Libraries and Learning

Academic Freedom and Librarians: A Natural Fit

September 17, 2018

It’s an old problem. People don’t know what librarians do for a living, but they think they know because libraries are a thing they grew up with. Librarians . . . do stuff in libraries, with library stuff. Like, they shelve books, right?

(This is hardly unique to librarians. I remember how frustrated my father, who taught at a public flagship university, was when his older brother casually asked “so what do you do all day? I mean, you only teach a few hours a week. How do you keep busy?” My uncle traded commodity futures. I had no idea what he did all day, though making a lot of money seemed to be part of it. Like my dad, he was offended when people didn’t get his work. He had been a lifelong Republican until Richard Nixon, in a throwaway public comment about trade, mentioned “soybeans, whatever they are.” Insta-Democrat. He couldn’t vote for a party that dissed soybeans.)

A lot of the work librarians do is invisible to people who use libraries, except perhaps interlibrary loan, which is totally run by magic. Librarians don’t put books on the shelf, but they decided which ones should be on a shelf, figured out what shelf they should be on, and how to make it possible to find through a computer search, all while standing ready to defend the right of that book to be on a shelf in the library, among a millionty-one other things on their to-do list, most of them invisible if you’re not thinking about it.

I think this may be partly why, when librarians assert they should have academic freedom, people look puzzled. Why would you need that? Well, we have this thing we value called intellectual freedom. It’s a principle that applies beyond academia, and it’s important. We have to work in conditions that allow us to support intellectual freedom for others. We also teach and do research, the stuff academic freedom is explicitly about, but supporting intellectual freedom is literally our job and we take it seriously, which sometimes means taking risks. It helps to know we won’t be at risk ourselves if we do.

UC librarians represented by UC-AFT began to realize their assumption that academic freedom applied to them was not spelled out explicitly, so they added the underlined language to a contract they are negotiating, expecting it to be non-controversial:

The University recognizes librarians as academic employees, and further recognizes that they possess specialized expertise and independent, professional judgment, and employ both in service to the mission of the University. The University recognizes that all librarians are entitled to academic freedom, as their primary responsibility to their institution and profession is to seek, state, and act according to the truth as they see it.

UC System’s negotiators rejected it flatly, saying academic freedom was “not a good fit” for librarians.


It may be that UC’s office of the president wants to rein in academic freedom in general, and saying in writing that librarians have it doesn’t serve that cause. They might also have thought it would be easy. Or it could be they simply don’t understand what librarians do.

Either way, I’m with the librarians on this. If you are, too, you might want to join the nearly 1,300 people who have signed a petition of support. Don’t take too long, though. Their next meeting is coming up next week, right in the middle of Banned Books Week. How fitting is that?


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.