By ANDREA MORRIS GRUHL
"Intellectual Freedom" was American Library Association President Ann Symons's theme at the Federal Librarians Round Table (FLRT) Spring Program on March 15.
About 100 people gathered in the Mumford Room to hear the ALA president in her first speech before the Washington-area library community during her presidential year.
Winston Tabb, associate librarian for Library Services, welcomed attendees and introduced three attendees from the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, the main library advisory group to President Clinton.
This writer introduced Ms. Symons, noting the speaker's extensive professional association leadership history both in Alaska and nationwide.
Ms. Symons greeted the group and congratulated the sponsors for their cooperation in planning the day's event: FLRT, the District of Columbia Library Association, the Armed Forces Libraries Round Table, the Library of Congress Professional Association and the Federal Library and Information Center Committee.
"How does someone from a one-person library in a state far far away with 208 ALA members grow up to become ALA's president?" she began.
"I could say hard work, but we all work hard. Being from Alaska helps because nobody ever forgets where you are from. But I am going to step back to when I was a child — a ‘library child.' My parents took me to the library often and I was probably one of the original latchkey children, beginning about 10. My mother worked and I went every afternoon to the public library one block from our house to support my reading habit. Today, even though I work in a school library, I am still an avid public library user."
Symons received her master of library science degree from the University of Oregon in 1970 and worked two years as a serials cataloger at Oregon State University, then "went to Alaska in 1972, where I have been ever since. Thus I have had two jobs in my entire 29-year career as a librarian, and 27 years of that has been working with kids in schools."
Each ALA President is to choose a theme from among ALA's key action areas. This former chair of ALA's Intellectual Freedom Committee chose intellectual freedom as her focus. The theme for the ALA Annual Conference this year is "Celebrating the Freedom to Read, Learn, Connect at the Library."
"The greatness of our libraries and our profession has always been our commitment to intellectual freedom," she continued. "The library is the only public institution that guarantees all people free and open access to information, regardless of their age or ability to pay, their social or political background. …
"Federal librarians, unlike public librarians, are often unsung heroes," said Ms. Symons. "Your complex role is often misunderstood. On behalf of ALA I thank you. …
"No value is more highly regarded by librarians than the freedom to access information, and that freedom has special significance when it comes to accessing government information."
Ms. Symons turned to other issues, saying that when she speaks, "My focus is almost always on children's access to the Internet. Censorship and the basic book challenge is by no means dead. The major focus, however, has turned to the Internet and to protecting children."
"Let me say right up front that librarians and the American Library Association care deeply about children; we also care deeply about the First Amendment. ALA is known as a vigorous defender of First Amendment rights. I believe in the rights of kids … to have free and open access to information in the library. Nowhere in the first amendment does it say that children and young adults are excluded from the rights guaranteed to all under the Constitution.
"ALA has become a leader in promoting quality online resources, particularly for children. … Almost 50 percent of the traffic on ALA's Web site comes from parents looking for the great sites, for the Parents' Guide to Cyberspace."
"We want children and teenagers to have a safe and rewarding experience online, and education of parents and kids about the Internet is one of the responsibilities we take very seriously. Teaching children safety rules is a job for all of us.
"The American Library Association believes all children and adults should have access to this important educational tool — not just those who can afford computers and online connections. For many children and adults, school and public libraries may be the only place they have access to computers and the Internet."
Declaring that, "I don't have any easy answers, but I've never shied away from tackling tough questions," Symons concluded, "There are many hot library issues these days — copyright, ensuring equity of access to information, diversity, literacy — but none is more important than assuring that in the 21st century we will have access to the information we need in whatever format we get it."
Ms. Gruhl is president of the Federal Librarians Round Table.