This month, the Vanderbilt University Library began an advertising campaign which features a sign that reads, “Libraries don’t take sides.” It’s bright yellow with black block text floating on the left and right margins. It’s a stylistic choice that renders the sign nearly unreadable, but certainly striking. They posted an image of the sign on the Vanderbilt Library twitter feed with a fountain pen emoji. Library twitter is furious about it.
To understand why this statement was met with so much anger from library workers and supporters, we must look for context clues which show us that this debate has deep roots in the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights and its interpretations. Specifically, we must think of the library profession’s core value of Intellectual Freedom. The 7th edition of the Intellectual Freedom Manual states:
Intellectual freedom can exist only where two essential conditions are met: first, that all individuals have the right to hold any belief on any subject and to convey their ideas in any form they deem appropriate, and second, that society makes an equal commitment to the right of unrestricted access to information and ideas regardless of the communication medium used, the content of work, and the viewpoints of both the author and the receiver of information.
Some information professionals interpret this to mean that libraries should remain neutral spaces in order to maintain patrons’ abilities to access any information they please, regardless of their identity, status, or background. The reasoning here is that by not offering any opinion or perspective, our communities can feel safe to use our spaces and access materials even if their beliefs contradict hegemonic ideologies. In theory, this is a plausible perspective. I do believe that in a perfect world, it would be possible for an organization to maintain true neutrality in the interest of letting citizens think as deeply and broadly as they see fit. It is possible that in particular utopic circumstances, this position could lead to a more balanced discourse.
Unfortunately, this is not the world we live in. Libraries have never been neutral spaces – to imagine that they can be now is a naive fantasy and a perspective that actively harms oppressed communities. Every decision made about collection development and maintenance, staffing needs, strategic planning, as well as countless other aspects of library management involves people taking sides informed by experience, bias, and hopefully thoughtful research. By no means can we claim that any of these decisions are neutral. We live in a highly politicized world, one teeming with mass corruption, civil unrest, and polarized opinions. You’d be hard pressed to find any decision a person can make that is not political in some way. All of our communities and every library worker lives in these conditions. To ignore this truth robs us of the shared experience of facing persistent injustice and navigating the complexity of making morally sound decisions for ourselves and for the people we serve.
Furthermore, asserting that neutrality is the practice that best serves all patrons ignores the inherent power inequalities present within our communities. True neutrality is only a helpful goal when all viewpoints share an equal amount of representation within our communities. Of course, this is not the case. Not all perspectives in our culture are granted equal representation, whether they should be or not. And as a result, remaining neutral is nearly equivalent to siding with whatever dominant ideology is present at the time. To truly support intellectual freedom, libraries cannot remain neutral, they must actively work to support the voices of the underrepresented folks in their communities.
I am certainly not the first person to argue this. There have been many pieces written on HLS and elsewhere questioning the myth of neutrality in librarianship. One thing I find interesting about many of these pieces is the lively comment sections that proceed them, full of folks arguing against the authors’ positions. One of the top criticisms expressed in these comments sections claims that abandoning neutrality as a principle in librarianship allows people in power to push political agendas on our communities, in turn violating their safety. In this conception, the library should work to remain immune to any political opinions in order to protect patrons. While the goal of these differing perspectives align (protecting and serving communities) I think this tension points to an inherent disagreement on what neutrality means in the library.
Certainly, it is harmful to push political agendas on citizens without their consent. This is not the role of the library. However, it is equally harmful to not highlight and support diverse representations and dialogues about important political issues among our staff and communities. Without this, we run the risk of erasing the rich experiences of the people around us and squander the opportunity to create meaningful change toward more inclusive spaces. As stated in the ALA’s Politics in American Libraries: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights:
The robust exchange of ideas and opinions is fundamental to a healthy democracy. Providing free, unfettered access to those ideas and opinions is an essential characteristic of American libraries. Therefore, libraries should encourage political discourse as part of civic engagement in forums designated for that purpose. Libraries should not ignore or avoid political discourse for fear of causing offense or provoking controversy.
I think it’s that last line we should pay the most attention to: Libraries should not ignore or avoid political discourse for fear of causing offense or provoking controversy. Our communities deserve spaces that allow them to thoughtfully engage with the complex world around us. Libraries should be the place that citizens can come to thoughtfully engage in political discourse. It is our responsibility to provide this, and not one we can fulfill without taking sides.
Mary Elizabeth Allen is an MLIS student at San Jose State University. She holds a B.A. in Literature with an emphasis in Fiction Writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She also works at the University Library at UC Santa Cruz as the Circulation Student Manager. Her professional interests include the intersections between critical librarianship and social justice, the history of information sharing, and radical feminist scholarship. Follow her on Twitter @marylizallen for a random collection of depressing thoughts and cat memes.