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portal: Libraries and the Academy 2.4 (2002) 671-673
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Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility in American Librarianship, 1967-1974, Toni Samek. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001. 179 p. $35 softcover (ISBN 0-7864-0916-9)
Toni Samek's monograph is based on her dissertation, completed in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison under the direction of Professor Wayne A. Wiegand. Samek examined the national upheaval in social and cultural norms during the 1960s and early 1970s, paying special attention to the resulting discourse in library professional settings. She sought to understand how the library profession collected and preserved counter-cultural literature, and she examined the rationale behind professional reluctance to mitigate from positions of neutrality toward greater activism on behalf of social responsibilities. She came to question the motives behind the American Library Association's accommodation of the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) as a way for ALA to co-opt rebellious elements and secure the Association as politically neutral. Finally, Samek attempted to gauge how the social responsibilities movement influenced ALA's interactions with its cultural environment.
In addressing these questions, Samek analyzed the ALA social responsibilities movement from 1967 to 1974. That movement ran headlong into ALA's power structure, which had been committed for several decades—with increasing skill and clarity—to a neutrality grounded in concepts of intellectual freedom. Intellectual freedom had become increasingly bureaucratized with the creation of the Library Bill of Rights (1938), the Intellectual Freedom Committee (1940), the Office for Intellectual Freedom (1967), and the Freedom to Read Foundation (1969), a separate entity with an interlocking directorate.
Intellectual freedom advocates also boasted important spokespersons, foremost among them David K. Berninghausen, Director of the Graduate School of Library Science at the University of Minnesota. Berninghausen spoke for numerous librarians in his summative essay, "Antithesis in Librarianship: Social Responsibility vs. The Library Bill of Rights," published in Library Journal (LJ), November 15, 1972. LJ subsequently devoted a special issue (January 1, 1973) to "Social Responsibility and the Library Bill of Rights: The Berninghausen Debate," featuring nineteen responses, twelve letters to the editor, and a John Berry editorial. Berninghausen and associates argued that ALA's commitment to intellectual freedom required impartiality and neutrality on non-library issues, a perspective that they claimed as the central principle of the Association [End Page 671] and of the profession. Any attempt to move the ALA toward open support of political issues would not only jeopardize the Association's tax-exempt status but also undermine the paramount concern for freedom of access to information and increased financial support for libraries.
Against this structure arose a cohort of librarians, openly sensitive to the explosive issues of the era and opposing the official ALA neutrality that resulted in failure to honor the profession's highest ideals of open and free access to all. The activist agenda featured complaints about inadequate services to racial and cultural minorities and the disadvantaged. Activists criticized the profession for building collections, for example, which privileged the mainstream by not acquiring underground newspapers and other publications from alternative and small presses. They sought a more open society and a more open Association, and they did not oppose intellectual freedom. They simply did not believe that the neutrality urged by intellectual freedom advocates required ALA to keep silent on matters so vital to the nation, to thousands of neighborhoods, and millions of people. Activists sought to build a profession that was more, rather than less, inclusive and that would lead the Association to speak out on non-professional issues by opposing, for example, the United States' war in Vietnam.
The ALA social responsibilities proponents had their own spokespersons including Dorothy Bendix, Sanford Berman, Jackie Eubanks, Pat Schuman, Celeste West, and others who influenced libraries and library discourse and who helped move ALA to a level of limited accommodation. Many activists initially gravitated to the SRRT, which quickly became the Association's largest round table but soon after began losing its vitality and influence. As Schuman noted, SRRT activists had operated independently and effectively...