Human rights and librarians

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Date: Fall 2005
From: Reference & User Services Quarterly(Vol. 45, Issue 1)
Publisher: American Library Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,043 words
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Each December 10 as the world celebrates Human Rights Day--the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948--the world community builds solidarity and a unified vision. In this column we 1) describe the need for professional commitment to human rights to transcend bland neutrality; 2) compare key human rights documents with the central core values of librarianship; and 3) identify outstanding examples of library actions in service to human rights.

Commitment Transcending Neutrality

Human rights--the assumption that all human beings, by virtue of their existence, deserve certain rights and dignity--is most eloquently defined in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

   Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the
   equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human
   family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in
   the world. (1)

What is the responsibility of the librarian to serve the cause of human rights? The oft-cited neutrality of a balanced collection is increasingly, and rightfully, being called into question. In a 2004 presentation before the Texas Library Association, professor Robert Jensen discussed "The Myth of the Neutral Professional" and observed:

   The ideology of political neutrality, unfortunately, keeps
   professionals such as journalists, teachers, and librarians--as
   well as citizens--from understanding the relationship
   between power and the professions. Any claim to
   such neutrality is illusory; there is no neutral ground on
   which to stand anywhere in the world. (2)

Doctors have found ways to advance their professional commitment to human rights with a number of organizations performing specialized tasks. For example, Doctors without Borders is specially organized to be nonthreatening to oppressive governments so as to be able to heal in an apolitical environment. We see medical professionals speaking up about the ethics of torture, the tragedy of HIV/AIDS infections, and the ravages of war on populations that subsequently starve, are cut off from medicines, and endure epidemics caused by poor health policies. We also find evidence of other human rights activities, such as the headline "Physicians for Human Rights Opposes Confirmation of Alberto Gonzales to be Attorney General; Opposition is a First for the Human Rights Group," describing the work of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a group that first organized around banning land mines and along with other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. (3) This group also lobbied to attack the constitutionality of the death penalty for juveniles and mobilizes the health professions to promote health by protecting human rights.

Lawyers also have engaged in professional activities to advance human rights. Amnesty International is certainly a well-known human rights advocacy program. We see lawyers tirelessly working for human rights at the American Civil Liberties Union, the Anti-Defamation League, the International Human Rights Law Group, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, and many more.

The library profession has a rich history of alignment with human-rights issues, movements, and declarations. Librarians have long been aware of the many ways human rights values intersect with the values of our profession. We may not be personally activist, or profess to be activist, but the library profession, like medicine and law, is bound to uphold its values. Human rights values permeate library policies beyond the professional round tables inhabited by intellectual freedom, social responsibilities, and international relations. As we carry on with our duties as public service librarians, we should keep in mind our history of human rights advocacy, and note the work we do today as a continuation of the commitment to the contributions of our programs, collections, and services toward keeping an open society, a public space where democracy lives.

These words appear on the wall of the main entrance of the Madison Building of the Library of Congress on Independence Avenue:

   What spectacle can be more edifying
   or more seasonable than that of liberty
   and learning, each leaning on the other
   for their mutual and surest support?

Declarations, Codes, and Values

Let's compare the contents of the Universal Human Rights Declaration (the document passed and proclaimed by the United Nations [UN] on December 10, 1948) and the subsequent UN declarations, with the published statements, codes, and values of the American Library Association (ALA).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is comprised of a preamble and thirty articles. Its main premise is spelled out in Article I: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." (4) Section V of the Library Bill of Rights (originally adopted the same year as the UDHR was completed and revised three times since) echoes this today with "A person's right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views." (5) Further, Article I of the American Library Association Code of Ethics (revised version of June 28th, 1995) adds:

   We provide the highest level of service
   to all library users through appropriate
   and usefully organized resources; equitable
   service policies; equitable access;
   and accurate, unbiased, and courteous
   responses to all requests. (6)

More to the point, librarians directly advance the cause of human rights in UDHR Article 19, which has been endorsed by ALA and International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). (7) The article states:

   Everyone has the right to freedom of
   opinion and expression; this right
   includes freedom to hold opinions without
   interference and to seek, receive and
   impart information and ideas through
   any media and regardless of frontiers.

Librarians seek (collect) and impart (provide access) what we hope to be unbiased access to unbiased materials in our role of democratic institution. The library is the public space for the free exchange of ideas, and therefore the cornerstone of democracy. We affirm, in "Libraries: An American Value," that

   Libraries in America are cornerstones of
   the communities they serve. Free access
   to the books, ideas, resources, and
   information in America's libraries is
   imperative for education, employment,
   enjoyment, and self-government. (8)

Lest there be some doubt still about the profession recognizing its place as a promoter and defender of human rights, the American Library Association Core Values Task Force II Report of June 2004 identifies core values, and ties them directly to ALA policy statements: Access, Confidentiality, Democracy, Diversity, Education, Intellectual Freedom, Preservation, The Public Good, Professionalism, Service, and Social Responsibility. (9) The Reference and User Services Association adds its own affirmation of human rights in the strategic plan for 2004-7, which includes among its values: "We believe in universal access to information in a wide variety of formats." (10) The 2010 ALA Strategic Plan envisions the future as one in which librarians are committed to social responsibility and the public good. (11) Within ALA, the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) has developed task forces to tackle a variety of human rights issues. Currently there are five task forces: Alternatives in Print; Environment, Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty; Feminist; International Responsibilities; and Information Policy in the Public Interest, which are directly tied to sections of the UDHR.

As librarians continue to define and defend our space as open and affirming, neutral and sheltered, librarians have risen to protect basic human rights against new challenges. The first article in Censorship 2005, "Another Hysteric Librarian," details the Ashcroft/Hayden exchange, during which former ALA president Carla Hayden engages John Ashcroft, then Attorney General of the United States, over the impact of the USA PATRIOT ACT on libraries and their patrons. (12)

Human rights work in reference and user services areas is so pervasive that librarians seldom even report them as defending and promoting civil, political, social, and cultural rights. Our annual reports are full of efforts to extend services by literacy initiatives, outreach, and services to the underserved. By seeing these actions as components in the worldwide effort to achieve universal human rights librarians contribute to building a world community.

Human Rights Work in Libraries

Librarians collect, archive, organize, and provide human rights materials in libraries, archives, and virtual spaces. Sensitivity to the fragility of the record is critical. As Montgomery noted in "Archiving Human Rights: A Paradigm for Collection Development,

   Timing is important: archival evidence
   inevitably will disappear if little or no
   provision is made for its preservation.
   --resulting in the progressive destruction
   of the historical record of the international
   human rights movement. (13)

Librarians also work with virtual human rights collections. Hoffman describes the University of Minnesota Human Rights Library, which houses more than twenty-one thousand core human rights documents, four thousand links, and a search device for human rights sites. (14) The value of online access to the human rights community has been described by Brophy and Halpin in "Through the Net to Freedom: Information, the Internet, and Human Rights" and Mason, who has written about Internet sites that encourage activism. (15)

In addition to collections of books and documents, there has been an effort to collect images on human rights. The Human Rights Film Directory, a project of the University of Washington Libraries, in support of the Human Rights Education and Research Network, identifies and brings together into a database all the videos and DVDs held in the UW Libraries collections on the Seattle, Bothell, and Tacoma campuses. The directory also features a thesaurus of search terms that describe the many complex subjects and issues often unique to the discipline of human rights. (16)

Perhaps the most ambitious library-connected human rights programming taking place at this time is the Human Rights Video Project. This national library project was created to increase the public's awareness of human rights issues through the medium of documentary films. The project also encourages collaborations between public libraries and human-rights advocacy organizations to present film screenings and discussion programs. The project was developed by National Video Resources in partnership with ALA's Public Programs Office. (17) Films from the Human Rights Video Project were provided free of charge to three hundred public libraries nationwide. Additionally, some libraries received funding to create screening and discussion programs in collaboration with local advocacy organizations. Thematic programming resources were provided on women's rights; children's rights; economic, cultural and social rights; refugee rights; and arms, conflict, and international humanitarian laws.

"Where, After All, Do Universal Human Rights Begin?"

Historian Howard Zinn tells of integrating the Atlanta Public Library long before the sit-ins of the mid-1960s. (18) Other small actions for human rights occur in libraries unmarked and as yet unnoticed like providing family planning information or literacy materials. Thinking in the framework of human rights helps move us from neutrality to work on behalf of human capabilities.

At the end of the United Nations Decade of Human Rights Education (1995-2004), the World Programme for Human Rights Education was established. Librarians can review this Programme for ideas on human rights resource development and programming. (19) Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the UDHR committee, was quoted as saying "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home--so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world." Acts on behalf of human rights happen in every library every day. (20)

Katharine J. Phenix, Guest Columnist, and Kathleen de la Pena McCook

Kathleen de la Pena McCook


Correspondence concerning this column should be addressed to Kathleen de la Pena McCook, Distinguished University Professor of Library and Information Science, University of South Florida, Tampa. Send mail to P.O. Box, Ruskin, FL 33575; e-mail: Katharine I. Phenix is Manager, Interlibrary Loan Department, Rangeview Library District, Northglenn, Colorado.


(1.) United Nations, "Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Accessed May 2, 2005,

(2.) Robert Jensen, "The Myth of the Neutral Professional," Progressive Librarian 24 (Winter 2004): 28-34.

(3.) Physicians for Human Rights. 2005. Accessed May 2, 2005,

(4.) United Nations, "Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

(5.) American Library Association, "Library Bill of Rights." Accessed May 2, 2005,

(6.) American Library Association, "Code of Ethics." Accessed May 2, 2005,

(7.) American Library Association, Policy Manual. "Article 19 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Accessed May 2, 2005,; International Federation of Library Associations. "Resolution on Freedom of Expression." Accessed May 2, 2005,

(8.) American Library Association, "Libraries: An American Value." Accessed May 2, 2005,

(9.) American Library Association, "Core Values Task Force II Report." Accessed May 12, 2005,

(10.) American Library Association, Reference and User Services Association. "Strategic Plan for 2004-2007." Accessed May 2, 2005,

(11.) American Library Association, "Ahead to 2010." Accessed May 2, 2005,

(12.) Peter Phillips, Censored 2005: The Top 25 Censored Stories (N.Y.: Seven Stories Press, 2004), 9-13.

(13.) Bruce P. Montgomery, "Archiving Human Rights: A Paradigm for Collection Development," Journal of Academic Librarianship 22 (Mar. 1996): 87-96.

(14.) Marci Hoffman, "Developing an Electronic Collection: The University of Minnesota Human Rights Library," Legal Reference Services Quarterly 19 (2001): 143-55; University of Minnesota Human Rights Library. Accessed May 2, 2005,

(15.) Peter Brophy and Edward F. Halpin, "Through the Net to Freedom: Information, the Internet and Human Rights," Journal of Information Science 25 (1999): 351-54; Elisa Mason, "Human Rights on the Internet: Sites that Encourage Activism," College & Research Libraries News 60 (Sept. 1999): 639-42.

(16.) University of Washington Libraries, Human Rights Film Directory. Accessed May 2, 2005,

(17.) Human Rights Video Project, National Video Resources. Accessed May 2, 2005,

(18.) Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train (Boston: Beacon, 1994).

(19.) Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, "World Programme for Human Rights Education." Accessed May 2, 2005,

(20.) Kathleen de la Pena McCook and Katherine J. Phenix, Universal Responsibility, Human Rights, and Librarianship (Burlington, Mass.:forthcoming).

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A139077015