Why should you sign the Declaration to the Right to Libraries?

I was surprised to learn this week that there’s another Bill of Rights. The first Bill of Rights ─ the one we all know about ─ is the collective name of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The second Bill of Rights ─ the one most of us don’t know about ─ is the Library Bill of Rights. This has been in the news because June 20th marked the 75th anniversary of the Library Bill of Rights and libraries around the U.S. are stepping up to “re-sign” their Bill of Rights and ask folks to sign the Declaration to the Right to Libraries.

So I’m thinking ─ why did libraries in 1939 need to formulate a Library Bill of Rights, and why are libraries asking us to step up and sign the Declaration to the Right to Libraries now?

Perhaps the first answer for the libraries is similar to the need for the amendments to the Constitution. The Bill of Rights (amendments to the Constitution) grew out of concern that certain principles were not explicitly indicated in the main body of the Constitution – so better to be explicit through amendments to the Constitution.[1]

Libraries had similar issues. Libraries developing throughout the communities of the nation early on had common questions about equity of access and censorship of information and ideas. Questions about who gets to have information in an information society and who gets to  be “literate” are foundational human rights issues in a democratic society. Certainly the development of schools and libraries went hand in hand to pave our nation’s developing roads to literacy.

The importance of establishing common principles and practices among the communities of our nation through our libraries was clearly a priority. How could we have some communities in which there would be open equity of access to information and ideas vs. some communities in which there would not be? How truly groundbreaking then it was for the American Library Association Council in 1939 to adopt the Library Bill of Rights, building it off a document developed a year earlier by a library located in the American heartland — the Des Moines Public Library. The Bill of Rights established a common agreement to facilitate libraries’ coming together around the purpose and practices of libraries. Although the Library Bill of Rights has been updated several times (in 1944, 1948, 1961, 1967, 1980 and 1996), it continues to serve as the library profession’s major policy document on intellectual freedom.

This effort to try and institute common principles and practices among libraries was not a small matter considering the number and diversity of libraries then and now. Today the estimated number of libraries of all types in the U.S. is 120,096 ─ 8,956 public libraries; 3,793 academic libraries; 98,460 school libraries; 7,616 special libraries; 265 armed forces libraries; and 1,006 government libraries.[2]

The Library Bill of Rights is a document that speaks to both principles and practice. There are 21 interpretations to the Bill of Rights now. These interpretations address specific issues that have changed and/or emerged over the decades such as privacy, children, and services to the disabled. In this sense, the Library Bill of Rights is a living document that must change with the times to remain relevant. There are now various documents that support the Library Bill of Rights, to include the interpretations added over the years and a Declaration for the Right to Libraries. These documents are all rolled into one Manual called the Intellectual Freedom Manual.

So now to our second question ─ why do libraries want us to sign the Declaration to the Right to Libraries?

Most users of their local libraries (e.g., parents and children who visit to read and check out books in the children’s section, school-age children who do their homework in libraries and read about their own burgeoning interests, senior citizens who visit to stay current with their reading) will never know about the common principles and practice framework that guides the operations of so many libraries through the nation. But these foundational principles and practices have clearly contributed to the developing and sustaining democratic vitality of our nation by ensuring we all have equitable and uncensored access to information and ideas.

In the next year, libraries of all types will be holding ceremonies at which community members, organizations, and officials can sign and stand up for their right to have vibrant public, school, academic, and special libraries in their communities ─ by signing the Declaration for the Right to Libraries. These will be welcome opportunities to think about the importance and impact of libraries ─ to the nation, our communities, and  families. When you see these signing ceremonies announced in your community, I hope this little bit of history will help you understand the significance of your library’s re-commitment to the Library Bill of Rights this year ─ and provide reasons for you to sign the Declaration for the Right to Libraries.

 From the American Library Association website


[1] From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Bill_of_Rights:  Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, a free press, and free assembly; the right to keep and bear arms; freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, security in personal effects, and freedom from warrants issued without probable cause; indictment by a grand jury for any capital or “infamous crime”; guarantee of a speedy, public trial with an impartial jury; and prohibition of double jeopardy. Also reserves for the people any rights not specifically mentioned in the Constitution and reserves all powers not specifically granted to the federal government to the people or the States.

[2]Fact Sheet of American Library Association: http://www.ala.org/tools/libfactsheets/alalibraryfactsheet



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