Intellectual Freedom in Libraries : from books to AI #CFLAFCAB2018

I was invited to the CFLA-FCAB conference in Regina to discuss with great panelists and moderator (Mary Cavanagh, Pilar Martinez, James Turk, Jeff Barber) about intellectual freedom. Initially Vickery Bowles from Toronto Public Library (who courageously dealt with this issue recently) proposed this structure for the presentation in 3 parts : Issues that have been experienced, thoughts on these issues, why do we need to pay attention to intellectual freedom.

1. Issues that I have experienced (How I got involved in that issue through blogging)

What I did, at first, is to look back at how I got involved in this issue. This is an exercise I did mainly by paying attention to the topics I have discussed in some of the blog posts that I have written since 2009 and by looking at the evolution of the concerns I had by this time

IF by the books

Before the blogs, intellectual freedom was conceived, as we know, mainly through the collections and the book’s perspective. For, example, in 2007, my final project at EBSI was a project,  to develop a collection for children that dealt with sensitive topics. Frankly these books were pretty good candidates to arouse censorship. They were all excellent works, and instead of hiding them, or not showing too much, we decided to invite the neighborhood schools and to provide a safe space to discuss about violence, racism, war, exclusion, and so on.

And of course this time was also the time when, as we still do today at the end of February, we were setting up a special shelf with banned books for the Freedom to read week celebration.

IF by the blogs

Now, by 2009, the freedom to read also became a freedom to write, for all of us, with blogs and all sorts digital writing – and even non-digital. It also brought, for librarians, new ways to defend intellectual freedom. And the very first blog post I did for the Montreal Libraries was dedicated to free speech and censorship. The best part of that post was really this quote, from Stanley Fish: it is the world of politics that decides what we can and cannot say, not the world of abstract philosophy… Speech always takes place in an environment of conviction, assumptions and perceptions, i.e., within the confines of a structured world. The thing to do, … is get out there and argue for one position. And this is something that I kept in mind, I mean, the idea that library is this special place out there where people can argue and debate, and the idea that we have ourselves, as librarians, to go out there to defend this place as such.

In 2010 also, with a few colleagues, we created a collaborative blog in which we published selfies with our favourite banned books. We got the attention of several thousand visitors which really surprised us and we had a lot of fun.

IF by the Internet

Now over the years, after that, intellectual freedom extends its meaning not only by taking into account new ways of reading, writing and publishing, but also by being concerned by the web and the Internet that make all these possible. So, since 2011, defending intellectual freedom also became, if not mostly, for me, taking a stance on various digital issues and digital liberties like these :

Thus, from books to artificial intelligence, things have changed a lot. And I think that we really have to assume this new extended meaning of intellectual freedom in the digital transition.

2. Thoughts on these issues

So, I think  that…

The ethical role of libraries

The ethical role of libraries is getting more and more prominent along with the concept of social justice these days. And as we know, Intellectual freedom is part of a theory of justice that assumes equal freedoms for all: All have equal rights to intellectual freedom.

But if we adopt the point of view of social justice, we will consider that all must have equal possibilities to the human realm of senses, imagination and thought, and as such, intellectual freedom is a central capability as Martha Nussbaum would say : 

the senses, the imagination and the thought: to be able to use its senses (benefiting inter alia from freedom of expression), to imagine  (including to create in the field of the arts), to think, to reason and to do so in a humane way (including having fun and not fearing unnecessary punishment), with the help of not only basic education (mathematics, language, etc.), but also in the humanities, sciences and other fields. (Creating Capabilities, 2011)

Where does that lead us ?

Intellectual freedom as a capability.

We have been through a discourse about the right to intellectual freedom towards a discourse about the possibility to achieve intellectual freedom from a social justice perspective. And this will probably mean, given today’s digital challenge – even though these are not the only challenges that we face, but they are significant -, that we have to  make a bridge between intellectual freedom and digital literacy. And even a bridge between Intellectual freedom and digital commons.

There is a text by Amita Lonial in one of the latest editions of the magazine Public Libraries. And there, she argues that digital justice depends upon digital literacy. And for a true impact on digital literacy, working on access is not enough. Working on digital skills is not enough to reduce inequities. What is critical is partnerships and codesign initiatives with communities and stakeholders.

Source : Lonial, Amita 2018. « Toward a Framework for Digital Justice in Public Libraries ». Public Libraries 57 (1) : 14.

Intellectual freedom and digital literacy by codesign

Then why should digital literacy as specific capability for intellectual freedom rely on codesign?

  •    Because it allows us to take into account the social and cultural context, the systemic barriers, the institutional biases, and to act critically on diversity and the  “social distance ».
  •    And even more simply, because since this is about the (fundamentals) needs of users, they should be invite to participate in the design of the “solution”, which applies to the tools as well as to public policies.
  •    And also, because it facilitates exploration of a diversity of ways to give access, use, create, promote, and defend knowledge, culture and digital commons.

3. Why do we need to pay attention to intellectual freedom?

Because we care. Because it is a critical issue now for all of us and because it is our job to care about it. 

But how?

Maybe we should think to :

  • Update our approach to intellectual freedom in our mission and our policies—outside the realm of material selection and internet policy.
  •  Clarify the ethical framework of libraries in terms of social justice.
  •  Make digital literacy a strategic priority at every level: local, national, global (I think the recent initiative of the CULC for a transnational program on digital literacy is a great idea to achieve this and the work done by IFLA is also inspiring)
  • May be we should Expect more, as Lankes, from ourselves when it goes to «represent the voice of the community » when it is about intellectual safety.
  • May be we should codesign with intellectual freedom in mind and :

A case: Codesign IA in public libraries

At the beginning of this year, we started citizen cafes on AI  in Quebec public libraries. We asked citizens to codesign the kind of responsible development is needed for AI. We also worked with non-profit organizations. No matter whether we were discussing health, education, smart cities, justice, deep fake news, propaganda, privacy, data manipulation, it appeared that digital literacy ( take it also as algorithm literacy) was seen as a key component.

Now we are about to make ethical recommendations and libraries were often seen as stakeholders in this game. I do really believed that it is the case, at least in the name of intellectual freedom, digital civil rights and digital literacy.


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