Libraries Should Take Sides: Breaking Down the Neutrality Myth

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.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

4 replies

  1. No Mere Mechanism: The Library Neutrality Statement

    “And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.

    “So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.”—Kurt Vonnegut

    The Fundamentalist Mindset in the Past Century

    In the last hundred years, the most dangerous fundamentalist mindset with which librarians had to contend in the United States was one which questioned the loyalty of everyday Americans in the face of what many saw as a threat from international forces determined to rule the minds of people and turn them into mere mechanisms of a class-based movement. It demanded tests and oaths to keep the halls of education and public service free from adherents to political doctrines which denied the individual and elevated the collective. It demanded surveillance and intrusion and implied disloyalty and subversion in those who resisted. Librarians resisted nevertheless. Librarians refused to cooperate with those who, like Senator Joseph McCarthy, sought to defame by implication. Principled librarians refused to remove materials deemed un-American or subversive from their shelves or to share with investigators lists of books read by citizens, be they convinced or merely curious. These investigators were reckless and cruel, ruining the lives and reputations of many Americans, including some, like John Henry Faulk, who committed the crime of simply having an open mind. Everything a citizen said, left unsaid, created or left undone was used to imply un-Americanism as convenient. Librarians resisted, even those who agreed in principle that the threat the investigators sought to counter was real. Some librarians went so far as to refuse to do anything that hinted at that personal agreement in the discharge of their duties out of solidarity with those whose failure to take Levering Oaths or swear other forms of ideological fealty held them up to scorn or loss or reputation and career.

    The Fundamentalist Mindset in the Current Era

    At the current historical moment, the pendulum is approaching the completion of its swing back. A new but very similar fundamentalist mindset is now ascendant in American political life: one which likewise calls for the political interpretation and ascription of political meaning to every word, phrase, work, structure, organization and human endeavor, insisting that no act (nor any actor) can be neutral in a world rife with injustice, calling to mind Martin Luther’s theological assertion that every human exists in a state of “total [and] inherited depravity.” This new fundamentalism can be said to be a precise reversal of that which faced librarians 60 years ago, but is no less pernicious and at this moment in history, every bit as potentially destructive.
    In this mindset, the all-encompassing state of historical original sin in which American society was founded makes all subsequent constructs, however seemingly innocuous, tainted unto the brink of illegitimacy. In this mindset, everything in our lives is imbued and stained with those “original sins”, be they genocide, slavery, apartheid, sexism, homophobia, forced displacement of populations, unjust warfare, etc. Furthermore, much like the Belgic Confession’s Doctrine of Original Sin, the recognition of past sins and the commitment to avoid creating an environment conducive to them in the future is insufficient and impossible as “sin constantly boils forth as from a contaminated spring.” In this mindset, the contaminated spring is history and the streams of this spring are given many names: “capitalism,” “privilege,” “implicit bias,” “racism,” “police brutality” or some atavistic mixture of all.
    In this mindset, the failure to act in some prescribed way impugns morality, echoing the mindset of Joseph McCarthy who opined: “The great difference between our western Christian world and the atheistic Communist world is not political, gentlemen, it is moral.” In this mindset, failure to make statements or take actions countering “injustice” or, likewise, to fail to act in such a way as to further “justice” necessarily marks a person or organization as in the camp of “oppression.” These ideas, these words, are purposely left poorly defined and those who seek more precise definitions held up to scorn: who, after all, can fail to define “injustice” but the oppressor? Who can fail to define “racism” but a racist? Sixty years ago the question might have been: “Who but a ‘Red’ can fail to define ‘Americanism’?”

    Imprecise Definitions and Purposely Vague Language

    Like the situation faced by “K.” in Kafka’s The Trial, to sense accusation in the current sociological narrative is to hint at guilt and to attempt any defense is to confirm it. The mere exercise of seeking linguistic or philosophical precision becomes a crime of conscience—a confirming earmark of “oppressor” status—ignoring that, in the minds of many, neither public policy nor personal philosophy can be based on the linguistic vagaries of a political platform of general principles, however well-meaning. The modern fundamentalists won’t even go so far as to do the political infidels of the world the favor of publishing the equivalent of a succinct “catechism” or even a consistent glossary.

    The Denial of Neutrality and Apolitical Inquiry

    In this mindset, there can never be a neutral space; there can be no place where people are free from the agendas or counter-agendas of the political or social forces in the larger society, forces vying constantly for power, control and influence over people’s minds and lives. Like Mussolini, today’s fundamentalists insist: “O con noi o contro di noi”—“You are either with/for us or against us.” (As seen on protest signs: “Silence is complicity.”) Like both Hitler and Trotsky, they insist that “Art is politics.” In this mindset, the mere seeking of an apolitical or ideology-free space or taking an observer’s stance makes the seeker or observer suspect, either as an oppressed person in a pathetic, ignorant denial about their marginalized status or an oppressor seeking shelter or reprieve from the blame and responsibility rightly and justly assigned them by some invisible consensus.
    This mindset is antithetical to intellectual freedom. It is an insult to free thinkers. This doctrine is designed to impugn and deny the very possibility of intellectual freedom or free thinking, insisting that the worldview of the individual mind cannot be the result of that individual’s reflection or discernment, but that each person’s ideas are instead resultant of a sort of meta-programming dumped into the masses through a conspiratorial miseducation by powerful concerns bent upon exploiting, controlling and perhaps even destroying them. They echo the “anti-Great Man” thought of the Marxist theoretician George Novack, who wrote: “History has not been generated nor has its course been guided by preconceived ideas in any mind… [Society’s] members have fashioned their relations, customs, institutions and ideas in accordance with their organization of labor…It is the changes in the conditions of life and labor which underlie the making and remaking of our human nature.”
    In this determinism, the mindset is virulently anti-human, anti-democratic and anti-intellectual and denies an individual’s ability to self-cultivate. Indeed, it denies and mocks the possibility of self-cultivation, blithely reducing every human being to the status of mere mechanism in a “system,” a cog in a great social machine. The human being is no mere mechanism. People who contend that they are must be opposed in a free society, and a society of the free.

    The Need for a Censor Class

    In this mindset, there must be a censor class with the best interests of the masses at heart, willing and able to strategically and selectively interpret, re-frame, highlight, hide or destroy any and all information the purveying of which denies “justice” and/or furthers “injustice” (or vice versa) as codified by those who define those terms (applying ideology in equal measure with etymology as they go) and seek to make their definitions part of the political vernacular and enforced orthodoxy of a given historical moment. In some people’s minds—including the minds of many librarians—librarians would neatly and properly fit the bill as far as being part of that envisioned censor class goes.
    This last point illustrates the relationship totalitarianism of all bents and stripes, either social or governmental, has to information and language, always and everywhere and necessarily. In history, there are as yet no exceptions to this rule.

    Guiding Ethical Principles Reaffirmed

    Thus, as long as Intellectual Freedom is defined by the American Library Association as: “the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction… provid[ing] for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored,” and as long as the “Freedom to Read Statement” states that librarians “do not foster education by imposing as mentors the patterns of their own thought,” then:

    • Any public library at which any staff member is allowed to evaluate a work or source of information for suitability of usage using any standard beyond cost/budget impact, authority or timeliness fails in its mission;
    • Any public library at which selectors decide the authority of a source based solely or in part on the viewpoint of its creators, however problematic or repugnant to prevailing sensibilities, fails in its mission;
    • Any public library the administration or Board of which fails to collect or withdraws a work on ideological grounds fails in its mission;
    • Any public library which engages in cause politics—however noble in the minds of programmers– in its outreach or programming, explicitly or implicitly favoring any broadly-defined political worldview over another fails in its mission;
    • Any public library that fails to be consistent in its official policies of either endorsement or non-endorsement of outside programming or public meeting space usage solely on ideological grounds fails in its mission;
    • Any public library that does not write, fails to publicize, or fails to abide by its collection development policy fails in its mission;
    • Any public library which employs a director or administrator who discharges his/her duties in such a way as to run counter to the ideals of Intellectual Freedom or the Freedom to Read as defined by the American Library Association fails in its mission;
    • Any public library which budgets either public money or private donations received for the support of any political party, candidate or expressly ideological organization, movement or cause, however popular or noble, fails in its mission.
    The public library is not a religious institution. The public library is not an ideological institution. The public library is not a re-education camp with any social or political orthodoxies or ideological shibboleths in mind.
    There MUST BE neutral, ideology-free spaces. Those who counter or deny the possibility of neutral, ideology-free spaces must be opposed.
    The public library is a neutral, ideology-free space. The public library MUST BE a neutral, ideology-free space. Those who counter or deny the possibility of neutral, ideology-free public libraries must likewise be opposed.

    Neutrality vs. Inaction

    Contrary to popular platitudes afoot, library neutrality does not mean inaction in the face of what one swath or another of the population determines to be “injustice” or “oppression,” however they define those terms at any given historical moment. Making a balanced collection of information available in an equitable way is itself a “political” act under the purposely and consciously non-partisan ideological umbrella of “intellectual freedom.” Libraries by their very nature and mission as storehouses and databases for information influence the minds of those who use them and librarians by their nature should have faith that fair and equal access to information leads minds out of what most people would think of as ignorance but must be equally willing to accept that it may not. Some people use information for no other purpose than to defend and perhaps even more deeply entrench notions that the majority either detests or reveres, but library neutrality means making information available with a conscious effort to avoid letting popular opinion, however agreeable or disagreeable, impact accessibility. Neutrality means a state of conscious and purposeful ideological and political disengagement; neutrality means being all-available, all-welcoming, all-serving and existing in a state of institutional detachment from the social, political, ideological and religious contentions of a world steeped in warring convictions, both noble and ignoble. Indeed, neutrality is not inaction: in a society overcome by worldviews clashing, neutrality itself is revolutionary.

    –Neque Nonneqius

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