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Libraries and freedom of information

Freedom of Information, Journalism and Libraries
1 Introduction
2 The principle of freedom of information
3 The legislative practice of freedom of information
4 Libraries and freedom of information
5 Journalism
6 Ethical difficulties of journalists
7 Conclusion
* References
tulosta Printable version
Libraries, except where they might be a repository of official information in a public authority, and this is not the case with many public and other libraries, do not tend to have a formal role in the structures of freedom of information law. The exceptions to this may be some government and official libraries where a broad concept of information management, or knowledge management, has removed the boundaries between internal documentation, subject to freedom of information law, and externally acquired publications, the content of the library.

Members of the library profession in Britain have certainly been recruited to manage the information resources of public authorities prior to the full application of the law in 2005. The expertise of librarians is highly relevant and distinctly different from that of the professional archivists and records managers who have also been given professional opportunities by freedom of information law. Whilst the library profession might argue on this basis that they should be the ones to handle formal freedom of information in their employing authorities, this is nevertheless not generally the case.

What is more generally true is that the ethical commitment of library and information professionals to the broader concept of freedom of information obliges them to promote and facilitate the legal right in any way available to them. For libraries, we can identify four levels of freedom of information-related ideas and activity. These are:
  • A formal commitment to the fundamental principles of Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Access to Information, which can be expressed in publicly available documents from professional associations.
  • A continuing commitment from librarians and their professional associations to campaign for these principles and against restrictions on Freedom of Information, nationally and globally.
  • Work on encouraging the development of facilities and processes in libraries to support formal channels for Freedom of Information, as expressed in legislation, for example, the UK Freedom of Information Act 2000.
  • Work to eliminate attitudes and procedures in libraries that might hinder the citizen’s use of the library to obtain full Freedom of Access to Information.
The first two are ethical commitments for the whole profession, relating to the principle of freedom of information, but the third and fourth involve individual librarians setting out to make the principle real in their own institutions, in relation to the legislative definition as much as the general principle. The most obvious aspect arises from the third point, and librarians can, and should be, a key point of access into the formal freedom of information process through the documentation they collect and organise within their ‘public authority’. In strong freedom of information regimes, libraries will be able to stock and make available any document, with full official cooperation and without fear of hindrance.

The fourth point requires a little more explanation. In practice the performance of many libraries in relation to freedom of information can be see as much more ambiguous than fine statements of principle might suggest. The Boston (USA) Public Library, for instance, is justly regarded as the first great public library and a source of much of what is good in the principles on which such libraries are run. It has, however, recently been subject to damaging, though incoherent, criticism precisely on the grounds of its supposed freedom of information role. Reports placed on a website by Don Saklad, a consistent critic of the library, allege that there is

Marginalizing of our cities' public library users/customers/consumers through public libraries reference desks denial or hampering access with innumerable ridiculous bureaucratic barriers of obstacles to legitimately (sic) public municipal and county information needed in order to participate fully, unencumbered and unfettered in local government of municipal and county departments long range planning. (Guide, 2000)

Lurking in this tirade, which has been followed by similar messages from the same source for the last few years at different web addresses, is a series of very serious allegations. They amount to the suggestion that Boston, and by implication, other public libraries too, is not genuinely functioning as a freedom of information institution. Although this paper will not pursue this particular aspect of the question further, the implications of it are explored in more detail elsewhere. (Sturges, 2001)

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