Factfulness, Neutrality, and the Participant Partisan

At any given moment wherein some conflict between two or more parties is ongoing, observers must choose a position. The positions may be as complicated as the conflicts themselves but are usually combinations of some basic options. Observers might:

  1. Completely avoid the conflict as much as possible so that no observation-borne judgment can be made as to which parties involved are “right” or “wrong.” This might be called the “Uninvolved and Uncurious” position. The observer doesn’t care that there is a conflict ongoing or how or why it started or what the stakes may be. Depending on one’s viewpoint, this position is morally implicated as being populated by those too lazy or self-centered to resist injustice or aggression when, perhaps, they could have stopped or countered it. Institutional neutrality is often lampooned as being “uninvolved and uncurious” by those who wish to show it in the worst light.

2. Observe the conflict from a distance, noting the tactics, arguments and propagandizing strategies of the combatant factions, but not take direct part in the conflict or make value judgments thereupon. This might be called the “Recording Historian” position. The adherent to this approach cares on some level about the conflict, but doesn’t want opinions or emotional bias to cloud the factuality or real-time analysis of recorded observation insofar as they can be avoided. Thus, this position may involve actively seeking and muffling the sorts of internal viewpoint biases that make for erroneous understanding of what is observed. This type may be morally implicated because they could be argued to regard human history and the pain and oppression humans inflict on one another as mere theater or entertainment to observe.

3. Observe from a distance, noting the tactics, arguments and propagandizing strategies of the combatant factions, but be willing to point out falsehoods, cheating or other ethical shortcomings in any and all sides as they become apparent. One taking this position is also willing to give credit for meritorious actions or solid arguments from any or all sides, as well. This might be called the “Observant Umpire” position. This is the position of the sort who wants to take part but may very well feel that the observed conflict(s) is/are necessary for some sort of evolution to happen or for a Greater Truth to emerge, provided that some ethical rules of engagement are maintained. Like the Recording Historian, this position necessarily involves “bias checks.” This type may be morally implicated for intellectualizing existential struggles among groups of human beings and/or giving what some faction or another considers “evil” too fair a shake or even lending the faction(s) on “the wrong side of history” an occasional helping hand. This is the stance I would argue an institutionally neutral public library would take in a world of contending ideas, ideologies and ideologues. This is also the position that journalists were once trained to favor.

4. Observe from a distance, noting the tactics, arguments and propagandizing strategies of the combatant factions and be willing to point out falsehoods, cheating or other ethical shortcomings, but only or mostly critiquing their disfavored side(s) AND/OR hailing/echoing the ethically correct arguments and actions of their favored side(s) as they become apparent. This might be called the “Half-Truth Correspondent” position. One taking this stance wants to be seen as fair, but has or represents an agenda that aligns with a faction involved in the conflict.  One taking this position feigns distance, but is, in fact, biased. This type may actually favor institutional neutrality so long as it benefits “their” side or when “their” side is ascendant, but abandon it when they detect that they are losing support of some sort. This type may be morally implicated for clouding issues or being the source of disinformation/gray propaganda, which leads the ignorant to make the worst decisions rather than the best. This is where I would posit modern corporate media and most government information agencies exists and how they do business.

5. Eschew mere “observation,” pick a side and be fully engaged based on moral convictions, apparent power dynamics, ideas of justice or rightness or, popular in the current era, perceived threat(s) to one’s self or self-identity. This position represents full entanglement in and dedication to the conflict, with all of the myopia that that implies. This might be called the “Participant Partisan” position. This observer cares deeply and wants to form strong opinions and have powerful emotions and join the fight, perhaps with ideas of heroism or based on prophecies of catastrophe (i.e., “If I don’t stop X now, X will annihilate humanity!”). Adherents of this position are most likely to denigrate neutrality as weakness or even to frame neutrality as a positive aid to the “bad guys”/disfavored faction. This type is morally implicated as being an active party to injustice, aggression, dishonesty and error and thus perhaps most historically guilty, provided the cause or cause(s) to which they are allegiant are revealed to be wrong or evil by later moral analyses or victor’s decree. However, this is the position that also perhaps promises the most moral and/or ego-affirming “upside,” if humankind’s hindsight later determines that the individual Participant Partisan was “right all along.”

One must be careful when assigning an “observantness value” to the Participant Partisan and not overestimate how much real and fair attention a convicted activist is paying to anything. Their strong emotional investment in the conflict and dedication to a particular “side” theoretically and probably necessarily lessens their ability to make objective observations or understand the data they are faced with. The entanglement in the conflict may also lead to confirmation bias, where only observed information that confirms pre-existing beliefs and opinions are noted, and information that contradicts them is ignored. This would further limit their ability to make accurate and objective observations, in a sort of fanatical downward spiral. Therefore, the level of accuracy of observation for the “Participant Partisan” would be negatively affected by their entanglement in the conflict, much like the “fog of war” negatively affects observations made by soldiers in the midst of battle.

Doctor and World Health Organization advisor Hans Rosling wrote in his 2018 book Factfulness (p. 188) about the level of understanding among many activists (emphasis mine):

“Many activists present themselves as experts. I have presented at all kinds of activist conferences because I believe educated activists can be absolutely crucial for improving the world. Recently I presented at a conference on women’s rights. I strongly support their cause. Two hundred ninety-two brave young feminists had traveled to Stockholm from across the world to coordinate the struggle to improve women’s access to education. But only 8 percent knew that 30-year-old women have spent on average only one year less in school than 30-year-old men….I could have picked other examples. This is not about activists for women’s rights, in particular. Almost every activist I have ever met, whether deliberately or, more likely, unknowingly, exaggerates the problem to which they have dedicated themselves.”

These five approaches might be conceived as existing on an X-Y axis of “emotional involvement” and “accuracy.” Of course, the “Uninvolved and Uncurious” position would occupy position 0,0 and thus is nowhere on either axis.

graph--emotional involvement vs. accurate understanding

It can be strongly argued that any agency, profession or, indeed, any group effort which has the aim of producing, collecting, transmitting or analyzing factual and accurate information needs to ensure that emotional involvement in the work among those doing it is mitigated appropriately. Those who “check out” too completely are not of much use, nor are those who cannot maintain a sufficient emotional distance to assess whether the information they are dealing with is of any use to themselves or others.

Librarians and libraries must figure out where they wish to exist.

Project: Codifying Into Law Mandatory Institutional Neutrality for Agencies Using Public Money

I’m going to an event soon at which there will be a ton of state legislators present. Before I go, I’m going to draft a brief paper in which I suggest that any publicly-funded library must demonstrate in policy that all of its facilities, policies, programs and collections adhere to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and state public accommodations laws. I’m going to suggest mechanisms whereby public library collections can be quickly assessed for bias and balance. I’m going to suggest public libraries must adhere to a policy of viewpoint neutrality as defined by 60+ years of cases and suggest it be enforced by law. I’m going to suggest that libraries which have discernible political agendas detectable by reasonable people lose any and all state-level funding.

I suspect that my state will end up a pioneer in this regard, because I am a very convincing speaker and writer and the law is on the side of neutrality. I suspect the idea will spread to other states. I’ll keep you posted.

Illinois Library School Professors and “Social Justice Storytelling”


“McDowell and Cooke wrote about another student’s story focusing on the extremely high rates of suicide for transgender people and the importance of belonging and acceptance. “This story addressed churches and church leaders, challenging them to take an inclusive stand: ‘Rejection literally kills trans people. But affirmation and acceptance literally save our lives. … So which side will your church choose?’” they wrote.

Public librarians have a responsibility to provide critical services to underserved populations,” McDowell said. Communicating about social justice issues is “walking the talk of diversity and inclusion. Public libraries have the most benefit for people who have the least,” she said.

Librarians can tell the stories of systemic barriers that potential patrons face, such as lack of public transportation and a lack of minority representation in library collections, McDowell and Cooke wrote.

“When communities have, for example, been overlooked or marginalized and services to them have been un- or underfunded, social justice storytelling can be a first step in reversing those trends. … These stories help make the case for broadening services despite pervasive social inequities that make injustices invisible,” they wrote.

Imagine the messianic delusion and the absolute lack of situational awareness involved here. Notice that these “professors” don’t call for librarians to be doing this on their own time, but in their official capacities as public employees. This quote: “Public librarians have a responsibility to provide critical services to underserved populations” could be the absolute perfect encapsulation of the “mission creep” mindset.

I wonder…which “critical” services does she mean? Medical attention? Hygiene? Addiction treatment? Massage? Chiropractic adjustment? Haircuts? Babysitting? Food preparation? Refrigeration? Dry cleaning?

And what could be a better idea for a field of work whose practitioners are already being accused regularly of grooming children into precocious sexuality by supplying them with “gay propaganda” than to urge them to directly and vocally/visibly confront the churches in their communities about not being “trans-affirming” enough.

Idiocy. Whatever is coming for our once-serious profession will be earned.

Librarian as “Limited-Purpose Public Figure”



Down in Louisiana, a school librarian brought a lawsuit against members of the public who posted on Facebook that she, by vocally and publicly defending her school library’s having pro-LGBTQ+ materials on the shelves was trying “to keep sexually erotic material and pornographic materials in the kids section” and “advocating teaching anal sex to 11-year-olds.” A ridiculous claim, probably, but not libelous.

The court there, in keeping with long-standing legal tradition, dismissed the case. The court decided that she, by stepping forward publicly to defend the titles and, perhaps by dint of her position, is a “limited-purpose public figure.” That’s a funny moniker, because the difference between being such a figure and not being one can be a few feet and a microphone.

In Gertz v. Welch, the US Supreme Court decided that the ability to sue for libel is limited for anyone who (like me or you or this Louisiana school librarian) “injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy and thereby becomes a public figure for a limited range of issues.”

So remember that. If you’re Jane Doe the librarian just sitting in your office stamping and stickering and bar-coding [INSERT TITLE OF OFFENSIVE BOOK OF THE WEEK THAT OFFENDS FANATICS] and somebody writes a letter to the editor that says “Jane Doe the librarian is a groomer!” or “Jane Doe the librarian wants kids to have anal sex with each other!” and you’ve never stepped into the public fray, you probably have a strong case for libel and, depending on the state, damages. As a simple cataloguer, you have no “especial prominence.” But the second you show up at a School Board or City Council meeting or talk to a TV reporter and volunteer your ethical position against censorship you, despite your courage and, in my opinion, CORRECTNESS, lose a certain amount of protection when it comes to libel and/or slander. The second one becomes a “limited-purpose public figure,” the standard for “actual malice” goes way up.

So…if you’re going to go public in the name of intellectual freedom, make sure your skin is thick.

Other reading:

New York Times v. Sullivan

Gertz v. Welch

American Library Association: Intentionally and Consciously Silent on the Attempted Murder of Salman Rushdie

I found out today that the Executive Board of the American Library Association has finished driving the organization off the cliff of irrelevance into the deep, dark quarry of ethical nothingness. It seems the ALA Executive Board will NOT be making a statement to condemn the attempted murder of Salman Rushdie.

In case you forgot, that “life changing” attack on an author happened in the United States and was perpetrated by an American Muslim Fanatic. Before any Critical Librarians show up and start pissing and moaning, I’m emphasizing AMERICAN in that, not “Muslim.” If this guy had been an Iranian Fanatic who flew over and did this, I’d probably be less pissed off at the ALA’s cowardice and hypocrisy, but Mr. Knifewielder was an AMERICAN. And he was quite purposely and publicly and murderously attacking an AUTHOR of a work that has been banned, challenged and threatened. Thus do I think the comments of the AMERICAN Library Association might be pertinent.

But…crickets are chirping in Chicago and they are apparently going to KEEP chirping. Now, maybe you’re thinking that the American Library Association doesn’t comment on the non-library-related news. This didn’t happen in a LIBRARY, after all. They’re just librarians, right? Wrong.

These people put out press releases all the time about happenings not related to libraries or censorship therein AT ALL. To wit:

Official Statement 2017: DACA Comes to an End

Official Statement 2020: Cops Are Mean to Protestors

Official Statement 2020: Diversity Training for Federal Employees etc. etc.

But the attempted murder of Salman Rushdie, an author of a BANNED BOOK, a book banned for violating the sensibilities of religious Fanatics? Nope. Nothing.

But don’t get the idea that the efforts of ALL religious Fanatics get a pass. When Evangelical soccer moms in Kansas or Baptist state representatives in South Carolina organize for censorship, the ALA pipes right up:

Official Statement: The ALA Opposes Widespread Efforts at Censorship

Official Statement: ALA Condemns State Legislation Limiting Access to Abortion Information

Well, I put it to the anti-neutrality crowd this way: if silence means taking the side of the aggressor or oppressor (as you lot so often assert), then why does the American Library Association want to see Salman Rushdie stabbed to death by fatwa-inspired Fanatics? Maybe the ALA’s leadership thinks ol’ Salman had it coming? Or are they just afraid of the next knife-wielder showing up in Chicago? Might the ALA be aware that all efforts at censorship are definitely NOT equal in terms of “violence”?

Official Statement: ALA Condemns Threats of Violence in Libraries

The American Library Association and its de facto academia-bound ideological seed-bed is ideologically corrupt. The Portable Sanitation Association International is LESS full of shit than the ALA. I may join THEM instead.

An Essential Read: Silencing Speech Through Violence

From Governing.com:

Salman Rushdie learned a lesson. To wit: giving in to the whims of Fanatics never satisfies them:

A year into his ordeal, hoping to make the fatwa go away, Rushdie was persuaded to issue a kind of limited apology. After Iran’s President Ali Khamenei suggested that if Rushdie “apologizes and disowns the book, people may forgive him,” the author issued a statement saying:

“I recognize that Muslims in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel. I profoundly regret the distress the publication has occasioned to the sincere followers of Islam. Living as we do in a world of many faiths, this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others.”

This was not enough. Nothing changed. Iran’s highest religious authorities declared, “Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and wealth, to send him to Hell.”

Rushdie later said issuing the “apology” was the greatest mistake of his life.

Remember that.

What is “Critical Librarianship,” Exactly?

“Critical librarianship” is the effort of those working in library schools to apply the “analytical” or “critical” tools of Marx (especially Marx), Marcuse, Adorno, Fromm, Habermas, Derrida, Lacan, Freire, Althusser, Foucault, etc. to the classification and organization of library materials, the history and use of libraries and their resources and the management and programming of libraries.

Canadian librarian Toni Samek sums it up best: Critical Librarianship is “an international movement of library and information workers that considers the human condition and human rights above other professional concerns.”

By now, anything that an academic labels as capital-c “Critical” is usually just this: asking a question about any social problem, phenomenon or institution and then answering it the same way every time and then working to prove that answer. The answer is just about always some kind of oppression or exploitation, in case you were wondering. I’m sure this sounds cynical or dismissive, but that’s the jist. If I’m wrong, comment and tell me so. I don’t edit or delete comments (unless your grammar makes a comment unreadable, in which case I edit to try to make it readable).

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Critical Theory thus: “a ‘critical’ theory may be distinguished from a ‘traditional’ theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human ’emancipation from slavery’, acts as a ‘liberating … influence’, and works ‘to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers of’ human beings.”


“[A] critical theory is adequate only if it meets three criteria: it must be explanatory, practical, and normative, all at the same time. That is, it must explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation.”

In the social sciences, the steps of the Critical process in its simplified applied form look something like this:

  1. Assume society and its structures are oppressive.
  2. Group humans according to some selected characteristic(s).
  3. Examine their efforts and performance in some endeavor or their treatment by some institution or agency.
  4. Find a discrepancy in some determined outcome.
  5. Confidently posit oppression as the reason for the discrepancy (tautologically doubling down on number one above).
  6. Selectively study the difference and prove the oppression (tautologically making a third pass).
  7. Identify the oppressors (you get the picture).
  8. Suggest ways to lessen the effects of the oppression.

Skeptics call this “motivated reasoning” or “motivated research.”

So imagine I’m a library school instructor and I’m studying….say…database usage and its relationship to academic success. I might send out a survey to a university’s student body with demographic questions, income questions, etc. Maybe questions about, say, laptop ownership, maybe even including the age of the laptops owned? Definitely a question related to GPA. Then the immediately pertinent questions: “What’s your major?” “Have you used a database when working on an assignment in the last two semesters?” “If you used a database, where did you hear about the university’s databases?” “What was the course?” “What grade did you get in that course?” “If you didn’t use a database, which of the following reasons contributed?” Here might be options like “Didn’t know they existed” or “Didn’t know how to access the login page.”

The Critical Librarian will usually start by looking the the demographic data and seek the gaps from there (confidently assuming in advance that some groups will be doing better and also unironically assuming who they will be). The demographic considerations of a person’s being/identity–their “intersectionality”–is of prime importance to analysis grounded in Critical Theory.

So, for the sake or argument, imagine that the research shows that students in a selected minority group at a hypothetical university use databases less, own laptops less often and have lower GPAs. The reductivist and determinist and, yes, tautological nature of Critical Theory makes the starting point easy, as it already makes the metahistorical and metasociological assumption that something “is wrong with current social reality.” From there, every other kind of logic has a “lens” it can be viewed through. Critical librarianship enthusiasts LOVE the word “lens.”

Anyway, the results come in and start to get analyzed. Student A didn’t use databases and says she never heard about them? Critical librarianship would likely posit a failure of communication on the university library’s part. Student B heard about the databases, used them and yet has a lower GPA or got a lower course grade than the average of some other group of respondents? Well, from there some other form of inequity or injustice is assumed, sought and usually found. Maybe Student B’s lower household income or older laptop has something to do with it? At any rate, the notion that that kid failed or underperformed or worked her job too many hours or partied too much that semester HAS to come last, if at all. The SYSTEM does the failing first and foremost, for Critical Theoreticians. The individual is a semi-illusory afterthought (maybe even a “construct”) in “CritLib.” As I’ve written elsewhere, there is no such thing as an individual or free will to a Hegelian/Marxist or someone using Marx-inspired analytical eggbeaters. To wit:

Now, to be fair, Critical Librarianship asks some interesting and fun questions at times, though always in the most relentlessly dour terms. Why is a book about chattel slavery found in 326 and not, say, 331 or 916 or 966 or 973? Who decided slavery was to be a separate consideration from human labor relations or African peoples? In the radical imagination of the Critical Librarian, it was probably some white guy with a Confederate flag hanging on his office wall and a glass of scotch in his hand. For the Critical Librarian, that’s a research paper right there.

Critical librarianship, in this way, seeks to dismantle and replace the “Western” or “Eurocentric” or “Colonial” or “White Supremacist” or “Capitalist” or “Enlightenment” or “Patriarchal” or “Individualist” understanding of the relationship of the individual information-seeker to the material and ideological world and the “Dominant Systems” of classification and ordering and administering THINGS and IDEAS by minds that have been trying to make sense and order of those things through history. The way previous historical minds have ordered things are argued not to be purely logical, but based in time-bound prejudices (a fair criticism) that should be continually re-examined and re-worked (which intellectuals are supposed to be doing, anyway). The question is whether Critical Theory can really be any more a basis for scientific progress in the social sciences or humanities than Evangelical Fundamentalism. I may be a minority voice on this, but I highly doubt it.

Which Way, Critical Librarian?

Critical Theory, generally, has a foundational and fundamental contradiction that it has struggled with for 100+ years (when its supporters have bothered to discuss it at all). To wit: IF all knowledge and systems and institutions and understandings and ontologies and relationships have an historical basis rooted in the injustices of the past…then don’t the very ideas of Critical Theory have that SAME basis? How can an idea or system of thought liberate people from oppression if that idea or system is grounded in the same oppressive structures? How can a researcher slough off history and transcend the very ideas that got him or her to where he or she stands now? I mean, the very WORDS we use to discuss ideas were probably invented by people who didn’t even bother to announce their pronouns at the beginnings of their meetings!

In the words of David H. Fischer (I THINK it was him, at least), social and historical theoreticians inspired by Marx try to move history along by blowing on their own sails. What I–and I’m sure others who have been through the same time and life-wasting laundry ringer of Marxist/Critical intellectual bullshit–find so annoying about these questions is that Critical Theory proponents generally shrug them off. “Meh. At least we’re TRYING to work towards something noble, just, and good,” they say. Or, very much like Scientologists, they’ll just claim the critic is too dumb, poorly-read, racist/sexist/capitalist to get it. Then they usually REALLY go on a Fanatical attack, because they do not find the “problematic contradictions” in OTHER worldviews even slightly tolerable, and are usually held to be evidence of personal intransigence approaching immorality. In this, it holds institutional neutrality to be absolutely anathema as a professional ethos for librarians.

I don’t think the contradictions CAN be shrugged off. One, especially, strikes me as fair: if Critical Theory as applied to librarianship is meant to question and undermine and free humanity from the social and political orthodoxies and historical errors that have been stomping on people since we crawled out of the muck, then why do its most vocal proponents seem to be every bit as presumptuous, smug, self-righteous, scolding, angry, hateful, mean-spirited, pedantic, vengeful and cliquish as the Spanish Inquisition on its worst hangover Monday? Must “liberation” be as boring and oppressive as oppression itself? If so, it’s no better–in my mind–than the most “othering” subject heading Dewey ever dreamed up.


Critical Librarianship as an Academic Pursuit

Theoretical Foundations of Critical Librarianship

Critical Theory and Educational Technology

The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory

Critical Social Theory: An Introduction and Critique

Intersectionality as Critical Social Theory

Kooks and Fanatics: Two Illustrative Cases

Let’s examine two interesting cases of kooks and Fanatics having negative impacts on libraries and/or the image of librarians.

First, this:

Bonners Ferry, Idaho–Right Wing Fanatics Drive Library Director From Her Job


“For months, a group of conservative Christians have inundated the staff and board of a public library in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, with complaints about books they didn’t want to see on the shelves.

“Their list of more than 400 titles predominantly focuses on young adult books with LGBTQ characters, scenes describing sexual activity or invoking the occult.

“The only problem: None of the books are in the library’s collection….

“We want a strongly written policy that will not allow the library to order materials with sex acts,” the group stated on Facebook this month, adding that the American Library Association “has brainwashed our libraries” into believing this is a First Amendment issue.

This group apparently became so threatening and intense that the POLICE had to start sitting in at library board meetings. Did I miss something? Is America’s potato supply being hijacked by the Taliban?

Here’s a fascinating link to the actual Board meeting, posted on Facebook (skip to 23:00 for some really revealing stuff): https://www.facebook.com/kristina.francis.37/videos/2425836867571040

Here is a bit of Lawfare that the group is engaging in: Tort Claim Against the Library

Then, a few thousand miles (and an entire world) away, one finds this:

Daily Mail: Prep School Librarian Works as Hard as Possible to Alienate Parents

“Conley-Abrams is known to visit in classrooms to teach, according to The Post, and even appeared on a 2020 panel titled Talking to Children about Anatomy, Gender, Sexuality, Puberty and Pregnancy geared at discussing the topics with pre-k through first graders.

‘Ingrid was introduced as a ‘gender expert’ on the panel, which was weird enough to begin with but is typical of what’s going down at New York City private schools,’ one mother said, ‘Why is a librarian also a ‘gender expert’? And why is there a panel about talking about gender and sex and pregnancy to four and five-year-olds?’

In May 2021 parents complained about a workshop at the school titled ‘Pornography Literacy: An intersectional focus on mainstream porn,’ which consisted of an explicit slide-show presentation shown to 120 students.

The presentation talked about how porn satisfies ‘three big male vulnerabilities,’ showed statistics about the ‘orgasm gap’ showing how straight women have fewer orgasms than lesbian women, and showed half-nude women in bondage gear to explore the difference between porn and art.

According to The Post, the lecture included a list of the 2019 most-searched porn terms such as ‘anal,’ ‘stepmom,’ and ‘gangbang.’

Remember when the school librarian did things like sponsor the Library Club and supervise the shelvers? And, you know, run the library?

Consider this: if you find it difficult to see these two approaches to libraries and/or librarianship as equally destructive to the idea and ideal of what it means to govern a library or be a librarian, you’re a kook. If you think one of these two approaches is okay or acceptable or desirable, well, you’re a Fanatic. I’m betting the vast majority of people who will find this blog entry will struggle to see how people can sympathize with the antagonizing parties in either story above. That’s good! But these stories serve as a warning. The threats to the profession are both external AND internal.

Neutrality of Public Libraries: Compiled Reading List and Jists

All of these writings are by librarians or library school instructors. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Libraries Cannot be Neutral About Human Rights by Alex Brown

Quote: “Library workers can fight back right now by updating our policies—not just for collection development, but all guiding documentation. If someone comes for your collection, you want a policy sturdy enough to resist. Language upholding neutrality should be removed, and language reaffirming a commitment to social justice and defending vulnerable and marginalized patrons should be added in.”

“Ensure your library is curating a collection, not just warehousing everything being published. This means not auto-buying books just because they land on a bestsellers list or are nominated for an award. It means proactively weeding out dangerous or inaccurate information. It means promoting materials representing marginalized identities and experiences. And it means holding accountable third-party library services like Hoopla that use the Library Bill of Rights to justify keeping anti-LGBTQ+, anti-vax, and Holocaust denial books in its collection.”

“Neutrality inevitably prioritizes the majority at the expense of the minority. Defending it will not save libraries from book bans, especially not as bad actors use it as cover for the real purpose behind their attacks: to cement their control over how we access information and erase any visible traces of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ and other marginalized people. It’s time for library workers to rethink how we operate and whose needs we prioritize. There is no one right answer as to what a neutrality-free library looks like, but the cost of upholding the status quo is too high.”

Jist: Neutrality endangers marginalized people, and dangerous information needs to be removed from library collections. An ethos of neutrality is grounded in oppression.

Libraries and the Contested Terrain of “Neutrality” by Rick Anderson

Quote:For example: if the question is ‘Do libraries take a neutral stance on the issue of literacy?’, then the answer is clearly no. Libraries actively promote literacy, and treat illiteracy as a problem to be solved. If the question is ‘Do libraries take a neutral stance on the issue of racial diversity?’, then again the answer is clearly no—the American Library Association’s Core Values Statement is admirably clear and forceful on this point, and I don’t think I know a single librarian who would disagree with it. The same can be said for questions about equity of access, social responsibility, the value of education, and the importance of privacy. On all of these issues it can confidently be said that libraries take a non-neutral stance, in that we stand in support of these things. In the context of these and other broad and very important questions, the library is not – and arguably must not be – neutral.”

“Why does this matter? Because the fact that there are some ways in which the library is not and must not be neutral should not give cover to practices or programs that create bias in areas where the library is and must be neutral. And if the ‘libraries are not neutral’ position is given a halo of righteousness, that of course implies that those who support important aspects of library neutrality are unrighteous: defenders of the status quo, agents of oppression, etc.”

Jist: On some things, libraries ought not be neutral. On some things they should.

Once More for Those in the Back: Libraries Are Not Neutral by Nicole A. Cooke, Renate Chancellor, Yasmeen Shorish, Sarah Park Dahlen, and Amelia Gibson (a response to this piece in the New York Times by Stanley Kurtz).

A 2017 paper by the same five authors: Libraries on the Frontlines: Neutrality and Social

Quote:Throughout his essay, Kurtz struggles to align his personal understanding of ‘library neutrality’ with the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which, in its first tenet, states that library resources should be provided for the “interest, information, and enlightenment of all people” in the community. ‘Library neutrality shares the classically liberal presuppositions that informed America’s founding,’ Kurtz states. ‘Human beings enjoy equal rights and free individuals can be trusted to make their own decisions about what to read and believe.'”

But in unironically grounding his idea of library neutrality in the values held at the founding of America and venerating the traditions that protected the ‘equal rights’ of ‘free individuals,’ Kurtz conveniently ignores reality: most people at the time of our nation’s founding—and for much of our history—were not free.”

Jist: America’s libraries exist in a society in which racism, oppression, etc. exist and within a framework of pervasive injustice going back to the founding of the nation. Thus, libraries by their very nature are oppressive and not neutral. To make them purposely “counter-oppressive” and “antiracist” is an ethical and professional imperative. Standard post-structuralist stuff.

Librarians in the 21st Century: It Is Becoming Impossible to Remain Neutral by Stacie Williams

Quote: “I tend to eschew the idea of neutrality because nothing about my lived experience, as a black librarian, is neutral. When a patron came into the public library I worked at a few years ago and requested a copy of Mein Kampf, I feared for my safety. I knew the book was located in a section of the stacks out of view from security cameras. And the patron was a young man with a close-cropped haircut. Close-cropped enough to give me pause. But I didn’t feel comfortable turning down the request, because I wasn’t 100 percent sure as to his motivations, and because as the only librarian at the reference desk I felt like I didn’t have the option to not help him. I compromised in that instance by walking him to the section and pointing out the exact shelf in the corner where I knew the book was. The patron grabbed the book, said thanks and that was the end of the interaction. But I had no way of knowing how that was going to work out.”

“An allegiance to blind neutrality leaves us with without the ability to confidently challenge wrong things. And leaves those of us living in different bodies—black bodies, Muslim bodies, trans bodies, differently abled bodies—on the margins of librarianship, mirroring what it feels like for us in society.”

Jist: The ethos of neutrality endangers librarians who are not white, able-bodied or heterosexual and makes it impossible for librarians to correct (or perhaps refuse service to) people who think in ways some librarians might feel are evil or harmful or dangerous, such as white dudes with short hair, whose haircuts may hint at fascist leanings.

Are Libraries Neutral? by Emily Drabinski

Quote: So I told that student that I was struggling because I simply didn’t believe in the position her professor was asking her to take. But that I could think up the words that my opposition might say: individual responsibility. We used that keyword to unlock a universe of information sources that might very well imagine they were presenting to the world a clear, unbiased, and neutral point of view. Even as they weren’t.

I have had many reference interactions like this one: students seeking evidence that Israel is not producing a violent apartheid state in Palestine. Students seeking evidence that homosexuality is linked to genetic defects. Students seeking evidence that social service programs produce dependencies. I am sure many of us in the room have stories like these. A discussion about how we navigate these professional, material, concrete and real situations is urgent and necessary. How might we make a world where the link of poverty to public health outcomes was addressed, not taken as an issue for debate?

Jist: People doing research for debates in which a librarian knows he or she has a correct personal position must be tolerated for now, and in the future, librarians may help to create a world wherein they may not have to deal with contentions against their viewpoints or consciences.

The Myth of Library Neutrality by Candise Branum

Quote: “It is oppressive of the library profession to ask people from marginalized groups to adopt a neutral point of view. In doing this, we are asking them to ignore their community history, struggles and identity. We cannot ask librarians of color to neutrally assist a patron in searching for information supporting Eugenics, just as we cannot as a queer librarian to be neutral on the subject of gay hate crimes. Oppressed groups do not have the option of neutrality. Neutrality is a privilege afforded to those who do not live in fear, have not experienced genocide and war, do not have to daily face the effects of institutionalized racism. Neutrality is seeing people who suffer and choosing turning your back. It is seeing institutionalized racism and not having to form an opinion on it (or not even noticing it in the first place). It is seeing queer youth being taunted and turning our heads. All hatred is on a continuum, and on the far end, it is seeing explicit racism, gay bashings, or even genocide, and deciding to say and do nothing. This is what neutrality is: an excuse to not care.”

Perhaps it is time that the profession begins to formally move away from the social science model and towards a social work community-based practice one.”

Jist: No further comment needed.

Can Libraries be Neutral? Should They Strive to be Neutral? by Em Claire Knowles

Quote: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. There is nothing, to my mind, dispassionate about neutrality.

Heather Douglas, an authority in shaping policy on issues of great moral and cultural significance, illustrates my point about active neutrality. She argues against a passive version of neutrality because it is not adequate to meet the challenges of, for example, racist or sexist speech. She urges us instead to take a “balanced” position with respect to a spectrum of values. We – and I include ALA and libraries in that “we” – can establish a set of core values and implement respect for those values in such a way that we ensure respect for all members of our constituencies.

To be specific:

  • we must promote the importance of reading and learning to keep our residents informed;
  • we must respect people’s cultural views and understanding, but we must also help users to explore new perspectives;
  • we must be open to reasonable accommodations to concerned patronage, and be prepared for any controversy created by those accommodations;
  • and lastly, we must use all the available PR and marketing efforts to get our message out to the widest audience and to emphasize the positive role libraries and librarians play in a civil society.”

Jist: No further comment needed.

When Libraries and Librarians Pretend to be Neutral, They Often Cause Harm by Meredith Farkas

Quote: “[A] thing came up this week on an occasion that should have been such a positive one. OLA Quarterly, the official publication of the Oregon Library Association (of which I’m a member and served on its Board last year) came out with a mostly fantastic issue focused on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. I’ve read it cover to cover and was so impressed with the way library workers in our state and in all sorts of positions in their organizations have made efforts (big and small) to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion. There’s some great stuff in the issue. Unfortunately, it ended with an article entitled “Yes, but … One Librarian’s Thoughts About Doing It Right” by Heather McNeil. I’m sure most of you can guess that with a title like that, no good can come, and you’d be so very right.

“Honestly, the only positive thing I can see ever coming from this article is that when someone asks in the future what people mean by white fragility or by the idea of white people centering themselves in conversations about diversity, I have something to point to. Truly, I’ve seen no clearer example. It’s hard for me to imagine what would possess a librarian with a long and celebrated career as a children’s librarian to write something so uncollegial, offensive, and dismissive of diversity (not to mention poorly written and supported) as her parting gift to the profession upon her retirement. I can only imagine that her feeling that we have “overcorrect[ed] ourselves” on issues of diversity was so strong that she believed she was doing us all a favor in sharing it. And if that isn’t whiteness in its purest form, I don’t know what is. Her misrepresentation of criticisms of Dr. Seuss books, Dr. Debbie Reese’s speech (the text of which is available so you can form your own conclusions), the blog Reading While White, and others trying to improve the diversity of books in libraries, celebrate diverse books, and critique whiteness in libraries were egregious and mostly unsupported.”

Jist: Farkas takes issue with several things in this piece: Toronto Public Library allowing a speaker who questions ascendant gender theory to speak, (white) librarians offering views on “EDI” that run counter to hers and the notion that a work of literature can be judged by white reviewers in anything but a racist way. This is pretty standard anti-library neutrality thought, if on the more ideologically extreme end. When it comes to critical librarianship, Farkas is among the truest of True Believers.

The Complexity of “Neutrality” at Your Library by Ben Hunter

(Note: This is another response to Stanley Kurtz’ piece in the New York Times.)

Quote: On the surface, this all sounds very reasonable. Neutrality as a loose concept is easy for most of us to get behind. We may differ from our friends and neighbors in how we see the world, but a free and democratic society hinges on the ability for people to encounter different viewpoints and come to their own opinions. And we can agree that there are materials that are inappropriate for children, and some specific topics that are completely beyond the pale for any age (see Terrorism — How To).”

“Kurtz’s examples hinge on the idea that there are two sides to any argument. This grossly oversimplifies the diversity of thought and the diversity of voices on just about any given topic of any substance and ignores the continually changing nature of scholarship and knowledge. As dualistic as much of today’s political rhetoric is, our society is in fact a pluralistic one with many, many voices and opinions, and libraries have a responsibility to reflect that.”

“Libraries are essential to our democratic society. Library collections are best improved through additive, not subtractive, processes. Library collections should reflect their communities. Most librarians are going to agree with Kurtz on those topics. What a good librarian knows, though, is that this is complex, difficult, and continually changing work. This is why experienced, well-trained, and intelligent librarians capable of deeply nuanced thinking are necessary in our communities and universities.”

Jist: Hunter comes very close to heresy in contemporary librarian thought. First the notion that material can be “inappropriate for children.” I notice he was very careful with his example: terrorism. Next, he says that collections are improved by “additive, not subtractive processes.” This is definitely not typical of many ideologically convinced librarians who, judging from some of the other selections here, would arguably be pretty comfortable throwing “transgressive” or “problematic” works in a righteous bonfire.