Mobilising for intellectual freedom: interview with the Observatory on Censorship of the Italian Library Association
22 September 2023
In the first of an occasional series about how national library associations are addressing questions around freedom of access to information and freedom of expression, we asked the Italian Library Association (AIB) about their experiences, and the lessons they can share.
We are very grateful to the entire team at the Association, in particular the colleagues in the AIB Observatory on Censorship, who answered our questions. We hope that their experience inspires others. We are also keen to share other insights and experiences – don’t hesitate to get in touch if your association is involved in FAIFE issues, and you want others to benefit from the lessons you can offer.
IFLA: How long has AIB worked on questions related to freedom of access to information and freedom of expression (FAIFE)?
AIB: The Italian Libraries Association (AIB, Associazione Italiana Biblioteche) has always had freedom of access to information among its core values; promoting this goal is one of its institutional purposes, in accordance with the Statute (art. 2.e). Our professional deontology, as expressed in 1997 in a code of conduct, places access to documents among the first duties of the librarian; moreover, the updated version of the Code of Ethics, issued by AIB in 2014, considers library service «as a tool of democracy and freedom» (art. 3.2) and commits librarians «to guarantee the transmission of recorded knowledge and of any form of recorded expression […] by acting impartially and with professional culture» (art. 2.2), «not conditioned by […] personal opinions and values or by external pressures» (art. 1.2).
As an IFLA member, AIB also takes into great account the UNESCO-IFLA Public Library Manifesto and IFLA’s own statement on Intellectual Freedom, both underlining the independence of librarians’ choices from religious or political views.
How do you organise your work today?
Some AIB initiatives against political interference in the evaluation of library books have taken place over a number of decades, but they have been more frequent since 2015. Many times, AIB has written to public administrators, even issuing press releases, to point out censorship cases and support the colleagues involved. The activity of monitoring incidents of censorship was formalized in September 2018 by creating the Observatory on censorship: thus it was possible to focus not only on reactions (contesting individual cases) but also on actions, proactively spreading a culture of freedom of expression and access to information.
In order to achieve these goals, AIB devised the “Saved books” (Libri Salvati) initiative, now at its fourth edition: an annual commemoration – held during the month of May – of the book burnings that occurred for ideological reasons. Librarians are invited to organize events, conferences and readings in libraries, engaging their communities in promoting a shared reflection on these themes; the full programme is announced on the AIB website.
The role of the Observatory on this occasion is crucial, especially in planning a pivotal roundtable in which librarians but also writers, publishers, journalists, scholars, teachers are invited, because the struggle for freedom of expression is transversal. After its first edition entitled “The banality of censorship”, in the latest years the title of the roundtable has become “Who’s afraid of libraries?”, to emphasize the subjective and emotional components of censorship, but also the power exercised by books and culture even over those who want to weaken them.
Tell us a few words in particular about the Association’s Censorship Observatory – how was it founded, and what does the Observatory’s work focus on today?
The triggering event to establish the Observatory in 2018 was a news story that struck us: in a small town in central Italy, a public librarian who refused to move some children’s books to the adult section was unexpectedly forced to quit the library and assigned to the urban planning office. AIB reacted by supporting the colleague in the ensuing legal battle; a court decision is still pending but the censored colleague is now herself an active member of the Observatory.
Among the most recent initiatives, since 2021 the members of Observatory filmed – and uploaded on social channels – some video clips where librarians (including us!) read pages from censored books: such “freedom pills” – so we name them – are meant to show the beauty of words and the absurdity of a cancel culture (watch some examples).
Moreover, in 2022 we issued – by email and on our website – an online survey to map censorship cases in Italian libraries. A first report of the results was presented in the latest edition of the “Saved books” initiative, entitled “Censorship is …”, aiming to point out the various and often sneaky ways of practicing censorship, or even self-censorship. Censorship may indeed happen even in subtle forms, not immediately evident, sometimes apparently harmless. Whenever we glimpse dangerous attitudes without reacting, or we give in to undue pressure without denouncing it, or we choose a compromise for ‘quiet living’, or we bow to a misunderstood sense of political or educational ‘opportunity’ by stepping back to our values, we ourselves become censors.
On this specific theme, the Observatory has also produced a short animated movie (1′:22”), launched in May: it shows an episode of potentially unnoticed censorship, aiming to help detecting it. This is supposed to be the first of a series of video clips to be relaunched on social networks; at the moment it’s on AIB Vimeo channel.
What about the survey on censorship – what motivated AIB and the Observatory to launch this?
We have the feeling that interference by politicians and families in the choices of librarians are increasing in recent years, especially when dealing with books for children and young adults about sensitive issues (e.g. religious beliefs or sexual orientation). Since these influences are often masked by opportunity or sensitivity reasons, we wanted not only to map and analyze them, but also to evaluate how – and even if – they’re perceived by librarians. The results of the survey will be useful for planning more effective actions.
What factors did you bear in mind when designing the survey? How did you ensure you would get the most useful possible responses?
We created an online questionnaire, with a friendly layout and very quick to fill in, in order to get a large amount of answers.
We felt it was important for interviewees to indicate their geographical area, so as to understand the different behaviors from the north to the south of the Country (whose economical and cultural gap is rooted in history) and to evaluate more targeted actions.
Furthermore, we asked questions in a functional way to obtain answers that could distinguish the types of censorship (preventing readings, threatening librarians etc.) from their possible reasons (fear, moralistic attitude, political stances etc.), pointing out both.
A key aspect was to protect the anonymity of the interviewees, in order to capture the testimonies of victims of censorship – who may be reluctant to tell their situation – while making them feel safe, without fearing retaliation.
What are the key findings, in terms of types of censorship encountered, the outcomes of challenges, and library staff’s own actions?
The most frequent cases of censorship seem to result in impositions on the purchase and display of books in libraries, or in restrictions related to the representation of sexual or political orientations. Even some kinds of activities in libraries (e.g. readings, exhibitions, festivals) are sometimes hampered.
Furthermore, in our survey we were pleased to note that, in more than 50% of cases, the reaction to the censorship was really effective, solving the problem. With this encouragement we’d like to address all those who read us, so to stimulate them to intervene since the very first suspicion of unjust limitation of the free expression and circulation of thought: let’s make sure that the library community is active and non-condescending; unmasking censorship increases the chances of defeating it.
Were these the trends/results you expected to see; were there outcomes which surprised you?
We were surprised by many outcomes from the survey; each one tells us something about how to guide our future action. It seems particularly significant to us that over 50% of people skipped a simple closed-ended question (yes / no) about the presence of cases of censorship in their libraries. This non-response suggests a fear of being identified, despite the fact that tracing the person who reported the episode would not be possible. Such an alarming attitude reveals a form of self-censorship, which focuses on the theme proposed for our most recent annual roundtable: unperceived censorship.
How will these results inform the work of the Observatory going forward? What’s next for the Observatory?
Let’s start with the critical points: less than 40% of the over 600 people who replied knew about the Observatory on censorship, and 29% of those who witnessed censorship in libraries wrote that they didn’t know where to turn to report it; this makes us understand that we still have a lot of work to do to promote the Observatory and make it known.
On the other hand, at least 19% of the librarians who reacted to censorship reported it to AIB; we hope that this percentage can increase and that the Association can be perceived as a point of reference also for this kind of issues, even thanks to the work of our Observatory.
Furthermore, the most frequent words used in the survey responses (apart from – of course – ‘censorship’ and ‘libraries / library’) were ‘monitoring’ and ‘freedom’, followed by ‘support’ and ‘information’. Such keywords are a road map for us: they underline the widespread need for a body like ours, as a point of reference and encouragement for the free circulation of ideas.
What recommendations do you have to colleagues globally looking to work more on FAIFE issues?
Our slogan could be: involve people to make them think. This is demonstrated by the success of “Saved Books”, which mobilizes libraries to contribute with their initiatives to the programming of the event at national level. Using social media for awareness-raising initiatives can be a good strategy too, especially by encouraging the participation of librarians and citizens, with personal contributions and testimonials.
We also experienced – and hereby recommend – the collaboration with teachers. Some of them, inspired by the Observatory’s initiatives, involved primary and secondary school students in our projects: a video clip with readings or testimonies, posted after a collective discussion, can be worth more than many conferences. Engaging young people in spreading a message of intellectual freedom should encourage working together with schools, also promoting the cooperation of school librarians.
Above all, we emphasize that reacting when a case of censorship has occurred is not enough: it is indeed necessary, with patience and perseverance, going on spreading a culture of inclusion and freedom, also by facing and contrasting the possible biases that separate us from this goal.