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The Constitutional Side of Libraries and How They Function

Public libraries are essential community institutions that deliver the resources and opportunities their communities need to thrive. They are unique in that participation is completely voluntary and everyone is welcome and happy to be there. Libraries foster civic engagement, ensure people have access to the resources and information that is important to them, and create an informed citizenry that is crucial to our democracy.

In their everyday delivery of information, resources, and programming, libraries are a local expression of the constitution. The First Amendment’s right to freedom of expression encompasses intellectual freedom, which includes an individual’s right to receive information on a wide range of topics and from a variety of viewpoints.

Publicly funded libraries play an important role in facilitating free and open access to information. In 1948, the Library Bill of Rights was widely adopted, which affirms the principle that libraries protect the First Amendment and intellectual freedom.

Public librarians and state/local governing boards make and implement policies that guide libraries as they serve the public under the Tenth Amendment’s recognition of state powers to protect their citizens. Library Board of Trustees set policies that include collection development, guidelines on library internet use, and the protection of patron confidentiality.

Though the First Amendment is usually at the forefront when discussing libraries and their collections, it’s also worth including the Fourteenth Amendment in these conversations. The Fourteenth Amendment not only grants citizenship, but it also says that no state shall make or enforce a law that denies those citizens of their equal protections (life, liberty, or property). This means that everyone, regardless of religion, race, creed, or class, is equally protected under the law. Libraries must recognize the equal rights of all patrons, even if their viewpoints or leanings are in opposition to those of other members of their community.

Library collections should have content that affirms all demographics in the community.

Librarians and their governing boards have wide discretion when determining how to select library material. Such decisions are typically influenced by the library’s mission, policy, patron requests, professional reviews, available space, and other factors. Librarians regularly remove outdated, damaged, or unused material. Using a request for reconsideration, patrons can submit collection concerns about specific materials to library staff.

However, removing library material solely on the basis that its content may offend one group of people is censorship and a violation of the First Amendment.

There are many things that go into governing a public library and its collection, and it’s important to remember that librarians are professionals who are guided by constitutional law, ethics, policies, and procedures that have our patrons’ best interests in mind.

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