Critical Librarianship: an interview with Toni Samek

I first met Toni at a talk she gave for the Vancouver Public Library Board. Her official bio is here, with all of her publications and professional and volunteer activities listed. She’s really busy and also chairs the Canadian Library Association’s Advisory Committee on Intellectual Freedom.

Toni’s political take on librarianship and information really excited me and reminded me why I wanted to be a librarian in the first place. I really admire and respect her. I just read her most recent book Librarianship and Human Rights: A Twenty-first century guide and wondered if she would answer a couple of my questions and she agreed.
What is critical librarianship? What are the connections between critical librarianship and intellectual freedom?

Critical librarianship is an international movement of library and information workers that consider the human condition and human rights above other professional concerns. This critical community, from which the book draws upon for its optimistic vision for the future, has built up its visibility and momentum over the course of many decades.

Critical librarianship’s historical roots are firmly planted in the 1930s US progressive library movement. Like critical library discourse, American library rhetoric on intellectual freedom also dates back to the 1930s. Starting in the late 1960s, however, advocates of an alternative library culture based on the concept of library social responsibility, that included the librarian’s right to freedom of expression, lobbied the ALA to extend the concept of intellectual freedom to include library practitioners as well as library users. For example, these alternative library culture advocates believed that while, as professionals, librarians have “the responsibility for the development and maintenance of intellectual freedom,” as citizens, librarians have the fundamental right to freedom of expression (e.g. library employee freedom of speech in the workplace on professional and policy issues and freedom of the library press).i So, the ethos of critical librarianship is inextricably linked to the ethos of intellectual freedom, and by extension then the concept of human rights. But as Al Kagan wrote in the context of the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee’s opposition to an international boycott of an apartheid regime, “many intellectual freedom supporters do not appear to recognize that all human and political rights, including intellectual freedom, are constantly impacting on each other and as a consequence none are absolute.”ii Indeed, critical library discourse is a site of contestation for various stakeholders in the dominant culture of the profession, because it challenges librarianship to re-conceptualize the traditional ethic of intellectual freedom.

Note: On May 16, 2007, Sandy Berman wrote to the Cataloging & Support Office at the LC to recommend a new subject heading: “CRITICAL LIBRARIANSHIP”, indicating that “the innovated form may be immediately applied” to my new book!

Also note: In spite of the ground breaking work done by IFLA, Shiraz Durrani cautions that “while IFLA has done and can do a lot of good work, it remains a representative body of official Library Associations around the world, and most of them are conservative, establishment-orientated bodies. One cannot expect IFLA to be a radical organisation for change in the interest of working people around the world. But it is not necessary to have one or the other (IFLA or alternative, progressive organisations). There is room for both types of organisations. They may work together sometimes and have contradictions at other times; ­this is a healthy state of affairs. At the same time, I think there is an urgent need for alternative progressive organisations” if libraries are to become “more relevant to the majority of people.” Indeed, around the world, critical librarians engage in persuasion and consensus building through a diverse array of measures such as petitions, manifestos, resolutions, rallies, boycotts, alternative conference programs, publishing, lobbying, and daily information exchange to address historical inequities.

i Canadian Library Association, Statement on Intellectual Freedom (Adopted June 27, 1974; Amended November 17, 1983 and November 18, 1985). See

ii Al Kagan, “Living in the Real World: A Decade of Progressive Librarianship in the USA and in International Library Organizations” INNOVATION 22 (June 2001), page 12.

I’m really excited about your new book. I like the examples of various creative social action strategies that library workers have used. What are your favourite strategies for creative resistance from your book?


Definition: The action of the verb BORROW (senses 1, 2); taking on loan, taking at second-hand, etc.; also concr., that which is borrowed (OED).


An innovative, alternative program in the Mälmo library allowed patrons to “borrow” a member of a minority group, in an effort to foster social tolerance.

“A Swedish library, realizing that books are not the only things being judged by their covers, will give visitors a different opportunity this weekend—to borrow a Muslim, a lesbian, or a Dane. “The city library in Malmo, Sweden’s third-largest city, will let curious visitors check out living people for a 45-minute chat in a project meant to tear down prejudices about different religions, nationalities, or professions. The project, called Living Library, was introduced at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival in 2000, librarian Catharina Noren said. It has since been tried at a Copenhagen library as well as in Norway, Portugal, and Hungary.
“The people available to be “borrowed” also include a journalist, a gypsy, a blind man, and an animal rights activist. They will be available Saturday and Sunday in conjunction with a Malmo city festival and are meant to give people “a new perspective on life,” the library said in a statement. “There are prejudices about everything,” Noren said. “This is about fighting those prejudices and promoting coexistence.”


Women, Status of
Definition: The legal standing or position of a person as determined by his membership of some class of persons legally enjoying certain rights or subject to certain limitations; condition in respect, e.g., of liberty or servitude, marriage or celibacy, infancy or majority (OED).

Popova-Gosart, U. (2005). Role of libraries in enhancing status of women in post-war societies: The case of Kosovo. Retrieved July 2, 2006, from

Below there are practical suggestions to be introduced to the Kosovo Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports to improve the situation of women security with the use of libraries.

1. Invest attention and funds to the revival of the rural libraries, as those that have most outreach capacity for the population.

2. Spread the educational sources among libraries that discuss the concepts and experiences of violence directed on women in Kosovo and other places in the world. Spread information about the relief organization and remedies available for the victims.

3. Open legal corners to educate the population about their rights, and the rights of women. Refer the population to the free legal practitioners working in the area.

4. Disseminate literature of the Kosovo writers, women and men to discuss the common experiences of people to establish the channels for communication between the groups of different ages, and ethnic backgrounds. Spread the literature about experiences of women in similar situations – Bosnian, Chechen – for the locals to learn and apply their methods of survival. Open the literary centers and societies in the libraries.

5. Within the libraries equipped by the modern ITs open the computer literacy courses and establish income generating and skill training projects for the children, and especially for the young girls. Spread the educational sources such as a free database Mapping the World of Women Information via CD-ROMs wherever the Internet connection is non-available.”


What IF issues do you see as the most critical for librarians and information professionals?

I think we have two paramount problems:

1) Broadly in society, the cutting of teacher librarians is the surest way to curtail intellectual freedom from the ground up in a person’s lived experience. Like many, I am a mother of kids who attend an elementary school with no teacher librarian on staff. In my firm view, critical inquiry will not be fully realized in a school without a professional librarian and a well stocked library. That saddens me deeply as a parent, not just for my kids but for all our kids. What does their future hold? What will their notions of freedom be? Will they ever really internalize the difference between the right to read and the right to read anonymously?

2) Within our own LIS ranks, the lack of workplace speech is catastrophic to our full development as a profession. We advocate intellectual freedom for our publics and yet we don’t have it as LIS workers for ourselves. Yes, the ALA adopted a workplace speech resolution in 2005 (thanks to Sandy Beman’s great efforts). But, no, the ALA does not govern or have enforcement authority over any library administration. Thus, it is rhetoric that needs to be realized in reality. How else can we make progress on deep issues such as classism, privatization, white privilege, mass registration and surveillance, contingent worker models?

What are the major IF issues in Canada?

As current (and a former) Chair of the Canadian Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, I can tell you frankly that I monitor censorship daily. I see action (e.g., Librarians Without Borders, community development librarianship) and struggle as well as chill and passivity in the Canadian LIS community. Our community, like any other, is a microcosm of broader society. But as free a country as Canada is, there are still daily censorship issues in which LIS workers have a stake. These span a continuum from bookstore, library, and school challenges, to limited public access to government information, to monopolies in publishing, to killings of Canadian journalists, to outdated copyright legislation, to erosion of public space, to closure of school libraries, to criminalizing our poor people. Unfortunately the list reads like a catalogue. It is a day to day-to-day thing. Some days are a victory for intellectual freedom work. Other days end in defeat. Recently I am in a happier place simply because I learned that Kurdish writer Jalal Barzanji was named writer in exile by the Edmonton Public Library, the University of Alberta, and the City of Edmonton. What a great collaboration. This year, Barzanji is able to mentor other writers from offices at the public library and the university. That is librarianship and human rights in action!

What should LIS departments be doing to promote more awareness and interest in IF issues?

Number 1: We should counter the fact that we’ve bleached library history out of our programs. We are growing up new generations of LIS workers who don’t know where their library roots come from. This keeps us all down. (It contributes to a lack of pride for one thing.) We take intellectual freedom for granted as a core value. But we did not always embrace it and we may not always embrace it. It needs to be understood fully to be protected and valued. People make – and break – value systems. We need to know when we opted for intellectual freedom – and why. Only then can we really defend it to its fullest.

Likewise, we should continue the collective push to get information ethics into the curriculum to the extent that it is required by the COA Standards. As Kenneth Kister so wisely observed 40 years ago, waving around the Library Bill of Rights is not a quality intellectual freedom education. Not if you want LIS workers to operate from a place other than fear or ignorance. We all owe thanks to Kister, who developed and taught the first stand alone course in intellectual freedom at Simmons College, Boston in 1968. Today there are 12-15 such courses offered amongst the 50+ ALA accredited schools. Is that good enough? No.

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