Monthly Discussion: Censorship part 3

We’re rounding up our discussion of censorship this month with the final post from Michelle Tisdel, and a look at a recent censorship challenge in the US. Happy reading!

Preserving information about censorship

Beacon for Freedom of Expression

Beacon for Freedom of Expression

Beacon for Freedom of Expression

It is not easy to find comprehensive information on censorship in a global perspective. In the final section, I would like to share with you several resources that make it easier to stay updated and look comparatively at censorship as a global issue. I am the coordinator of the international censorship database Beacon for Freedom of Expression. Beacon has three goals:

  • Preserve information about historic and current censorship in a global perspective
  • Provide a collaborative learning resource for researchers, students and activists
  • Facilitate dialogue about censorship, freedom of expression and human rights through its website and programs

This free internet-based resource contains almost 50 000 references to censored books, newspapers and other media types, as well as literature on censorship. The books, newspapers, radio/television broadcasts and websites registered in the Beacon database have been censored:

  • On moral, religious or political grounds
  • By a state, governing authority or state-related body

The database is a product of international collaboration and illustrates how civil society, libraries and archives can co-create resources that help raise awareness about historic and current censorship, as well as promote freedom of expression.

The Beacon was created as a tool for the access to for knowledge, and was dedicated to the New Library of Alexandria in Egypt in 2003. In 1997 the Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression (NFFE), completed a worldwide survey to identify the availability of information sources on current and historical censorship. The survey confirmed that the information is often available as printed lists or in manual files. The NFFE also concluded that historical records of censored books and newspapers are managed by state agencies, university or national libraries.

The first campaign to track material for the database focused on contact with libraries in different countries and especially where there has been a history of authoritarian political regimes, that is, places where censorship was a direct result of a prolonged exercise of state authority. Letters were sent to several hundred organizations as well as national and university libraries. Thirty countries from all continents were included in the pilot project. The project creators focused on countries where there were partners and available information. The database was produced in cooperation with faculty and students at the Faculty of Journalism, Library and Information Science, Oslo University College.

The result was a prototype for an international database that was built up around several historical examples of censorship in Russia, Lithuania, South Africa, and Norway particularly during World War II, and the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The Index lists are a notable example of historic censorship, as it is considered the first systematic inventory of banned literature. The first list was issued in 1559 and the last of the twenty lists was published as late as 1948 and withdrawn in 1966.

International Freedom of Expression Network

In addition to examples of historic censorship, the database includes examples of current censorship from International Freedom of Expression (IFEX), a global network that works to defend and promote free expression. Members of the IFEX network include journalists’ associations, human rights organizations, and other non-governmental actors that promote freedom of expression and democracy in their respective countries. IFEX Daily Digest and IFEX This Week are news updates focused on freedom of expression issues around the globe. Based on reports from member organizations and their own research, IFEX covers important issues, such as access to information, censorship, digital rights, freedom of assembly, and laws affecting free expression. Often, they report on direct censorship, such authorities that confiscate books, block websites and interrupt broadcasts. Such examples appear faster than we can register them into the database.

The International Rushdie Defense Committee Archive

Another important effort to preserve information about censorship is through archival work. The National Library of Norway also holds the International Rushdie Defense Committee Archive. The archive includes a collection of letters and correspondence, newspaper clippings, photographs, videotapes, publications and more. The materials illustrate how the committee operated the global campaign to support Rushdie and against the fatwa, which illustrates the global and local aspects of censorship. The archive illustrates not only that censorship is a global problem, but also that global anti-censorship work is important.

The International Rushdie Defence Committee (IRDC) organized the international support campaign for author Salman Rushdie from February 1989 to October 1998. The headquarters was located in the offices of freedom of expression organization Article 19 in London.

Being mindful of censorship glocally

How can we think and act glocally to highlight censorship and promote freedom of expression in the library? How can we act locally with an awareness of censorship and freedom of expression as global issues? There are many ways to focus locally and raise awareness about censorship in a global perspective. Here are five tips to get you started. I hope they will help you update your knowledge and provide helpful information to your users!

Working glocally against censorship: Five tips for the international librarian

Look for regular updates about censorship from a global perspective

Subscribe to periodic updates from IFEX, Index on Censorship, FreeMuse, Article 19 and Sampsonia Way, which are informative sources of censorship information with a global perspective. The organizations facilitate dialogue, raise awareness, campaign on behalf of and support persecuted writers and artists. The organization Article 19, inspired the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, writes and promotes policies and laws that protect free expression around the world. FreeMuse reports on music censorship around the world and campaigns on behalf of persecuted artists. Index on Censorship is both an international organization and a journal that promotes freedom of expression. Sampsonia Way is an online magazine sponsored by City of Asylum Pittsburg, which aims to create a “thriving community for writers, readers and neighbors”. Sampsonia Way and Index on Censorship report news about threats to freedom of expression around the world, and support persecuted writers by publishing original works.

Learn about ICORN and Cities of Refuge in your country

Get to know ICORN, the Guest Writers and their work. Are there guest writers and member cities in or from your country or area? Invite ICORN guest writers to your institution to discuss their work and or censorship. Look for appropriate opportunities to promote guest writers to your colleagues and users.

Make a permanent display in your library about censorship in a global perspective

This can be done both physically in your library and as a presentation or digital story on your library’s website. Include books from your country and from different parts of the world. Explain when and why the works have been censored. Include relevant reference books or a list of references on censorship so that users can explore on their own.

Use Beacon for Freedom of Expression and submit information about censored media for registration in the database

Use the international censorship database when looking for information on censored books and censorship. Refer colleagues, students and others to Beacon for censorship information. Also, help us add information to the database. Look up your country or check for censored material in the database. Submit information about censorship in your country and region or information that seems to be missing for review and eventual registration in the database. Remember that Beacon registers examples of direct censorship by a state, governing authority or state-related body. Beacon does not preserve information about indirect censorship, music or film. We welcome information about censored books, newspapers, radio/television broadcasts and websites.

Organize your own annual week and make censorship the centre of attention

Choose one week every year to highlight censorship in the library. In Canada, the Freedom of Expression Committee of the Book and Periodical Council organize Freedom to Read Week at the end of February. The American Library Association, through its Office of Intellectual Freedom is a co-sponsor of Banned Books Week. Create your own version of these clever campaigns to highlight freedom of speech and censorship in a global perspective. A Read-Out, book display, reading contest or other activity can be specially tailored for both youth and adult audiences. For more ideas and inspiration, check out the list of resources created for Banned Books Week and the suggested list of events for Freedom to Read Week.

When we focus locally on censorship as a global issue it reminds us that access to information and freedom of expression are not yet universal rights practiced everywhere in the world. As international librarians—managing international collections—we have a responsibility to consider the challenges to freedom of expression that directly affect access to information. Censorship—in its many forms—is such a challenge, and its effects are more glocal than ever before. For me, this development is evidence that the library will continue to play an important role in the social infrastructure of our societies. Preserving, promoting and giving access to information help to create informed publics. Thus the library’s core functions will remain invaluable, particularly in a world where censorship continually threatens freedom of expression, without which access to information, ideas and knowledge would be meaningless.

Special thanks must go to Michelle Tisdel for writing this excellent and thoughtful series for us.

We thought we would raise a recent incident to help you discuss the practical application of Michelle’s arguments. In early November several news sites reported on a challenge to Orlando Park Library in the United States. Specifically, one woman challenged the library’s internet use policy, claiming that the policy allows the viewing of legal porn on the library’s computers. The issue can be traced through these four reports:

Some questions that you may wish to discuss with your partner are below:

  • Is this a local or a global issue? Does this case have the potential to affect libraries elsewhere?
  • Does your library have policies in place around internet access? Do you use filtering software?
  • What would you do if a patron approached you with this complaint?

We hope this gives you plenty of material to discuss with your partner, and we encourage you to share your views in the comments below. If you’d like to take the discussion to Twitter remember to use the hashtag #InterLibNet. We’d love to hear your thoughts!

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