he rejected princess after princess, but finally one of the princess’s brothers caught his eye. So it was a story of a same-sex marriage, right? And this scandalized Oklahoma legislators who were appalled that such a book would be in Oklahoma public libraries. They wanted to censure the public libraries, they wanted to create special roped off sections in public libraries, withdraw funding from public libraries, go through all these draconian measures. None of those things actually ended up happening, but the outrage that it generated really struck me and I thought, this isn’t what public libraries are about. Public libraries are about ideas and knowledge and open expression and challenging censorship. And I wanted to know more about challenging censorship. I wanted to know more about the fight against censorship. That’s what really drew me to the library field, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was really passionate about those ideas. So I started applying to library and information science schools.

Steve Thomas: So that’s what obviously got you into academic libraries then, because you want it to actually teach about these issues so you can teach other librarians about these issues. So we’re going to talk mostly today about a book you recently wrote called Practicing Intellectual Freedom in Libraries. Can you give a definition of what intellectual freedom is?

Shannon Oltmann: Sure. It’s often seen as an opposition to censorship and that censorship tries to restrict access to information in some way. Intellectual freedom is more about providing access or enabling access. Intellectual freedom is an orientation towards enhancing access to information to the greatest extent possible.

Steve Thomas: And it is often stated as a core value of librarianship, and we’ll get into that a little bit more, cause you go into a little bit deeper in the book later on, but that’s kind of always seen as one of the bedrocks of librarianship.

Shannon Oltmann: Yeah, it is, especially in American and Canadian librarianship and especially since the 1930s, 1940s, I think it’s worth noting that intellectual freedom has not always been a core value of librarianship. There used to be librarians who were very much opposed to fiction, for example, comic books, even recently graphic novels who hated having these things in their collection, actively worked against having these things in their libraries. And I would say those were forms of censorship, but really since the 1930s, 1940s intellectual freedom has been a core value of librarianship and has been really foundational to the way the librarianship has positioned itself to the rest of society and within our culture.

Steve Thomas: What’s funny is a lot of those, you’re talking about the graphic novels and comics. A lot of that is much closer to present day than we’d like to admit. So, I mean, even that’s, since the thirties and forties ALA has been pushing this, but then it’s still up to today people and they may even think. Oh, I, yes, I believe in intellectual freedom, but I don’t want garbage like comic books in the collection.

Shannon Oltmann: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. In fact, there’s a story in Kentucky within the past decade or so of a public library where there was a graphic novel that showed some scantily clad females and a couple of librarians thought it was inappropriate for teens to see. So the librarians, the library staff, they were not technically librarians, they were library aides, they kept checking it out over and over so it was never available to their patrons and they were only found out when a patron put a request in for the book and the library aides deleted that request and then checked it out again, this came to light through the system, caused a great deal of controversy, and eventually they lost their jobs over it. But like I said, that happened within the past decade here in Kentucky where I’m located. So yeah, these debates about intellectual freedom and what belongs in the collection are not historic or just abstract intellectual exercises. They’re very much real and ongoing and current contested debates.

Steve Thomas: And a lot of it is people I think, are not able to make that break between personal and professional, because that’s fine if you’re offended by a comic book that has scantily clad women, you are allowed to be offended by that, but you’re not allowed to push that then on the entire community or on other people’s children. Like, you may not want your children to see that. That’s fine. Don’t show that to your child, but you can’t push that out to the whole local community like that.

Shannon Oltmann: Right. We should always make a distinction between what I want for my kids versus what other people want for their kids or what I want in my own life versus what other people might want in their lives. Just as I might not want you to choose what’s available on all library shelves, you might not want me to choose what’s available on all library shelves. I might not want my uncle to choose what’s available on all like library shelves. One person shouldn’t have total say over what is available for everybody else. That’s giving one person too much power. Rather it should be done systematically. It should be done based on the core values of librarianship, should be done based on collection development policy, and not based on somebody’s ideas of morals or community values or something like that.

Steve Thomas: I do like the idea of how you justified the title, the concept of practicing to improve skills. So you’re practicing intellectual freedom. It’s your practice, but then you’re practicing, like you’re practicing for a sport or practicing for a musical instrument.

Shannon Oltmann: Yeah. None of us are perfect at implementing our principles or implementing our core values, whatever principles we’re discussing. Right? None of us are perfectly honest or perfectly great and implementing intellectual freedom. So we have to practice it. We have to work at it. And that was really the impetus for the title of the book. It’s something that we can get better at. It’s something that we can always work to improve our understanding of and work to improve our implementation of in our libraries and our systems.

Steve Thomas: One of the ways that you mentioned and some of this is just, you’re kind of explaining what ALA has already explained, but like one of the justifications of this is that intellectual freedom is an inherent corollary to the First Amendment.

Shannon Oltmann: Right. Right. So the First Amendment basically says Congress has no authority to abridge our freedom of speech. And most people take that at face value, meaning you can’t limit what I am saying, but if you look at the court cases and the way the Supreme Court has interpreted that, it’s not only about our freedom of speech, what we’re saying, but it’s also about our ability to access information or to receive information. This makes sense when we think about it in a little more detail, because what we’re saying doesn’t have much value if we don’t have the ability to receive information, to take in information, think about it, digest it, and then put forth speech. Right. And this really has implication for libraries because if the ability to access information and to receive information is protected, then libraries have a really special place because libraries are really the quintessential place to access information.

Steve Thomas: Right. And you talk about some of the court cases that back that up, you point out three predominant legal theories about freedom of speech: there’s the marketplace of ideas, democracy, and then individual utility and autonomy.

Shannon Oltmann: This is actually one of my favorite parts of the book. This draws on a paper that I wrote a few years ago. And I actually wrote this paper because I wanted to draw on these ideas for my dissertation and I couldn’t find a good distillation of these ideas anywhere in the literature.

To me, the connection between freedom of speech and libraries was really clear, but I couldn’t find anybody who was articulating it. So I thought, after I get my dissertation and I have a good job at a university, I’m going to write that paper. And so I did, and then I took that paper and I adjusted it, added some more examples, took out some of the more boring language and made it a chapter in the book.

So the marketplace of ideas basically says that we need exposure to and access to as many ideas as possible in order to figure out which are the best ideas and which are the most truthful ideas. And even the ideas that are false or repugnant might help us better understand the truth, better understand the good ideas, and drive us forward in our quest for the best ideas. If we limit the ideas that are available, then we have no way of knowing if we’re limiting something that might actually have valid. So in the marketplace of ideas, we want to have access to as many things as possible, as many ideas as possible in order to pick and choose what is the best and over time, the best ideas, the most valuable ideas will rise to the top, like cream rises to the top.

On the democracy theory, the idea is that an informed public is essential for an effective democracy. And the way you would get an informed public is to have lots of ideas in circulation and not just ideas about what the government is doing, but lots of information about culture, society, arts, science, all of this information feeds into making an informed public and then an informed public can make the best decisions about how the country should be run, who they should elect as representatives, as president. Now we know the public, doesn’t always do a great job at staying informed and making the best decisions. It’s sort of an idealized version, but we can see that if you didn’t give the public a chance to be informed, if you didn’t give them a chance to have access to all this information, then the idea of a democracy would really suffer.

And then the third theory that’s relevant here is individual autonomy or utility, and this theory says that we need to have access to information basically to develop our own autonomy, to be the best versions of ourselves, to be fully human, fully developed intellectually and to embrace who we are. So for this, we need full access to information to basically develop the best versions of ourselves.

I think that sort of perspective holds a lot of appeal for Americans and for Westerners. We really like that sort of rugged individualism. I can see how folks from other sorts of cultures might find that less appealing, but I think it’s really a combination of all of these three theories that together really strengthen the argument for access to information.

One theory on its own may not be sufficient. And in fact, the Supreme court has said this. They use multiple theories at the same time, overlapping, different justices will use different theories. And these all kind of interplay with each other to make the argument that access to information is a key part of the first amendment and a key part of our rights.

Steve Thomas: The right to privacy is also important to intellectual freedom. And that’s another thing that’s sort of just one of those things that is not directly stated in the Constitution, there’s nothing that says you have a right to privacy, but it’s sort of been inferred through court cases, but it’s never really tacked down there.

Shannon Oltmann: The right to privacy is sort of inferred through different court cases and different interpretations of key amendments. But it is super important for the First Amendment. And one way to think about this is to think about a classic example of a fiction writer, a mystery writer who might do an internet search for a hundred different ways to murder someone. Some of those might get very specific and very detailed. Well, somebody who happened upon this writer’s internet search history might get very concerned about the writer’s family members. But that writer needs some sense of privacy in order to protect their right to access information, to search for information, and then to fuel their creativity, to write the next bestseller.

Another way to think about it is to think in terms of thought experiments. So we might wonder what it’s like to live in the woods, off the grid, away from the internet. We can sit in the library, maybe read books about it and speculate about it without having to actually quit our jobs, sell our cars, and go move into the woods for a month, and the library and, our rights to access information can create that freedom, that privacy to speculate, to consider different points of view and to really use information in multiple different ways internally without experiencing repercussions for it.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. And this also comes into play that you talk about where people are trying to, if they disagree with something in their collection, they will put it behind the desk or they’ll put it over in a special section where people had to ask for it. So that’s kind of violating the privacy of people because they have to say to the library staff member, “I would like that book.” They’re having to give up what they’d rather keep secret.

Shannon Oltmann: Right. Right. A classic example of this comes from a small Midwestern library that I knew were very proud of themselves for having a book called the Joy of Gay Sex. Now this is in the late nineties. So it was fairly revolutionary for them to have this book, but they kept it on a book cart down in the basement, and it was listed in the catalog, but it wasn’t out on the shelves anywhere. So to access it, a patron would have to find it in the catalog, go up to the librarian, ask for it, wait for the librarian to go retrieve it, hand it back over, check it out. And all of this created such a barrier that the book was very rarely checked out. And then it was weeded unceremoniously a few years later, because they didn’t see a need for it. Low circulation, exactly. So sometimes we create these barriers to information access that are tantamount to censorship, or that have the same effect. And so we need to be really careful and really thoughtful about what we’re doing with our collections and what we’re doing with books that may cause controversy.

Steve Thomas: Awhile back, ALA published a document of here’s our core values, our 11 core values, and then you kind of go through all 11 of them, one of which is intellectual freedom, and show how they all tie together into intellectual freedom. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Shannon Oltmann: Yeah. To me it’s important to think of these core values as interwoven. I think each of them can stand on their own as an important principle, but I think they’re stronger when you look at them as an interconnected group of principles that serve as the foundation for modern librarianship. So I wanted to show how intellectual freedom is a part of each of the other core values, or each of the core values can be interpreted through an intellectual freedom lens. So for example, preservation is a core value, but you can think about the importance of preserving different points of view, including some points of view that are unpopular that maybe historians maybe the so-called winners of history might want to be quashed, preserving those points of view over time might lead to a broader understanding of history and a bigger reconsideration of the different movements and subcultures that were at play there.

Another core value of librarianship is diversity. Now ALA does not actually define diversity in most of its documents, which I think is okay, because that allows us to have a really broad and evolutionary view of diversity as our understanding of diversity changes, we’re able to be flexible and adapt, so an intellectual freedom lens applied to diversity says let’s have a diversity of voices at the table. Let’s have multiple points of view. Let’s celebrate multiple points of view and let’s not be afraid to invite more voices, more perspectives to the table. People who are really leery of those diverse points of view might end up inadvertently or purposefully censoring, some of those points of view.

So books or other library materials that show multiple perspectives on police violence, for example not all libraries would have resources that show multiple perspectives on police interaction with communities of color. But having multiple perspectives available for one’s patrons allows a diversity of perspectives and is really a true reflection of intellectual freedom.

Steve Thomas: You have a chapter before you get into how these are actionably used in libraries. You talk about some of the things that happen in the daily lives of librarians in a more general sense. So like protecting minors, quote unquote, and filtering the internet, which ties into protecting minors generally, and then how meeting rooms can be used to either support or squash intellectual freedom.

Shannon Oltmann: Yeah. So, meeting rooms can be quite controversial, and I think librarianship as a profession has been struggling with meeting rooms for quite some time. Generally public libraries are the focus for controversies around meeting rooms, but other types of libraries might have to deal with this as well. If a library has a meeting room open to the public, then they really cannot exclude most groups from using that meeting room, even if the library or the library staff disagrees with the content of that groups message. The library may restrict groups that are collecting funds and may restrict groups that are doing political campaigning, but otherwise, those are about the only restrictions that are allowed. Now that’s not allowing for state or local considerations that may need to be taken into account. Where this gets difficult of course, is with groups that may be considered hate groups, offensive groups, groups with really problematic speech, and so, a purely intellectual freedom stance would say that speech, it may be offensive, but it is speech that we need to allow as part of the marketplace of ideas, and there are no legal reasons that we can disallow it. So those groups are admissible into the libraries meeting rooms, just as much as any other groups.

Steve Thomas: That’s come up recently, you know, with the cases of Nazi groups wanting to use it, the KKK wanting to use it. And the most recent stuff has been the women’s rights group that is booking meeting rooms all over the place. They have a fairly anti-trans people message as part of their message. So people want to keep them out because that’s discriminatory against trans people.

Shannon Oltmann: Right. And a very large example of this was in Toronto. This anti-trans speaker in her group has been booking meeting rooms in large public libraries to hold meetings slash rallies that are venues for an anti-trans message. This creates a space that feels very unsafe for trans individuals and their allies and LGBT individuals in general. However, from an intellectual freedom stance, there’s not a compelling reason to disallow these groups. That’s a really uncomfortable place to be. I fully acknowledge that. I don’t think there’s a way around that discomfort. I don’t think there’s a way to do away with that discomfort.

Steve Thomas: It may be it just requires us to accept the fact that intellectual freedom is hard and it is uncomfortable.

Shannon Oltmann: I think that’s exactly where I come down is that sometimes intellectual freedom is a really difficult principle and sometimes it is uncomfortable to put into action. Sometimes it requires us to defend the speech of individuals with whom we disagree, and sometimes it means we allow groups with whom we disagree to use our meeting rooms.

Another example that comes from Kentucky from a few years ago, there was a group of taxpayers who wanted to change the taxing laws in Kentucky which would have a net effect of moving public libraries’ budgets back about 40 years. This group of taxpayers felt that the way Kentucky public libraries had been getting tax payers money was incorrect according to the taxing laws. And so they wanted to readjust the taxing system back about 40 years. This would cause of course, most public libraries to have to close up shop. Going back to a 1970s budget in the early 2000s would be impossible. Where that group met most of the time? In a public library and the public library director told me he let them meet their gladly because they were county citizens, and that was his job to let citizens use the library. Now, after several lawsuits, several court cases appeals all the way to the state Supreme Court, these taxpayers lost their case and we continued on the status quo. It was a pretty contentious time within the Kentucky library world. But that’s yet another example of libraries pursuing the ideal of intellectual freedom at what might’ve been great personal cost. So yeah, sometimes the principle of intellectual freedom is pretty darn difficult.

Steve Thomas: It feels like it draws a pretty clear line of where you can cross and some libraries choose to cross that line. Like for some meeting rooms, they do bar those people from coming. And same with internet filtering. I mean, the line says don’t filter, but there’s lots of libraries that crossed that line. Now that’s partly partially because on the other side of that, as these sweet, sweet federal money saying, come on over here, cross the line. That makes it, that makes it even more difficult.

Shannon Oltmann: You know, I think internet filtering is especially difficult, and I can’t fault libraries that choose to accept that federal funding in order to provide internet access to their communities. That’s a really difficult bargain to make. I don’t think it’s a particularly fair bargain that the federal government is offering, but when libraries are faced with offering a filtered internet or offering no internet, which is essentially the choice that many libraries have, a filtered internet looks a great deal better. Especially in this day and age when internet access seems essential.

Steve Thomas: Which core value are you going to give up?

Shannon Oltmann: Right, right. Access or intellectual freedom. You know, I would like to see some amendments made to the Children’s Internet Protection Act. I’d like to see some research done on internet filtering and its impacts so we had some hard data to see what the impacts are and if it really is limiting access, if it really is impacting people in other ways, we just don’t know very much about internet filtering right now.

Steve Thomas: As you said, the book mostly focuses on public libraries because they’re the ones that are generally encountering these challenges, but can you talk about some of the special challenges that school libraries and academic libraries and even some special libraries have?

Shannon Oltmann: Sure. School libraries are challenged because they operate generally in loco parentis, legally in place of parents. Which means they have additional responsibility for the minors in their care. And this generally means that they have more responsibility to ensure the minors are not coming to harm, which is generally not a responsibility of public librarians actually, at least not a legal responsibility. So school librarians, school media specialists, might view their collection differently. They might view the principles of intellectual freedom differently. I’ve heard from many school librarians that they have an informal policy if Sarah’s parents don’t want her accessing books about magic, they might put a little note in Sarah’s file to that effect. This means that they won’t allow Sarah to check out books about magic, but they still have books on magic like the Harry Potter series in their library. Now this is a way of protecting those parents’ particular views without enforcing those parents’ views on the whole rest of the class. That seems a reasonable compromise to me, slightly uncomfortable, but a reasonable compromise given all the factors that school librarians have to weigh. You know, there are a number of other factors as well. School librarians generally have much smaller budgets and smaller amounts of resources that they can take into account when they’re building their collections and those sorts of things.

Academic librarians in some ways have greater freedom because they’re dealing with students who are almost always adults, but they are beholden to their parent institution, the university or college, which may have limits on intellectual freedom or academic freedom, especially if it’s a religious institution. The academic library often faces really tight budgetary constraints, especially in modern times, and it may feel some implicit pressure to tread carefully in terms of its collection, rather than push the envelope, so as not to draw the ire of administrators.

And then we come to special libraries, which are really unique case, because special libraries are generally under the authority of their parent institution, whether it be a hospital, a law institution, something like that, and generally the authority of its parental institution is pretty significant and it dictates a lot of what the special library is able to do. And often that authority of the parent institution carries significant weight, sometimes more weight than the principles of the American Library Association, including the principle of intellectual freedom. That is sometimes a sacrifice that special librarians have to make within their job duties.

Steve Thomas: So we talked about meeting rooms already, we talked about collection development a little bit there too, but one thing we didn’t talk about yet is materials challenges. And so I think most librarians know what those are, but can you talk a little bit about what those are and what the challenges for librarians are with those?

Shannon Oltmann: Sure, sure. So a materials challenge is when a paid or some individual is concerned about a resource in the library and wants to file a complaint about it. And if they just want to express concern like a verbal concern, I would not consider that a formal challenge, and generally that is where most outrage stops. A parent or some other patron just wants to express verbal concern or frustration that a resource is in the collection. Occasionally, however, an individual does want to take it further and becomes a formal challenge. At this point, usually they will fill out a written form provided by the library. And in the book I provide some examples of what the form should contain, what sorts of questions the form should ask, as well as steps that the library or the library director can take.

Some key points to note are that it’s important to have an iterative process so that if the individual raising the challenge is unhappy, there’s a level of appeal they can go to, be it the director, the library board, something like that. It’s also important to contact the Office for Intellectual Freedom, part of the American Library Association. This office is basically set up to help you deal with materials challenges, and they can provide you resources provide you assistance, whether formal or informal. Some libraries will want a lot of assistance, maybe a quote from the American Library Association in their newspapers. Some libraries will want much less assistance. They won’t want an outside organization coming in. So in that case, the assistance can be informal and just generalized guidance. But at any rate, contacting the Office for Intellectual Freedom can give you some support and guidance through what can be a challenging time.

 It’s also important to utilize your collection development policy and the core values of the American Library Association as your guiding principles when you’re looking at a materials challenge. So let’s say a patron wants to challenge of video in the collection. If you have a collection development policy that describes why videos are collected, some of the criteria for collecting videos, and then you’re able to utilize those guidelines as you evaluate the video and determine whether or not it’s appropriate to keep it in the collection. Having that policy in place basically gives you support and a foundation to say, look, here’s why it’s important that we have X, Y, and Z. So it’s not just your opinion, but you have something solid to lean on and to support your opinion. So having these things in place before a challenge occurs is really useful and really important.

Steve Thomas: I want to wrap up our interview talking about things in the future. You talk about some trends that look like they’re coming up. Can you talk a little bit about some upcoming trends that we’re looking at that are looking to be kind of bigger challenges in the future?

Shannon Oltmann: Yeah, I think I’m one that is really interested in really problematic is the right to be forgotten. This is a big issue in Europe where the courts have established that individuals can request that certain information about their past can be de-linked from search engines. So if individuals have, for example, committed a crime in their youth, and this keeps coming up in search engines when you search for their name, they could request that Google, for example, de-index any information linked to this crime, and then it wouldn’t come up. Now this right to be forgotten is a really big deal in Europe and is part of protecting individuals’ privacy in Europe.

In America, we see things really differently and we see it as violating a right to access information and we think freedom of information is more important than right to privacy and right to be forgotten. And these different rights are really a battle right now, and it’s still undecided to still up in the air. The European courts and Google and YouTube are still battling over which right should be most important. And if Google de-links someone’s past indiscretions throughout all of Europe, is that sufficient or should they have to de-link it globally? That’s still a question that the courts are wrestling with. So that’s just one of the issues that I see having intellectual freedom implications for the future.

Steve Thomas: We can’t affect that here in America necessarily, but you know, the Great Firewall of China that the internet is different in China than it is somewhere else. We’re going to have these little different internets all over the world instead of this global network that was the utopian ideal.

Shannon Oltmann: Yeah, exactly. And Russia is another place where they’re creating a separate internet as we speak, and that could have huge ramifications for the global economy and the global multicultural society that we thought we were creating.

Steve Thomas: This is a difficult thing to work on and it’s going to continue to be a difficult issue for librarians to tackle, but it’s an important one obviously, and I think your book is a good way for people to learn more about the intellectual underpinnings of it and then the practical day to day kind of things. So if people want to learn more about your book or ask you questions about it, how could they get in touch with you?

Shannon Oltmann: Probably the easiest way is to Google “University of Kentucky” and my name’s Shannon Oltmann. You’ll get my profile page at the University of Kentucky with my contact information. You can also find me on Twitter @Oltmannphd, and I’m happy to connect with you in either way. You can find my book on Amazon or through Libraries Unlimited, which is the publisher, and I hope folks find it useful and an interesting read.

Steve Thomas: Thank you so much, Shannon, for talking to me today.

Shannon Oltmann: All right. Thank you.