Are Libraries Neutral?

Highlights from the Midwinter President’s Program

June 1, 2018

Emily Knox speaks at the Midwinter President’s Program. Photo: Cognotes
Emily Knox speaks at the Midwinter President’s Program. Photo: Cognotes

At the 2018 Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Denver, American Library Association (ALA) President Jim Neal’s program provided a commentary and conversation on the question of libraries as neutral organizations and librarianship as a neutral profession. This popular session featured a debate with two speakers in favor of neutrality, two speakers against neutrality, and a panel of four speakers reacting to the debaters. Their remarks have been edited here for clarity and space; their full remarks are linked when available. Watch the full program video on the Midwinter Scheduler. 

The Moderator

Jim NealALA President Jim Neal

Are libraries neutral? Have they ever been? Should they be? Can libraries be neutral as part of societies and systems that are not neutral? Are libraries, through their processes, their practices, their collections and technologies, able to be neutral?

ALA has long advocated for certain principles, detailed in the Library Bill of Rights and its interpretations, in which the library is presented as content-neutral, open, and accessible to everybody. But some have argued that libraries have never been, are not now, and should not be neutral organizations. Rather, we should be vigorously advocating for a distinct set
of values.

The Speakers

James LaRueJames LaRue
Director, ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom and executive director, Freedom to Read Foundation

I argue that neutrality has a precise and essential meaning: We do not deny access to library services and resources. We do not seek to silence people on the basis of their backgrounds or beliefs. We do set limits on behavior. People who start shouting at or punching other patrons get kicked out or arrested. But our courts have consistently held that speech, whether spoken, written, filmed, sung, or worn on a T-shirt, is not the same thing as action. There has to be imminent and immediate physical danger.

For librarians, neutrality has three dimensions. First is service. The Library Bill of Rights, Article V, says “a person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.” By policy we are not supposed to give preferential treatment to those who agree with us or discriminate against those who don’t.

Recently a librarian asked me: “Suppose someone asks me for contact information for a hate group. Do I have to give it?” And the answer is yes. Once government officials—that would be us—start deciding who is and is not a hate group and what general information should or should not be shared, we will cease to be trusted. And in that case, no one should trust us.

Can librarians punch Nazis because of what they believe? Then we deny them the common legacy of humanity—the right to be really wrong in public. And possibly to learn something.

We also establish a principle that will turn on us.

The second dimension is access to facilities, including programs and technology. Under a well-tested body of law, if the Democrats get to use the room, you can’t deny access to the Republicans. People should be able to investigate them both and make up their own minds.

The third dimension of neutrality is collections. Public scrutiny is the best defense against the spread of poisonous ideology. Library collections, even if they begin perfectly balanced on a topic, change because of three key factors: what the community wants more of, what we know about what’s published, and the ongoing consensus of the field.

Neutrality is about the refusal to deny people access to a shared resource just because we don’t like the way they think. That doesn’t mean that anyone is immune from criticism. In fact, they can expect it. But first they get to speak. Everyone gets a seat at the table. Neutrality is essential to our role in public life. It is enshrined in our values, our laws, and our policies. We abandon it at our peril.

Full remarks.

Chris BourgChris Bourg
Director of libraries, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary both define neutrality as the state of not supporting or helping either side in a conflict, disagreement, or war. Neutrality, by definition, is not taking sides.

The very notion that shared, consolidated community resources ought to exist is not a neutral proposition. A library as an institution represents a decision about how a community spends its resources, and those decisions are not neutral. Decisions like how much funding a library gets, who should have access to a library, and even where the library is located are not neutral decisions.

And I can’t talk about the lack of neutrality in the very notion of libraries as social institutions without acknowledging the fact that the origin of public libraries in the US is inextricably tied to the fact that the history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism, of slavery, of segregation, and of state-sponsored discrimination.

We are over 85% white as a profession, in a country where non-Hispanic whites make up only 63% of the population. I submit to you that a profession does not become so disproportionately white by chance, and there’s nothing neutral about the fact that our profession and most of our organizations have remained stubbornly white for decades, despite changing national demographics and despite all of our rhetoric about how much we value diversity.

The idea that our collections should be inclusive of many points of view, even those points that members of our community find repellent, is not a neutral idea. According to a 2016 General Social Survey poll, 51% of people would favor removing a book by a Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States from their public library, 35% favor removing a book that argues that blacks are inferior, 25% favor removing books by communists, and 17% favor removing books written by a man who admits to being a homosexual. How does a library remain neutral on this issue? One side says keep the book, another side says remove it. You can’t have and not have the book at the same time. None of us, I think, work in Schrödinger’s library.

You can’t just include everything and claim neutrality because doing so means that you are taking the side of those who say include them over those who say remove those books.

I submit to you that allowing those who deny the humanity and the basic dignity of others to co-opt the legitimacy of our libraries and our profession is not a neutral choice.

Full remarks.

Em Claire KnowlesEm Claire Knowles
Assistant dean for student and alumni affairs, Simmons School of Library and Information Science

I am strongly committed to the core value of intellectual freedom. I further believe that we can achieve intellectual freedom only by beginning with a commitment to neutrality. Too often neutrality is presented as what occurs when we don’t do or think anything. I would suggest quite the opposite. Neutrality is a process to which libraries and librarians must actively commit, a goal that must be continually sought, an aspiration that must be regularly renewed and reimagined so as to remain relevant to the institution and to the community it serves.

So how do we become actively neutral? In libraries, when we select materials, we should strive for balanced and unbiased choices. A good starting point would be with a plan or a collection development policy that explains our process. It has been documented that a clearly stated, unbiased, and balanced collection policy may prevent challenges to library materials.

We also must make sure that our libraries are safe, responsible spaces for diverging opinions. We must further acknowledge that our provision of access is not an endorsement of content or of the host group. We must offer access to service to all people in the community and sometimes beyond. And as we do so, we must demonstrate respect for cultural expression and understandings while we also offer new ideas and help to explore new ways of thought.

But here’s where things get complicated because policies have to be written by people. And librarians cannot check their opinions, priorities, and passions at the door. It is in the writing of the policy that we have to be actively striving for neutrality.

To write good policy, we must ensure that librarians are well trained and attentive to the importance of open access to materials, space, and services; that there is diversity of opinion among those writing the policy; and that the policy is written in a work environment where differences of opinion can be freely expressed and where they will be able to impact positively on the final product.

I am not suggesting that we do not have social goals. I don’t think we should ever be indifferent to injustice. I can imagine that there is a middle ground, but I would err on the side of neutrality as the starting place for all communities. I think an active, engaged, continually reaffirmed neutrality is just the first rung on the ladder to advocacy and social justice.

Full remarks.

R. David LankesR. David Lankes
Director, University of South Carolina School of Library and Information Science

The myth of neutrality prevents an engaged, professional conversation with our diverse communities to define the aspirations of that community. All communities, no matter how diverse, seek a better world for themselves. They rarely do this with a single voice, and contradictory definitions of better lead to discord, strife, and inequity. And if we as librarians do not seek to address those inequities as well as shape the definitions, then we are not neutral; we are harmful and instruments of oppression.

First, we are professionals engaging with our community. We long ago rejected the notion that this means we treat all equally. A poor child needs a different level of service to meet our mission than college-educated adults in terms of literacy, for example. If you differentiate or prioritize service in any way to those you serve, you are not neutral.

Second, our profession is not a uniform set of professionals with a single point of action. We are grounded in our communities, be those communities towns, schools, hospitals, or law firms. We are designed that way not for efficiency but because we believe that local knowledge of culture, of resources, of people makes us more effective.

This will look different in different communities because our communities are not neutral. I’ve seen public libraries implement content filters to reduce police surveillance and thereby improve access and privacy. I have seen school librarians refuse to print out Wikipedia pages, not because they are predetermining the validity of the source but because they know a Wikipedia citation will result in a failing grade for the student. I have seen libraries organize brutal conversations on racism that have included the views of white supremacists, not to ensure neutrality, but to directly counter hateful ideas. That is not neutral. That is being part of improving the very unique community before us.

Libraries are not buildings or collections or policies, but communities seeking the most fundamental human quest—meaning. And to find meaning, they need professionals who are not neutral but advocates; are not unbiased but trusted; professionals who unshackled the chains from books, who stock diverse fiction in the face of elitist outcry, and who stood tall against the Patriot Act in the shadow of 9/11. Let us stop debating about how to be neutral and start arguing about how to use our power as a profession to shape a better society, a society that if we are going to claim can be better, can be improved, that we are going to be passionate advocates, not passionately neutral, then we must acknowledge that we have a point of view, and we must work every day to be honest brokers of a better tomorrow.

Full remarks.

The Panel

Emily DrabinskiEmily Drabinski
Coordinator of library instruction, Long Island University, Brooklyn

Libraries are spaces where we encounter real things. Books sit on shelves next to other books, and each book occupies a space that is strictly its own. There are only so many computer terminals in our computer labs and only so many minutes in each day to be parceled out to each seat. Libraries are material, just as library workers and library patrons are.

The debate about neutrality asks us to imagine a world where those real things are infinitely fungible, where we can buy and shelve all books and schedule every event. If we buy 45 copies of Fire and Fury, we can’t also buy the run of books from Cave Canem. We have to make decisions about resources.

I don’t think neutral is a thing that can exist. We are always siding with someone or something or some idea and against others. Those steeped in and rewarded by dominant ways of seeing the world don’t have to know how intensely political the ostensibly neutral position is. If the white supremacists booking your meeting space are not after you, you don’t have to know how dangerous they are. Books about reparative therapy for gay people can be simply another view if yours is not the body and mind those authors seek to destroy. To imagine that neutrality could be something we could choose is an intensely privileged position.

In focusing a conversation on an idealized notion of neutrality that none of us encounter in our real lives, I think we offer an alibi to those who have the power to define themselves and their worldviews as normal, as neutral, as apolitical, and that’s not most of us.

Full remarks.

Emily KnoxEmily Knox
Assistant professor, School of Information Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Should libraries support black people? Sure. What about Black Lives Matter? Let’s think about this a bit. What does it mean to support Black Lives Matter in your library? Does it mean to invite local leaders to speak, to have a display, or some other programming? Does not supporting Black Lives Matter mean a library is neutral?

Let me tell you why I am talking about Black Lives Matter. As we know, we have a very white profession, and I always tell my students, Black Lives Matter is not controversial in my family at all. Right? It is probably controversial in many of your families. There are probably many people out here whose families see Black Lives Matter as a hate group. What does it mean to support it in your libraries? Does not supporting Black Lives Matter make the library neutral? No. It means you’ve made a decision. And making a decision is never neutral.

Is a decision to not support the movement less controversial? Does it protect your library? I would say perhaps, but at what cost? And less controversial for whom?

If you have a Black History Month display in your library, then the library has already stated that black lives matter. Those historical figures being celebrated were the Black Lives Matter of their time.

It may seem like these kinds of choices don’t matter, but a so-called neutral choice is almost always a choice for the status quo, even the case that I gave, though it may seem like a choice to protect the library. The choice can give cover to those who say Black Lives Matter is, say, a terrorist organization, or that they’re “uneasy” with the movement. They may say, “Well, if it’s too controversial for the library, then my uneasiness makes sense.” But does it make sense to support people who feel that way?

Full remarks.

Kathleen de la Pena McCookKathleen de la Peña McCook
Distinguished university professor, University of South Florida

Neither of my parents finished high school, so they were afraid to go into the public library. My dad used to drop me off and say, “Go in, they will be nice to you there. But they wouldn’t want us in there.” I always remembered that, and I always think that sometimes issues of class are as important to keeping people out of the library as other issues that we sometimes think divide us.

A few months ago I had a problem in my house—I don’t know, something fell down or broke—and I still had a lot of political signs up. The worker who came to my house to help me said, “You might not want me to come in. I am a deplorable.” And I said, “Why would you say that?” And he said, “Your kind of people”—I guess I had Hillary things up still—“don’t like me, and I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable.”

So we talked a little, and I asked him about the public library. Did he and his family use it? He said [he] “didn’t think we are the kind of people that should be using the library. I’d rather use the library at my church.” And that made me start to think. We are not the only game in town. We need to realize that people will self-select outside of the library if we don’t make them comfortable. We can’t show them both sides if they don’t come in.

Full remarks.

Kelvin WatsonKelvin Watson
Director of libraries, Broward County, Florida

My experience started in the book distribution arena, where we made virtually everything available to cover every interest and walk of life. I believe in the right of intellectual freedom, so regardless of my point of view, I believe that there should never be a suppression of ideas. The library is, after all, the place where our citizens are supposed to have access and discover differing views.

Being afforded the right to information and resources on diversity and equity, for example, has helped move marginal ideas from the fringes to the forefront. But this is where I diverge from the posture of libraries and librarians on neutrality.

[University of Pretoria LIS Professor] Archie L. Dick wrote, “In the neutral professional model, librarians are seen as value-neutral, and objectivity is highly valued; this leaves a greater emphasis on the delivery of information over the result, regardless of the morality of the end product.”

Across the board, neutrality gives the information professional, libraries, and librarians the ability to take a nonstance on important issues and avoid accountability by abdicating any ethical responsibility. Claiming neutrality endangers us as an institution by resulting in an unconscious adoption of the values of the dominant political model and framework. Simply put, colleagues: We can’t be neutral on social and political issues that impact our customers because, to be frank, these social and political issues impact us as well.


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