This past weekend at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Conference in Seattle, a reception to honor the recipient of an award for intellectual freedom was held. My dear sweet University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science established the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award in 1969 to honor Robert Downs, a champion of intellectual freedom, on his 25th anniversary as director of the School.
From the GSLIS website: “Given annually, the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award acknowledges individuals or groups who have furthered the cause of intellectual freedom, particularly as it impacts libraries and information centers and the dissemination of ideas. Granted to those who have resisted censorship or efforts to abridge the freedom of individuals to read or view materials of their choice, the award may be in recognition of a particular action or long-term interest in, and dedication to, the cause of intellectual freedom.”
This year, the honoree was Librotraficante (translation: “book smuggler”), a movement led by Tony Diaz to oppose the censorship of ethnic and cultural studies materials in Arizona. The group sought to raise awareness and create underground libraries in response to an Arizona House bill that prohibits courses “designed for pupils of a particular ethnic group” and “advocates ethnic solidarity.” The bill resulted in many titles by ethnic authors being removed from reading lists and libraries, as well as the elimination of Tucson’s popular Mexican American Studies (MAS) program from the public school system.
Personally, I’m very proud of the fact that my school gives out such an awesome award. While many librarians and library students are very politically active, most of us do not have to deal with the job-threatening ethical dilemmas and extreme struggle against censorship that many of the Downs Award recipients have. It’s sometimes easy to forget that, as librarians, we often place ourselves on the front lines of many struggles, including fights over how the First Amendment is interpreted. Reading about people like those that started Librotraficante really puts the ethics and morality of what we do into sharp perspective; if we are to have any professional and self respect, we must dedicate ourselves to access, education, and intellectual freedom, regardless of the consequences.