On April 13, Ivanka Trump sent out a tweet in honor of National Library Week. “…we honor our libraries and librarians for opening our eyes to the world of knowledge.” Librarians and organizations like the ALA quickly responded with tweets the gist of which was, ‘thanks, but we’d feel more honored if your dad wasn’t hoping to eliminate the funding from the IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services).
While I was happy to see a pushback on what would be a devastating budget for IMLS, the response on social media was… mixed. Several commenters complained about librarians abandoning their profession’s “neutrality.” Now, there are plenty of articles on this site about activism and non-neutrality. After all, it would be pretty silly for the ALA lobbyists to hang around DC telling our representatives and senators that we have no feelings either way about anything. So, where does this expectation of neutrality come from?
I thought about my own practice. When I’m at the reference desk do I ever strive to appear neutral? Well, yes. When a patron comes up to me and asks a question, or requests a book, I try not to betray my feelings about it. I’ve always striven to make everyone comfortable in the library. In my opinion, one way of combating library anxiety is to never give the impression that you’re judging the patron for their reading choices. I will purchase books that I disagree with and provide access to all genres with the same smile on my face. I’ll advocate that no books be banned, not I Am Jazz, not Mein Kampf. Most patrons will encounter me in the “neutral” state, in short interactions at a reference desk. I can see where they might get the impression that librarians never take sides.
But just because most patrons deal with librarians trying to treat everyone and their reading choices with respect doesn’t mean we’re universally neutral. In fact, there are three big areas where we are decidedly not without feeling. When it comes to patron privacy, the library as a public space, and a community’s access to a well-funded library, librarians have opinions.
Librarians have a strong respect for privacy. Library users are most free to explore their interests when they are not afraid of being judged. A major part of that depends on librarians who do not share the personal information. Multiple times, librarians have fought the federal government over access to patron records. They’ve gone to jail. They’ve gone to court. So, anyone who thinks librarians have never taken a political stand for library values doesn’t have to look far to be proven incorrect.
The library belongs to everyone. Libraries are open to the public and serve every person in their communites regardless of race, religion, sexuality, or citizenship status. Members of marginalized groups might not use the library if they don’t feel wanted or safe. This means librarians must cultivate a welcoming space. This means materials and programming aimed at patrons who are autistic, who are English language learners, etc. It means building a collection that mirrors the diversity of our world and our communities. It also means making it clear that hateful words and actions aren’t tolerated in the library. Hate crimes in libraries have increased in the past year to such an extent that the ALA has begun keeping track of them. In cases of hate, neutrality is not an option. If library staff doesn’t condemn hateful incidents that occur on their premises, they take the side of the perpetrator through their inaction. That, in turn, signals that in this public space, some members of the public are more welcome than others. To state it plainly, that’s unacceptable. The library is a public good for the whole public.
Finally, librarians are never going to be neutral about their existence. We all work in libraries because we believe they are important to a functioning democracy. Although the IMLS makes up a negligible portion of the budget for many libraries, its elimination would mean over $200 million less for libraries across the nation and would undoubtedly hurt low income and rural areas the hardest. (It’s done some pretty nice things in my home state of Iowa.) To provide adequate access to information, libraries need adequate funding. It is not at all unusual for libraries to take a side when it comes to levying taxes or otherwise wrangling about funding at the local, state, and yes, federal level.
In summary, I can see where some people might think librarians are neutral. The public library isn’t going to endorse candidates for office or refuse to purchase books they don’t agree with politically. However, librarianship is a profession with a strong code of ethics. When it comes to privacy and intellectual freedom, when it comes to maintaining a welcoming space for the public, and when it comes to having enough resources to provide that public with up to date information, there should be no expectation of neutrality. In fact, I’d argue that complete neutrality is not only unrealistic, but un-librarian as well.