In the Fall of 2023, Ithaka S+R reached out to 15 library leaders at public research universities throughout the United States and asked them to speak about their current experiences regarding censorship, self-censorship, and academic freedom. Today, we are publishing our anonymized findings from these semi-structured interviews.

What is Really Happening in Public University Libraries?

Over the last several years, K-12 education and public libraries have been the subject of major political conflicts regarding the educational materials and literature they teach and collect, and recently those tensions have shifted toward higher education. This was, perhaps, most visible in media coverage of Florida’s STOP WOKE Act and its expansion from K-12 to higher education. Recently, higher education policies around free speech, hate speech, bias, and the limits of academic freedom protections have received increased scrutiny, while at the same time an increasing number of states are prohibiting the use of public funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, offices, and programming.

Against this backdrop, we set out to interview library leaders to gain a better understanding of what is actually happening on the ground and how emergent policies are, and are not, tangibly impacting public university libraries.

While we interviewed leaders throughout the country, we examined and compared experiences among library leaders in two different contexts: those working in states that had passed or proposed laws or policies limiting the way programs, positions, or funds can be used for diversity, equity, and inclusion or issues related to sex, gender, and sexuality and those in states without these restrictive policies.

It is important to note that at the time these interviews were conducted, while laws had been passed in several states, very few had passed regulations and begun implementation. This is, then, a snapshot of leader experiences and perspectives of a particular moment in time. While we think the paper will be of great interest across stakeholders in higher education, we caution against making systemic generalizations from the limited, anecdotal data. For a more complete view of the landscape, a more systematic and expansive study will be needed.

Key Findings

  • Academic library collections are not being directly censored by policy or subject to large-scale, systematic content challenges.
  • Decisions around collection building were, however, being influenced by state and university policy and politics.
  • University academic freedom policies continue to serve as a defense against content challenges.
  • University and library leadership requires an extensive amount of political savvy, balancing commitments to different groups with sometimes differing values or perspectives.
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, programs, and units in libraries are being renamed and reorganized in some states, but rarely eliminated. Several interviewees suggest that the underlying services and their impacts will be unhindered. For them, a critical issue is that many of their employees are scared, which is impacting the workplace.
  • Library directors in certain states feel it has become more difficult to recruit and retain top talent, especially when prospective employees or their family members are LGBTQ+.
  • Library directors are seeking opportunities to speak to others at peer institutions about these issues without drawing public attention. They do not want organizations to speak for them or advocate on their behalf, out of fear that it will draw negative attention to their libraries.

We are continuing to study censorship, self-censorship, and academic freedom in additional contexts, and later this year we will publish reports exploring these issues from the perspective of instructors and within higher education in prison programs. We are also convening a cohort to determine how academic libraries can better assess and build DEIA-oriented collections and to promote best practices in identifying and documenting a library-wide DEIA collection development strategy.