'Libraries are vital to freedom of speech'

'Libraries are vital to freedom of speech'

Rachael Jolley, editor of global freedom of expression magazine, Index on Censorship, has spoken out about the growing importance of public libraries for freedom of expression saying "at the heart of any library is the idea of a freedom to think and discover”.

Speaking at the Library and Democracy conference for the Swedish Library Association this week, Jolley argued that "libraries and those who support them have often been defenders of the right to knowledge" highlighting that throughout history, freedom of speech, thought and debate have been used by the "less powerful to challenge the powerful".

"Books, magazines and newspapers are doors into the world, and that is why over centuries, governments have tried to stop them from being opened", Jolley said. “When those doors open onto the world, who knows what people might think or do? When it comes to the freedom to express oneself: to write, draw, paint, act or protest then restrictions have often been levied by governments and other powerful bodies to stop the wider public being able to do these things."

She added: “That’s why public libraries, open to all and funded from the public purse, are so important. Their existence helped the many get access to what the few had held close to their chests; information, literature, inspiration.”

Jolley also spoke about students who she said needed to use the full resources of university libraries and not just rely on the internet for information. University librarians also need to help teach students to verify and question sources, Jolley added.

"Librarians are much needed as valuable guides: to help students and other readers to learn techniques to sift information, question its validity and measure its importance," Jolley said. "To understand what to trust and what to question; and that all information is not equal. Students need to be able to weigh up and sift different sources of research. The University of California Library System saw a 54% decline in circulation between 1991 to 2001 of 8,377,000 books to 3,832,000. It is shocking that some students are failing themselves by not using a broad range of books, and journals that are free from their university libraries to widen and deepen their understanding."

Jolley also said she saw the role for libraries of the future as "debate houses". She said: "Another role for libraries of the future is as debate houses  - a living room - at the centre of communities where people of different backgrounds come together to hear and discuss issues at the heart of our societies. And to meet others in their community. These neutral spaces are increasingly needed."

Index on Censorship has been publishing for 43 years on issues of freedom of expression. The Swedish Library Association is a non-profit organization based in the Sweden that promotes libraries and library education internationally.