Academic Freedom Scenarios

Scenario One: Library Instruction Teaching Methods 

Marisa is a research and instruction librarian who recently graduated from library school and just started her first academic librarian position. She is invited to do a one-shot session for Dr. Alan Paterson, a faculty member in the history department. Dr. Paterson has strong opinions about information literacy instruction, informed by the methods of Marisa’s predecessor. Dr. Paterson expects Marisa to do a “point and click” walkthrough of databases and search strategies for the library catalog, even though this is amply covered by tutorials on the library’s extensive LibGuides. Dr. Paterson doubts his students will look at those, so he wants Marisa to cover it in the session. Not wanting to alienate a faculty member on first contact but skeptical of this approach, Marisa decides to start the session as he has requested, but then send students into breakout groups to work on an assignment where they examine a primary source and then strategize how to find secondary materials to contextualize it. When she pivots to the small groups, Dr. Paterson interrupts her repeatedly, asking her to show students specific resources he finds useful in his own research.

Two weeks later, Marisa’s manager tells her that Dr. Paterson has spoken with someone in library leadership about the class session and expressed his disappointment in Marisa’s methods and lack of deference. While no formal punishment is issued, Marisa feels like she did something wrong. She worries that Dr. Paterson will no longer invite her back to teach and potentially speak poorly of her to colleagues, ultimately impacting her performance review.


  1. Is there a potential academic freedom violation in this scenario? Why or why not?

  2. What is the potential impact of this experience on Marisa’s career development?

  3. What can Marisa and her colleagues do to ensure that negative feedback from faculty is addressed in a fair and reasonable way? What processes are in place already? 

  4. How can teaching librarians “manage up” to increase awareness and support for their pedagogical autonomy to prevent situations like this in the future?

Scenario Two: “Controversial” Exhibit 

Josephine is a librarian and part of a campus wide DEI committee. The committee has a yearlong outreach campaign that includes several initiatives during Black History Month, including an exhibit in the library with a corresponding LibGuide.  One of the books on both the LibGuide and in the exhibit is The Autobiography of Malcolm X. When the exhibit goes up, a community member sends an email to the library dean complaining about the Malcolm X book specifically, but also the exhibit as a whole. Josephine is upset about the email, but the dean dismisses the complaint as relatively harmless trolling, and tells her not to worry about it. 

A week later, a national student publication (funded by a prominent conservative think tank) posts an article about the LibGuide, highlighting the readings about whiteness and racial violence. They mention Josephine by name, and soon she--along with the library and the university--find themselves under attack on social media. At this point, Josephine is frightened but stands by her work. The university’s communications director, however, is caught off-guard by the foment: she's not accustomed to these attacks being directed at the library. In consultation with campus leadership, the communications director instructs the library to take down the guide. 


  1. Is taking down the LibGuide a violation of Josephine’s academic freedom? Why or why not?

  2. What role should library leadership have played in responding to this negative attention from the public?

  3. What would a thoughtful decision-making process look like for determining when and whether to challenge orders to take down content when directed by campus leadership?

Scenario Three: Faculty Input in Weeding Project 

Lin is the head of collection management at her university. Working closely with subject liaisons and the library dean, Lin undertakes a massive weeding project of the library’s print collections. Anticipating pushback from faculty, many of whom see the removal of any book from the collection as an attack on the disciplines that still rely heavily on monographs, Lin and her team decide the best approach is full transparency. They partner with their communications team to launch a coordinated outreach effort to make sure faculty are fully informed of the criteria for deselection (books that have not been checked out in 20 years or more, are held by at least 3 libraries in the state, and 100 libraries in the United States), and provide academic departments with title lists for everything that is slated to be weeded, and offer faculty the opportunity to “rescue” any titles they deem essential. 

Despite Lin’s considerable outreach efforts, faculty from three humanities and social sciences departments, who missed the deadline to comment on the lists, launch a campaign to stop the weeding project. The campaign gains some traction among faculty and graduate students, who sign a petition demanding the library stop “throwing away our books.” Lin, with the support of library leadership, organizes a series of information and listening sessions to address faculty and student concerns. Some faculty find this insufficient response and bring their concerns to the provost. The provost decides their concerns have merit and tells the library dean to place the weeding project on hiatus for an unspecified period of time while he determines a path forward.


  1. What are the potential academic freedom issues (for Lin or anyone else in the scenario) at play here?

  2. What are the implications of faculty and provost interference in established, routine library practices?

  3. How could Lin and library leadership convey their expertise in collection management to the campus community?

  4. What other lessons can be learned from this experience?

Scenario Four: Digital Archives and Politicians 

Midterm elections are coming up, and congressional campaigning is in full swing. There are rumors on social media that, as a college student, one of the candidates attended fraternity events where participants engaged in racial caricature, including blackface. Max, the digital archivist and chief administrator for the institutional repository at the candidate’s alma mater, receives an order from the head of special collections to temporarily suspend access to the digitized fraternity records (including an extensive collection of digitized images) hosted by the library. Max initially refuses to comply, but they are bypassed by their boss, who takes the records offline through election day. 

Max complains about their boss’ actions openly with colleagues on their campus and in their professional organizations. Their boss catches wind of their comments to colleagues and temporarily suspends Max’s admin privileges to ensure the fraternity records are not made public again. Max is relieved to not be officially reprimanded, but the limits to their access to the repository seriously hampers their ability to complete their assigned duties. 


  1. Is there a potential academic freedom violation in this scenario? Why or why not?

  2. What impact might this experience have on Max’s professional growth?

  3. What steps should be taken to address this situation?   

  4. How can Max and other archivists advocate for more autonomy in decisions about making/keeping archival materials accessible?

Scenario Five: Social Media Autonomy 

In his role as the supervisor of an internship for library school students interested in digital public history, archivist Marcus assigns a series of social media posts to his interns. Each intern will create an Instagram post that will be published to the library’s account. The project chronicles the experiences of unhoused people in the community over a twenty-year period, using oral histories and images from the library’s collections, newspaper accounts, and academic research. One intern posts an image of Jim, an unhoused Gulf War veteran, with a quote about how he “used to be able to sit in the local public library all day without being bothered, but that now [post-COVID] the library had changed their policies” on what Jim called “loitering.” The intern then contextualized the quote with research showing a shift in public space policies that disproportionately impact unhoused populations. Marcus approves the post, and applauds the intern’s use of a wide range of sources, including firsthand accounts and academic research. The library’s internal communications team, who also have access to the account, feel Jim’s critique of the public library reflects poorly on the university library, so they edit the post to remove this quote along with the firsthand account sources without consulting Marcus. When Marcus asked for a rationale for the editing, communications said the post included unscholarly references, which they deemed inappropriate. 


  1. Is there a potential academic freedom violation in this scenario? Why or why not?

  2. Should Marcus have been consulted before removing content from the post?

  3. What are some approaches to library social media policy and governance that could lead to a better outcome in this scenario? 

  4. How would your response to this scenario change if the posts were on Marcus’ personal accounts? A departmental account?