The Myth of Neutrality

Academic libraries balance freedom of expression with psychological safety

June 28, 2021

Confronting the Myth of Neutrality

College campuses have long been fierce battlegrounds in the culture wars. What are the limits of free speech and neutrality? Are any campus spaces truly safe for marginalized students and communities? And how do libraries figure in? A panel of academic librarians discussed these issues during “Confronting the Myth of Neutrality: Academic Libraries, Advocacy, and Free Speech,” an on-demand session at ALA’s 2021 Annual Conference and Exhibition Virtual.

“The act of education is an act of vulnerability, the willingness to open up to the possibility of a new worldview or at the very least be exposed to it even if it doesn’t shift your own,” said Stacy Collins, research and instruction librarian at Simmons University in Boston. There are those who arrive at educational institutions, and particularly academic libraries, expecting to be challenged, she said, “but do we expect to have to take on that vulnerability in every single space?” There’s a difference, Collins said, between worldview-expanding exposure and content that casually dehumanizes.

“I don’t necessarily think libraries’ roles are to ensure that everything that is on the shelf is something that will never bring harm to anybody,” said Emily Knox, interim associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Information Sciences at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “I don’t think that that’s the library’s role, and I often worry that’s what some people think the library’s role is. It’s more to think about: How do we frame this debate? How do we make sure that the best ideas are getting out there?”

“I like to move away from this whole discussion as to ‘should libraries be neutral’ because quite frankly they never really have been neutral,” said Renate Chancellor, chair and associate professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., pointing out that academic libraries exist at the intersection of multiple hierarchy-based systems in higher education. “In terms of helping marginalized individuals, it’s important for those who work in libraries to understand that their collections, their services, how they do programming, needs to be reflective of the community. We can’t separate what’s going on in the nation, in the world, from its impact in libraries, because it all affects libraries.”

Adriene Lim, dean of libraries at University of Maryland in College Park, said that libraries and library workers exist on a political spectrum, ranging from apathetic bureaucrats at one end to outspoken social justice activists on the other, each side bearing its own risks.

“We know if there is a power differential, students who are speaking out on some of these issues are definitely worried or are experiencing penalties in ways that those with more privilege are not,” Lim said. “At the policy level, we [in academic libraries] should be involved in those conversations, expressing our values, and trying to be advocates for those in our community who have less power.”


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