An Interview with Barbara Jones

Barbara Jones
Director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom- American Library Association
Executive Director of the Freedom to Read Foundation
ΦBK, University of Illinois, 1967
Phi Beta Kappa – Chicago Association member


Tell us what you do at ALA and how you came to Chicago for this position.

I am the director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at American Library Association. I am also the executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation, which is affiliated with ALA and shares the office with OIF. This job was previously held by Judith Krug, who was legendary. She founded the office in 1967. She was also an avid supporter of ΦBK and Vice President of the ΦBK Senate when she passed away 2009. Our office helps librarians who have been pressured by their community to remove controversial books from the library shelves—from To Kill a Mockingbird to Fifty Shades of Grey. From books to videogames—any format. We also educate librarians and the general public about why censorship is not the best way to solve the problems of the day—drugs, violence, you name it. We understand the well-meaning impulse to “do something,” but the action of removing a book does not take drugs off the street, nor does it prevent teen suicide or prevent the unspeakable horror of Sandy Hook.   

Judith was my mentor, and she mentored so many of us in my generation of librarians. She was polished, professional, and oh so passionate about the freedom to read. Her professional example struck a chord in me that lasted for my entire career, and now I find myself in her former job.

In the 1960s when the local public library refused to let me use the adult section when I was in junior high, and refused to let me check out Das Kapital by Karl Marx (I was in high school by then), my mother stormed down to the local public library and told them that they must let me check out whatever I wanted to read. I will never, ever forget that. (My mother was fairly conservative, too; it was the principle of the thing for her.) Looking back, the funny thing was that I have never made it through Das Kapital! 

It came at the same time that the John Birch Society was a frightening presence, following the Army/McCarthy Hearings. One of our substitute high school teachers attacked our beloved history teacher who was out on sick leave and unable to defend himself. He was a WWII veteran and passionate about the USA. He had assigned us “The Ugly American” and was attacked for that by our substitute teacher. When he returned to class, I will never forget the tears running down his face when he told us that he loved this country but that he wanted us to understand that others in the world might see the US differently. Those high school years made me who I am, and I am actually thankful for that education. I think back to that time a lot and wonder about the pressure our high school principal and librarians faced. I also think about how important such events are for high school students—that I wasn’t protected from these real-world issues. That is why I am so concerned about those who are called “helicopter parents.”

When Judith called us to do something, we always dropped whatever it was and did it! This has continued after her death. Some of the best IF volunteers are former Judith staff members who left but promised never to refuse assignments! I was told by Judith to head up an evaluation team for ΦBK for the purpose of adding a new university chapter of ΦBK. It turned out to be a very interesting assignment and the beautiful pewter ΦBK thank you gift is sitting right in front of me now!

Before Chicago I was an academic librarian, and I have had a wonderful career. I served as head librarian at four institutions, each very different—University of Northern Iowa; Fashion Institute of Technology (New York City); Union College (New York); and Wesleyan University (Connecticut). I also worked in special collections and am passionate about manuscript and rare book collections. Two fun jobs in that capacity were at the Minnesota Historical Society and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

I am extremely fortunate to serve on an international freedom to read group called FAIFE. (Actually another Chicago ΦBK has also served on FAIFE!) As a result, I have traveled to Africa, Central and South America, Africa, Western and Eastern Europe, and Asia, to give workshops on the freedom to read. Many of these have been sponsored by the U.S. Embassy.   

No matter what my job, I have always been a passionate supporter of the freedom to read and to think critically. My own history convinces me that one should be able to read things that are difficult and sometimes uncomfortable. At the same time, we need to be supported by teachers, librarians, parents, faith leaders, and others to help us with our questions and concerns. But to protect children from discomfort does not serve them well; it will eventually hurt them in the workplace and in facing difficult life challenges.

Did you know about ΦBK Alumni Associations before coming to Chicago? How did you find out about our association?

Whenever I move, I always look for a ΦBK Association, and I am blessed in Chicago. I found ΦBKACA on the web, of course. I absolutely love the Chicago ΦBK Book Group and try never to miss a meeting. My job takes me all over the globe, and twice I have deliberately flown in on Sunday morning so that I can be at the Sunday afternoon book group! This group reflects what I think of as ΦBK values—to be able to have an engaged, respectful conversation, learning from each other, disagreeing with each other sometimes, and having a good meal at the same time! And reading good books. I have to chuckle that we often stay an hour after the table has been cleared to solve our country’s problems! They should only ask us! Every American would have health care, and the recession would never have happened. 

What program did you connect with first – why that one – and what about it keeps you coming back?

In terms of associations in general, I have always been a joiner. So were my parents. One of my favorite historians taught that Americans and volunteerism have gone hand in hand since the founding. I was taught to give back. Associations let us give back and have fun at the same time! Not to mention meet the greatest, most interesting people. At one of our book group meetings a “small world” event happened that I still marvel at. One of the attorneys in the group was talking about a case she worked on, on behalf of women’s rights, and another member of the group had been involved as well! But they had never met until then. Another member lives in my husband’s home town, and kindly brought him the pastry that town is famous for. I love networks, and connections. Networking and putting people together makes my heart sing. 

What have you found about our ΦBK Association that you like, and how did you become more involved?

I was delighted when the ΦBKACA President called to invite me to lunch. She and Judith Krug had been friends and I felt honored that she wanted to meet me. She is also the quintessential networker; I could tell as our lunch got livelier and livelier as we kept making connections and planning good things for ΦBK! As a result, I hosted a Salon at our apartment on Sunday, February 10th, to talk about censorship. I showed the group the Top Ten Banned Books of 2012 and talked about the major reasons books get pulled off library shelves.

Some suggestions for fellow ΦBK alumni key holders?

I encourage all key holders to get active in the Chicago Association, or the ΦBK Association in their local area. Take a look at all the upcoming programs—from art to jazz to Second City! There is bound to be something to interest you. But truly for me the best part has been the people I have met. At the Holiday Party I was able to get to know people beyond the book group. People of all ages. I think multi-generational conversations are very important. 

Any final thoughts?

I want to close by noting that ever since I got my Phi Beta Kappa key at University of Illinois in 1967, I have always felt at home as an educated woman, with key holders, men and women alike. It was not always so easy to be a “bookish” woman! It is hard for women today to understand that. I studied hard for that key and was not always supported. Always supported by my parents, but not always by my peers. I am blessed to be married to David Dorman, whose mother taught all three of her sons to respect educated women. She herself went back to get her M.A. in art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison after she had raised her sons. Perhaps that is what I thought about the most at the ΦBK holiday party. I will never ever take for granted that kind of multi-generational, mixed gender kind of event!

Written by Barbara Jones

Questions from Judi Strauss Lipkin, President ΦBKACA (