John Stuart Mill on Intellectual Freedom: His Thoughts Applied to Today’s Information Landscape

In his essay On Liberty, published in 1859, philosopher John Stuart Mill makes a strong case for the necessity of intellectual freedom in society, outlining four points that would have a profound effect on librarianship. He argued that any and all opinions that are not heard may in fact contain truth; that the “collision of adverse opinions” is necessary in order to clarify truth; and that truth must be contested in order to be accepted.

Mill’s points are seen as a direct influence on the Bill of Rights of the American Library Association, which charges libraries to provide materials representing all opinions and points of view, so that people are free to compare and contrast them in order to find truth. Although these undoubtedly remain the guiding principles of librarianship, a number of factors bring significant challenges in a contemporary context.

First, in today’s information landscape, several types of censorship threaten Mill’s vision. Libraries and their communities often object to and ban particular titles based on perceived “inappropriate” subject matter (Asheim, West Bend). More importantly, however, librarians themselves often find it difficult to hold true to their values of intellectual freedom when faced with extreme situations, such as holocaust denial literature (Wolkoff). It is a temptation to censor opinions which represent blatantly hurtful and harmful ideas, but Mill preaches that these obscure ideas must be heard, and even that they help readers find and clarify truth, a point strongly supported by the Library Bill of Rights.

In addition, there is a less overt form of censorship that results from the commodification of information and the increasing reliance of libraries on third-party information vendors to provide them with article databases and ebook packages. Dilevko explains how these companies operate on a profit-motive, and since the most broadly profitable opinions are common ones, they frequently exclude alternative viewpoints (698). When libraries do not have the final word on all of the individual resource in their collections, it becomes more difficult to ensure that the communities they serve have access to the wide-range of divergent opinions advocated by Mill.

Finally, Mill never could have envisioned the vast platform of the World Wide Web which today connects our global society. His points about the necessity of considering all opinions and juxtaposing them before making conclusions are based on a much smaller-scale model of the print book trade and personal debates that was all that was possible at the time. For a key political or social issue, for example, only a select group of upper-class individuals were able to publish their opinions and any debates would be limited to individuals in close geographical proximity. Today, however, any individual can publish their opinions at the push of a button using blogs and other social networking platforms, and can immediately reach a worldwide audience. Today there are over 156 million blogs in existence (Nielsen), so for an important issue with national or global importance, the sheer enormity of opinions makes it impossible to consider all of them before making conclusions. Thus, the issue instead becomes how to effectively synthesize and gauge consensus among the public.

References:

Asheim, Lester. “Selection and Censorship: A Reappraisal” Wilson Library Bulletin 58.3 (1983): 180-84.

Banned in West Bend. Web. 12 May 2011. http://www.bannedinwestbend.info/west-bend-wi

“BlogPulse”. The Nielsen Company. 16 February, 2011.

Dilevko, Juris. “An Alternative Vision of Librarianship: James Danky and the Socio-cultural Politics of Collection Development.” Library Trends, 56 (2008): 678-704.

Mill, John Stuart. ” On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion .” On Liberty. Chapter 2. Web. 11 May 2011. http://www.bartleby.com/130/2.html

Wolkoff, Kathleen N. “The problem of holocaust denial literature in libraries.” Library Trends 45.1 (1996): 87-96.

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