Reading the extreme: why librarians will defend your right to read whatever you want

Controversial material can be the most challenging to our intellect, argues Sue House

January 21, 2016
Stack of books
Source: iStock

One might think that many of us today would be overjoyed to find that young people are reading. After all, it’s generally considered to be a good thing, and in this digital age it’s surely a declining pastime. Such is the stereotype that government and local councils would have us believe as they implement austerity measures.

But despite their best attempts at dismantling the UK statutory public library service, reading is still quite a popular activity.

Apparently it is the content of what you are reading that is a growing issue for universities, and it is something that is coming under ever-increasing scrutiny. The Norfolk police, who recently detained a student for reading something on his university reading list, were apparently not as delighted as his lecturer that he was engaging with his studies. They deemed that he had accessed an extremist website and presumably wanted to know why and what he intended to do with the information. A similar thing happened recently in Staffordshire.

Read more: Why we shouldn’t be hasty about book censorship

Luckily for these students, they could easily point to legitimate reasons for their actions and provide evidence from their respective universities that they had simply been undertaking the required reading and were not about to act. Another University of East Anglia student reasonably responded to the incident they experienced by saying, “People need to be allowed to learn about this stuff in order to know they disagree with it”. Well, quite, and sadly there are extreme groups that will try to stop students learning because they fear a populace with intellectual freedom.

From an academic viewpoint, is not the most controversial and possibly offensive material some of the most challenging to our intellect, causing our students to debate and think more deeply than if they stayed within the confines of what might be “safe” topics? In the case of UEA, were they right to remove the link to the offending material? Is it not incumbent upon universities to prepare students for the world they find themselves in, one which contains extreme viewpoints across the whole religious and political spectrum? One where it is also possible for attempts to be made to “no-platform” an academic for their views, however challenging they may be to some people?

By and large, librarians will defend your right to read whatever you want, and this is particularly true if you are an adult studying at a UK university.

All university libraries will contain or provide access to some information that offends someone, somewhere. This is inevitable as we increase the size of our print and online collections and teach our students how to find, critique and evaluate the quality of the information they find, wherever they happen to find it. If those students happen to be studying fundamentalism or propaganda, they will likely encounter extreme material, that being the nature of the topic under investigation.

Knowledge is power, and those in power want to know what you’re reading, as Edward Snowden discovered.

As librarians, we are governed by various codes of conduct, as illustrated in this article by Catherine Foster and David McMenemy. Although there is not agreement between them, many of these codes espouse the shared values of “service, privacy, equity of access to recorded knowledge and information, stewardship and intellectual freedom".

Seemingly, these days librarians are at the forefront of defending your right to privately read whatever you want. Something that is worth fighting for.

Sue House is information librarian at the University of South Wales. She is encouraging people to sign a petition in support of library services.

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Reader's comments (1)

Not only public libraries are being dismantled. All over the world academic libraries have reorganised themselves into mere subscription administrations for digital collections compiled by publishers into package deals. It is no longer universities that select and deliver research literature; Librarians (where they still exist) are no longer able to guarantee the academic community’s freedom to read.